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M.L.B. Commissioner: Losing Games Would Be ‘Disastrous’

ORLANDO, Fla. — With spring training slated to start in less than a week, and no new labor deal in place with the players, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said that there were no changes to the baseball calendar yet and that he was optimistic that an agreement would be struck in time to begin the regular season as scheduled on March 31.

But the man at the center of the ongoing work stoppage admitted that he had considered the effect that losing any regular-season games would have on the sport.

“I see missing games as a disastrous outcome for this industry, and we’re committed to making an agreement in an effort to avoid that,” Manfred said at a news conference on Thursday, which came at the end of the quarterly owners’ meetings held at a luxury hotel here this week.

Even though Manfred labeled himself an “optimist” and cited his credentials in helping negotiate the four previous labor agreements without a dispute, the sides have made little progress since the lockout began.

The previous five-year collective bargaining agreement expired on Dec. 1. Manfred called for a lockout the following day, essentially bringing the sport to a halt because any transactions or conversations with players were forbidden. While he was not obligated to lock the players out, Manfred called the move a “defensive lockout,” which he said was prompted by a desire to force action in negotiations and protect regular-season games.

Although a delayed start to spring training seemed inevitable, Manfred declined to officially announce one on Thursday because M.L.B. wanted to discuss the baseball calendar with the players’ union first. (Camps are scheduled to open on Feb. 16 and spring training games are slated to begin on Feb. 26.) Manfred, who has repeatedly said that the sides are one breakthrough away from a deal, insisted the league was going to make “good-faith positive” proposal with “additional moves” toward the union on Saturday.

Saturday’s meeting will be only the fifth time since the lockout began that the sides have met to negotiate the major economic sticking points. Frustrated last week, M.L.B. requested an outside federal mediator — whose help would be nonbinding and voluntary — to intervene. The union, which made its latest proposal on Feb. 1, rejected that move because it believed the league should return to the negotiating table and make a counteroffer.

Asked why it took M.L.B. six weeks — from Dec. 2 to Jan. 13 — to submit a new proposal to the union, Manfred said the league has tried multiple tactics to advance the process.

“We thought the mediation suggestion might help do it,” he said. “We’ve reached out and made proposals when there were gaps. In terms of any delay in the process, that’s a mutual responsibility of the bargaining parties. Phones work two ways.”

This process wasn’t expected to be easy. The expired C.B.A. is viewed as having further tilted the balance in the owners’ favor. And thus when one side wants to make significant changes to the system — the players — negotiating can be laborious, tense and full of posturing.

Despite top players being awarded record contracts in recent years — and earlier this off-season — players have been frustrated that their average salary of roughly $4 million has been stagnant and not kept pace with team revenues. They have also sought a slew of other changes, such as obtaining earlier compensation for younger (cheaper) players, creating ways for players to reach salary arbitration sooner, raising luxury tax thresholds, curbing service time manipulation, and forcing teams to be more competitive through a handful of measures, including changes to the amateur draft and altering revenue sharing among teams.

Owners, though, believe the players have the best system in professional sports and benefit from the lack of a hard salary cap. In December, Manfred called the union’s proposals “collectively the most extreme set of proposals in their history.”

At one point on Thursday, Manfred rattled off the items he said that M.L.B. had offered players in an effort to address their concerns. He argued that the proposed deal was “better in every respect” than the expired one. But he reiterated that owners were unwilling to make changes to revenue sharing because they believed doing so would hurt competition by giving smaller teams less guaranteed financial help than bigger ones.

Over the length of M.L.B.’s proposed pact, Manfred said players would earn “hundreds of millions” of dollars in new money because of changes including increased minimum salaries and a bonus pool for players not yet eligible for salary arbitration. He said that estimate didn’t include other changes M.L.B. had agreed to make that would help players, such as instituting a universal designated hitter and eliminating draft picks tied to free-agent signings.

But Manfred also made some erroneous comments (he misspoke, a league spokesman later said, when he was asked why M.L.B. had proposed to raise the tax rates and penalties for teams that went over the luxury tax thresholds) and curious remarks (he said that, historically, the return on investment of selling a team was “below what you’d expect to get in the stock market, with a lot more risk.”)

The union declined to comment on Thursday.

In terms of striking a new labor deal in time to avoid impacting the regular season, Manfred provided some clues. He said finalizing the large document could be done in a few days. To prevent injuries, such as the spike attributed to a truncated spring training during the abbreviated 2020 season, he said that a minimum of four weeks of spring training made sense — meaning a deal might be needed by the first week of March to avoid altering the 2022 regular season.

While the owners of M.L.B.’s 30 clubs met this week, players huddled in Arizona and Florida with the leadership of their union. They have yet to be impacted financially, as they do not receive paychecks until the regular season, but they have been positioning themselves financially for years in anticipation of this dispute with owners.

Beginning with pitchers and catchers, players were scheduled to begin reporting to spring training facilities in Arizona and Florida beginning on Feb. 16. Camp usually lasts roughly six weeks.

In 1990, a 32-day lockout shaved spring training in half. But all 162 regular-season games were played; they just started a week later than usual. Now is crunchtime for the current labor negotiations — and the regular season.

“It’s my responsibility to do everything we can to make an agreement that the industry can live with and keep the game on the field,” Manfred said, “and we are trying to do that.”

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