Olney: What MLB owners need to hear from Rob Manfred to save baseball

Here is my take on the advice that Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred needs to give to the owners, as we reach the crossroads in one of the most important moments in baseball history:

First, thanks for jumping on Zoom on this Father’s Day. Whoever has that beagle in the background, can you mute yourself, please?

So you all know where the negotiations with the players stand. We’ve offered 60 games at full pay and after my meeting with [MLB Players Association chief] Tony Clark, I thought that would get it done. But there was pushback on his side and they proposed 70 games. We’ve rejected that, and told them Friday that we won’t make a counterproposal. We have the negotiated right to implement a schedule for as few as 48 games and force the players back into uniform. I could invoke that Monday.

But I’m here to advise you: Please offer them more games. Please allow us to find middle ground. Sixty-four games, 66 games, whatever. Make a deal. You need an agreement; the sport needs an agreement even if it’s imperfect, and even if we don’t play this year.

We’re all aware of the continued coronavirus threat, which is why we shut down the spring training sites on Friday. It’s very possible that we could reach a financial deal with the players’ association on a 2020 season, only to see it derailed with a bunch of infections. That is our new reality.

But we need to extend ourselves — just a little bit — and make a deal with the union, to begin the process of growing your business again. We need to start rebuilding your business.

The alternative is a nuclear option which we must avoid, even if it costs you more money than you want to commit right now.

If we don’t make a deal and I use the power of the March 26 agreement to ram a season down the throats of the players, getting them all on board as we apply the health and safety protocols will be impossible. You will be the owners of a short-season farce.

You will have players decline to report to camps, you will have players who will likely walk away during the second spring training or during the season, and you are much more likely to lose players to minor injuries. You might have players call in sick, as has happened with other unions in other industries. Agents have made it clear that some individual players will work to protect their own interests, and it’s all but inevitable that there will be more stories about players who walk away or choose not to participate than about those who do. What we need to be a celebration of baseball could turn into a disaster perhaps worse than no baseball at all.

And the truth is that the industry — the men on this call — need to avoid any more bad public relations that would be bound to undercut your 2021 effort to recover from this awful year.

Because of the deliberate pacing of our offers, we’ve already passed up the opportunity to own the sporting stage in July. Among the five major professional team sports in this country, we are considered the model of dysfunction because of how this has played out — and because of decisions of individual teams.

John Sherman, your early leadership of the Royals since buying the team last year has been lauded in your community; Chris Ilitch, you have earned a lasting respect among those who work for you in the Tigers organization; and Peter Seidler and Ron Fowler, the same is said of you both within the walls of the Padres’ offices. Others of you have made similar promises to your staffers.

But the public perception of some of you is that you are cruel bullies, and care only about the money. Arte Moreno, did you see the responses last week when you slashed $180,000 in salaries of Angels employees in the Dominican Republic? That’s a country where the average daily wages, in U.S. dollars, are $5-10, and Albert Pujols looked like a hero when he stepped in to make those payments. So did Sean Doolittle, when he and his teammates responded after the Lerners moved to cut the salaries of the Nationals’ minor leaguers from $400 to $300 per week. John Fisher, when you decided to pay the Oakland minor leaguers nothing, the backlash was so big that you flip-flopped.

Now, because of those examples and some of the even deeper salary cuts — and we all know there are so many similar decisions that haven’t been publicized yet — all of you on this Zoom call have been painted with that broader stereotype of inhumanity at a time when our country is most in need of humanity, grace and charity.

We might not agree with that portrayal or the media coverage, but that has been the context for these negotiations, and if we don’t reach an agreement and still attempt to play without that collaboration and cooperation of the players, that portrayal will be underscored day after day after day.

The damage from all that will manifest long-term, and short-term — this winter, for example, when you try to sell tickets to those same people who have waited for 2020 refunds. Or next summer, when perhaps we can open our gates again. There are tens of millions of people out of work in this country, 120,000 or more have lost their lives to the coronavirus, there is an outpouring of fury about social inequality, and this is the worst time to be painted as cheap bastards.

But the truth is that’s where we are.

If we don’t make a deal, we’re not that concerned about the result of a grievance, which would take a long time to play out. We may have bolstered our side of any bad-faith argument the other day, when I flew out to negotiate with Tony. I made some concessions on your behalf, and the statement I put out started with the words “At my request …” We’ve checked a lot of the boxes necessary to combat a grievance.

I’ve been your lawyer for decades and engaged in many negotiations, and you have all trusted me time and again. Late in the 2016 collective bargaining talks, when we were frustrated that we could not get Tony Clark to the table, I told all of you what would happen: We would leak the possibility of an owners’ vote for a lockout; the intransigence of the union leadership would evaporate; and then we would rout them in the rapid-fire haggling that followed. And that’s exactly what happened — no adjustments against the practice of tanking, no pushback against service-time handling, and that deal introduced competitive balance taxes that have effectively become a soft salary cap.

We won significant ground on the financial landscape, and the franchises have made a lot of money since then. Thank you for listening then.

But you need to listen now when I tell you: If we don’t settle this with a mutual agreement, it will hurt all of you.

Look, you’re frustrated with Clark and Bruce Meyer, and so am I, and we all have wondered about the influence of Scott Boras in these negotiations. Even the players wonder — remember Trevor Bauer telling Boras to butt out on Twitter?

We need to get over all of that; I need to get over that. Because in this moment, not only do you need a deal, but so do all of the people who work in your industry.

In the business offices, in the baseball operations departments around the sport, there is tremendous concern about what happens after a shutdown. Your employees fear massive layoffs, beyond the weeks of employment some of you have graciously promised. You need to do everything you can to keep this game moving forward, to keep your staffers — many of them lifers who are the heart and soul of your organization — in this game.

My title is commissioner of Major League Baseball, and I work for you. But I do have a responsibility to those people who work within this industry, to do what I can to foster the business upon which we all rely. I need to stand up for them.

My advice to you is to make a new proposal. If you decide to go in another direction, then it’s probably best for you that I offer my resignation — and you should find somebody else to take you through the turbulent waters ahead.

Please take this necessary step to get a deal, please improve our offer into the middle ground. We’re not that far away at all. For each of the 30 teams on this call, that means committing another $4 million to $5 million. I know none of us can say this out loud, but common sense tells you the free-agent market is probably going to roll backward this winter, and there may be future savings there.

If we get a deal, then I’ll shake hands with Tony for the cameras, and then we’ll start working to repair the damage and prepare for next year.

That’s a much better scenario for all of you than the specter of another labor war.

Baseball Tonight Podcast

Friday: The Rays’ Tyler Glasnow talks about how dangerous Tampa Bay would be in a shortened season, and about his personal readiness if there is baseball; Todd Radom’s quiz; Jesse Rogers provides updates on the labor negotiations.

Thursday: Hannah Keyser talks about how rank-and-file staffers feel as they watch the labor impasse play out; venture capitalist Roger Ehrenberg talks about the negotiations, and the short-sightedness he sees.

Wednesday: Clinton Yates checks in on the labor talks; Paul Hembekides on the players who have the most to lose this year.

Tuesday: Rob Manfred’s interview with Mike Greenberg, and Tim Kurkjian responds.

Monday: Karl Ravech discusses “Long Gone Summer” and the negotiations, and Sarah Langs on Buster Posey’s Hall of Fame chances.