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There are only two words left for baseball’s owners and players

Marc Topkin | Major League Baseball’s owners might make another offer Monday, but unless there’s an unexpected twist, expect a season of only about 54 games.
The scene from "opening day" at Tropicana Field on March 26, 2020, is eerie and empty.
The scene from "opening day" at Tropicana Field on March 26, 2020, is eerie and empty. [ JOHN ROMANO | Times ]
Published Jun. 14, 2020
Updated Jun. 15, 2020

There soon will be definition, finally, of the upcoming major-league baseball season.

Or at least what will be passed off as a slight resemblance of one.

The inability of owners and players to negotiate an agreement on pay has unbelievably, and unconscionably, made what already was a terribly bad situation worse.

With all the real-life tragedy and catastrophic economic and other impact of the coronavirus pandemic, their bickering, selfishness and accusatory posturing has managed to already drain much of whatever fun their games could have provided.

There is likely to be another, presumably better offer from the owners after a Monday conference call, even after both sides exchanged statements and further words Saturday night that seemed to acrimoniously end what barely could be described as talks.

But barring a major concession that gives players the full prorated pay they demand or some other path to what would be a surprising settlement, what’s left is for commissioner Rob Manfred to announce, maybe as soon as Monday, that the season he vowed “100 percent” would be played will be essentially a sample platter. Somewhere in the range of 50-60 games, with 54 a good guess Sunday from both sides.

And, because it won’t be a negotiated deal, there likely won’t be the expanded playoffs (and the additional TV revenue those would bring), or experimenting with mic-ed up players, or any other accommodations that could somehow make any of this mess a little better for all parties, including, oh yeah, the fans.

There’s even talk, at least being floated/threatened from the union side, that some big-name players will decide they won’t take the field — and take the virus and injury risks — for what will be 30-something percent of their original salaries, though that seems more like rhetoric.

Obviously, this season was going to be asterisked once it became clear how significant the risks of the virus were, and how vast the impact would be. What started as a shutdown of spring training camps in mid-March eventually became a monthslong delay to the season, as all sports waited for guidance from medical experts as to what, if anything, would be possible and when they could start.

As a return to the fields, courts and rinks became possible in controlled settings and without fans, it seemed like baseball would have the opportunity to be the first team sport to do so. There was talk of players reporting to Spring 2.0 camps around June 10 and the season starting symbolically on the Fourth of July, with the chance to play 80-something games, half a normal season, providing some legitimacy.

Plus, it could have given a sport that could greatly benefit from national attention a chance to fill the TV screens of fans so starved for live events that the baseball draft recently got nearly 10 hours of coverage by ESPN.

And, depending on your level of romanticism for the grand old game, could have provided the emotional rescue Americans needed in this time of quarantine and crisis.

But the nasty negotiations — playing out not just publicly but with offers leaked before the emails are opened and rejections posted on Twitter — have trashed any of those potentially good vibes.

The positions of both sides have been clearly defined, and, depending on your perspective, righteously or selfishly defended.

Union officials have been adamant that however many games there are, the players are to be paid their full prorated salaries, as they say was promised in the now much-discussed March 26 agreement between the sides.

Using Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier’s $10 million salary as an example, if they play an 81-game season, he gets $5 million. If they play 54, he gets $3.33 million.

Owners have maintained that agreement did not include the potential of playing with no fans, and thus no revenues from tickets, concessions, parking, merchandise, etc. And since they then will lose money for every game that is played given their other expenses, they have insisted player pay be further reduced.

In their most recent proposal for a 72-game season at 80 percent of prorated pay, Kiermaier would make $3.56 million (or $3.11 million, at 70 percent, if the postseason wasn’t completed due to a second wave of the virus).

There is more to all to this, of course. Stake-holding for the upcoming negotiations on a new labor agreement. (And won’t that be a treat during next season?) Health and safety regulations, parameters for medically necessary opt-outs and rules of play issues that are not finalized. Evidence for a likely after-the-fact grievance hearing over the degree of “good faith” in the negotiations, arguing over even whether owners are being honest in saying they don’t want to extend the season for health reasons. Most concerning, the specter of a surge in coronavirus cases making all the other talk moot.

In their Saturday night comments, union officials said it was “time to get back to work” and demanded the owners tell them by Monday night “when and where,'' with a mid-to-late July start now the best case.

So … play ball?