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‘Disastrous’: MLB postpones opening day, cancels games as union rejects ‘final, best’ offer

JUPITER, Fla. — Unable to forge an agreement with the players’ union before a deadline of their creation during a lockout of their making, Major League Baseball’s owners decided Tuesday to do what their commissioner called “disastrous” for the game.

At a ballpark that won’t see major-league players in the immediate future, commissioner Rob Manfred announced the extension of the ongoing lockout and postponed opening day indefinitely from March 31. For the first time since 1995 games will be lost to a work stoppage, and for the first time in the sport’s history a lockout has led to the cancellation of games. Manfred deleted the first two series of the regular season from the schedule. The owners’ “final, best” offer to the players was presented about an hour before MLB’s deadline Tuesday to start a season on time, and it was rejected, swiftly and emphatically, after being reviewed by the players’ union.

Several weeks ago, Manfred described himself as a deal-maker and affirmed that the loss of regular-season games would be “disastrous” for the industry.

Now he deals with this disaster.

“Our negotiations are deadlocked right now,” Manfred said.

“Today is a sad day,” union chief Tony Clark said later Tuesday evening during a press conference at a nearby hotel. “The reason we’re not playing is simple. A lockout is the ultimate economic weapon, and in a $10-billion industry the owners have made a conscious decision to use this weapon against the greatest asset they have — the players. But this group won’t be intimidated.”

As Clark spoke, Andrew Miller and Max Scherzer flanked him on the dais as part of the executive committee, and another dozen players sat in the room watching. Cardinals starter Dakota Hudson along with former Cardinals starter Michael Wacha and Dodgers shortstop Trea Turner were present. Many of the players have been working out in the Jupiter are to stay sharp when and whenever the lockout lifted and spring training began. Hudson has already thrown live batting practice — his scheduling mirroring what he would be doing in Cardinals camp.

But can’t.

The Cardinals’ season-opening road trip for opening day in Pittsburgh and the opener at Wrigley Field have been canceled. The Cardinals’ first game remaining on the tentative schedule is the home opener April 7, and the team issued a statement Tuesday promising the usual tradition-drenched events that welcome the Cardinals home for a new season.

The union planned to return to New York on Wednesday, and Manfred said the earliest a deal could be completed is Thursday.

No future negotiations were scheduled as the owners left Tuesday night.

In a statement issued after Manfred’s press conference, the union bluntly alleged the owners’ goal was to “break” the union. Throughout nine consecutive days of negotiations, including 17 hours of talks that spilled into early Tuesday morning, the union had expressed frustration with incremental or non-existent changes to the owners’ offers, and multiple sources wondered if the league had dipped their pace in molasses to ultimately arrive at canceled games. Two league officials refuted that position, pointing to the hours put in on their side in an attempt to reach an agreement during a 10-day stay in Jupiter.

The union’s statement said the owners’ “defensive lockout” was “the culmination of a decades-long attempt by owners to break our player fraternity.”

The players’ union prepared for the possibility of a lengthy lockout by gathering a purse of money to pay out stipends during the work stoppage. The first was issued Feb. 1, the second on Tuesday, and players were alerted checks would be issued April 1 as well. When asked how long the union was prepared to go without games to get their desired deal, Miller interrupted the question.

“We’re prepared,” he said. “We’re prepared. We’ve seen this coming in a sense. It’s unfortunate. This isn’t new to us. This is not shocking. Our communication, our willingness to see each other’s point of views and find solutions and fight for what’s right is not like I’ve seen before. I can tell you that.”

As negotiations intensified and, at times, gained momentum toward a deal, Miller and Scherzer were the constants for the union’s negotiating committee. Scherzer was one of the free agents who signed in the mad rush to land contracts before the expiration of the most recent CBA on Dec. 1. The owners imposed the lockout the next day, and it has become the second longest-work stoppage in baseball history.

A Mizzou great and Parkway Central grad, Scherzer, 37, agreed to a three-year, $130-million deal with the New York Mets on Nov. 29. Cancelled games and a shortened season slow Scherzer’s pursuit of his 200th win, just as it starts to chew into the opportunity Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina will have to make the 21 starts together necessary to become the all-time leading battery in big-league history.

“I have no problem sacrificing part of my career to make this game better,” Scherzer told the Post-Dispatch after the union’s press conference. “I will do whatever it takes to make this game better. The players before me have done that time and time again over the course of our union’s (50 years). I would not make the money I make without the former players. We all feel the same way because we want to make the game better for the generation behind us.”

Scherzer and Miller remained at Roger Dean Stadium past 2:30 a.m. local time Tuesday morning as the MLBPA received the latest proposal from the owners in a 12th in-person meeting of the day. The talks had long surpassed the initial deadline set by the owners to reach an agreement before postponing opening day, but around 2 a.m. the owners agreed to extend the deadline, await a counterproposal from the union on the luxury tax, and set 5 p.m. Florida time for the new deadline. The union began their day with a 2 ½-hour virtual conference call with player representatives from around the majors. After it, the union delivered a counterproposal to the union, as promised.

An MLB spokesman said the “tone” of the union’s negotiations changed when meetings resumed Tuesday afternoon, and as result the owners were going to make a “final” and “best” offer before the deadline. The message was obvious: Take it or leave it.

At stake: opening day, on time.

A union official “strongly disagreed” with the characterization of the talks.

The union swiftly rejected the proposal.

Throughout the week, union sources cautioned against any optimism for a deal and stressed how the two sides remained significantly apart in key elements of any agreement. The final proposal tabled Tuesday illustrated those gaps, in stark relief. An MLBPA official and other sources detailed the contents of the “best” and “final” offer presented by the owners:

• An increase in the minimum salary to $700,000 and rising to $740,000 over the life of the five-year agreement. This offer was the first time the owners got the offer into the 700s. The union had proposed a $725,000 minimum salary to start the CBA and rising by $20,000 through the first three years of the contract.

• The owners proposed elevating the luxury tax threshold to $220 million for the first three years of the agreement before upping to $224 million and $230 million for the final two years. The union, interested in raising what has become a soft cap on spending, has sought a $238 million CBT to start the new agreement and then a schedule of increases every year up to $263 million.

• There is an element of the offer for an international draft.

• Over the course of the past month the two sides agreed on the idea of a draft lottery to encouraging competition and change the race to the bottom of the standings for a higher pick. The proposal had the first five picks of the draft included in the lottery.

• The offer removes the draft pick penalty attached to signing a free agent, and a union source said the two sides actually agree on the formula to determine draft pick compensation for the team that loses a player during free agency.

• The pre-arbitration bonus pool presented by the owners is static at $30 million after Monday’s exchanges, unchanged for the final offer. The union had been seeking a $110 million pool, though in its proposal during a meeting Tuesday morning it had offered to drop it to $85 million for the first year of the new CBA.

• The owners continued to seek a way to expedite Manfred’s power when it comes to changing rules. Taken off the table in December by the commissioner, several rule changes reappeared in the proposal over the past 72 hours, sources on both sides confirmed. Those changes included the addition of a pitch clock, the elimination of the defensive shift, and discussing about oversized bases to invite more stolen bases.

• The proposal does include the universal DH – an inevitability.

While described in a la carte terms, a CBA is more of an ecosystem of offers, all of them working together to reach the desired deal for the side making the proposal. So many of these elements were handcuffed to each other, such as the owners agreeing to a draft lottery but only if the players also accepted a 14-team playoff format. The two sides were able to negotiate away from that link and the players ultimately got the owners to agree to a 12- team field.

A jackpot for revenues considering the TV deal already signed for an expanded postseason, the players felt a 14-team field did not invigorate competition like they wanted and invited “mediocrity.”

“We have been screaming for years about competition issues,” Miller said. “And those are important to us. This is not about shifting pieces of the pie around. This is about the game we love.”

The luxury tax remains a mountain the sides must ascend.

While the owners and players both moved toward each other in negotiations – the owners, for example, dropping harsher penalties for going over the Competitive Balance Tax – the views of the luxury tax remain far apart. The players see the CBT has a tool that was supposed to prevent rogue spending by a few owners, and instead they believe it has become a de facto salary cap, suppressing the earning potential of free agents.

Manfred knows he cannot get 23 owners to ratify a new CBA without a tax.

“We have a payroll disparity problem,” Manfred said. “To weaken the only mechanism in that agreement that is designed to promote some semblance of competitive balance. It’s just something I don’t think the club group is prepared to do right now.”

Created arbitrarily by the owners who wanted to assure a 28-day spring training, the deadline this week did spur what two months of the lockout could not: urgency.

The two sides met for nine consecutive days having not met more than two consecutive days at all since December. The arrival of the original deadline Monday was enough to create what both sides called genuine progress – progress they both hope carries into the next talks, whenever they are. And that’s the question. How do they create that same urgency now that the “disastrous” result has arrived. The season is set to be scarred by a work stoppage.

“If there’s an interest to go back to the field now and continue to have a conversation, we’ll go back to the field now and continue to have a conversation,” Clark said. “From Day 1, we’ve committed to the process and committed to having the discussions that needed to be had to find common ground and a fair agreement. That doesn’t change. They set a deadline. We’re willing to stay here and have a conversation tomorrow. We’re willing to go wherever we need to go to get back in the room.”

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during a news conference at MLB headquarters in New York, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during a news conference at MLB headquarters in New York, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Derrick Goold

@dgoold on Twitter

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