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Major League Baseball And Players Argue Over The Start Of The Season During Pandemic

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right, baseball fans - no peanuts, no Cracker Jacks and possibly no baseball at all in 2020. The coronavirus has delayed the start of the season, and now baseball players cannot agree with owners over pay. Even MLB's commissioner sounds worried. Rob Manfred was asked last night on ESPN if he's confident there even will be a season.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROB MANFRED: I'm not confident. I think there's real risk. And as long as there is no dialogue, that real risk is going to continue.

CHANG: All right. Joining me now to talk about all this is NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman.

Hey Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So the commissioner was just talking there about dialogue between owners and players, which was going on - right? - but then what happened?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, that's right. They had been trading proposals on how many games to play in a pandemic-shortened season and how much money players should be paid. But Saturday, players said they're done. They're through trading proposals. They are angry, and they say owners just are trying to chip away and chip away and pay players less. So the players' union said to owners, set a date and a place for the resumption of the season, and they'll be there.

CHANG: Can Major League Baseball actually do that?

GOLDMAN: It can, and it can do so without player approval. But it would be a very short regular season - around 50 games. Players don't like that. They want more games, which translates to more money. Now, owners worry that if they impose this very short season, players will file a grievance that might force owners to pay up to a billion dollars in back pay to players. So Manfred, in that ESPN interview last night, sounded a very gloomy tone, saying he no longer was 100% certain there'd be a season, which he had said publicly last week.

CHANG: And what did the players' union say in response to that?

GOLDMAN: It said its players are disgusted by what Manfred said, that he has, quote, "gone back on his word and is threatening to cancel the season." So the situation, as you can tell, appears dire. And player-owner relations are as bad as they've been since 1994, when the World Series was canceled because of labor strife.

CHANG: Well, I mean, all of this is happening in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of huge nationwide unemployment, also in the middle of social upheaval and protests against police brutality and racial inequality. Are baseball players at all worried that this may not be a good look for them right now to be arguing about money?

GOLDMAN: They certainly are. And, you know, there's also the fact that golf, the WNBA, the NBA, women's and men's pro hockey - pro soccer, hockey - they're either back or firming up plans to return to play. And yes, the players know this is not a good look. One example, Toronto Blue Jays infielder Travis Shaw tweeted, MLB should be embarrassed. I'm embarrassed. This is a joke. And Rob Manfred knows it. In the ESPN interview, he said it's a disaster for the game, and it shouldn't be happening.

CHANG: So what do you think? I mean, do you think the two sides can get past their differences and get the game back on the field at some point this year?

GOLDMAN: People with a lot more knowledge than me say yes, they can get past their differences. But they have to talk. They have to be able to compromise. One of the key sticking points about pay - players understand they're not going to make as much money in a shorter season. Their salaries will be prorated based on how many games are played. Players are adamant about getting 100% of the prorated salaries. Owners have proposed lower percentages because they say fans won't be at the games, at least at first, and that's a big loss in revenue. So the owners might have to give on the players' 100% demand. Athletes might have to agree to fewer games. Other compromise needed as well - and oh, yeah, they have to agree on health and safety protocols, too. And they've got to get all this done real soon.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman.

Thank you, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.