Baseball was shut down in March by the corona­virus pandemic. The delay in starting the regular season has now turned into a labor dispute.

Commissioner Rob Manfred this week is expected to announce that there will be a 2020 season, but that it could be as short as 48 games.

The announcement will occur after dueling statements by MLB and the MLB Players Association on Saturday night revealed two sides that made absolutely no progress toward agreeing on a plan to start the season. The differences go back to late March, when the sides thought they agreed to a short-term plan for recovery, only to disagree on what they agreed upon.

After a proposal from the owners last week for a 72-game season in which players would earn 70% of their prorated salaries, union executive director Tony Clark threw his hands up, releasing a statement that reflected his exacerbation over MLB’s refusal to offer prorated salaries for more than 48 games.

Getting paid 70% of prorated salaries over 72 games is nearly the same as players getting full prorated salaries over 48 games. A player whose contract called for him to earn $1 million over a 162-game season, for example, would be paid $296,296 at full price over a 48-game season, and $311,311 at 70% pay over 72 games — or only 5% more pay for 50% more games.

“As a result, it unfortunately appears that further dialogue with the league would be futile,” Clark said in a statement. “It’s time to get back to work. Tell us when and where.”

Less than three hours later, MLB fired back.

“We will evaluate the Union’s refusal to adhere to the terms of the March Agreement,” the league said in a statement, “and after consulting with ownership, determine the best course to bring baseball back to our fans.”

Playing for "free" and labor battles ahead. Is baseball in big trouble?

Manfred has the authority to announce a schedule in which players receive their prorated salaries. That number is believed to be between 48 and 52 games, as owners have asserted that they will lose $640,000 per game without fans in the stands; they say playing a third of a 162-game schedule is the best they can do, given the economic climate.

But it’s time to go back and examine the March 26 agreement between the players and owners, because this is a point off which neither side has been willing to move.

The players claim an agreement was made for them to receive fully prorated salaries no matter how many games are played. The owners point to a clause in the agreement that said the sides would agree “to discuss in good faith the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators or at appropriate substitute neutral sites.”

The Star Tribune’s Phil Miller laid out the difference of opinions April 28, pointing out the substantial losses at which owners were looking.

The different interpretations of that March 26 agreement have been a constant through 11 weeks of proposals and counterproposals that have been utterly fruitless. Meanwhile, other top sports leagues are moving ahead with return-to-play plans. And the American Association, which includes the St. Paul Saints, is on track to return to action before Major League Baseball.

The ill will that has been apparent throughout negotiations does not bode well for when the current collective bargaining agreement expires following the 2021 season. The inability of the sides to forget their differences and strike a deal for the good of the game is a bad look during unprecedented times in this country.

And now fans likely will be left with 30% of a regular season to enjoy.

If the regular season ends up 48 games, it becomes a sprint. Some teams don’t figure out what type of club they are until the 50-game point of the season. The World Series champion Washington Nationals were 19-31 through 50 games in 2019. And it won’t make things easy for players chasing milestones.

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The Twins will have no room for error as they attempt to repeat as AL Central champions. Slugger Nelson Cruz will turn 40 on July 1. But it is easier for a player to bat .400 over 50 games than it is 162. Twins fans can root for Luis Arraez to smoke line drives between fielders for about two months.

A truncated season was inevitable. A 50-game season doesn’t seem like a real season. We should have seen this coming March 26, when a difference in interpretation would lead to season unlike any in the 144-year history of the league.

 

La Velle E. Neal III has covered the Twins and Major League Baseball for the Star Tribune since 1998. Twitter: @LaVelleNeal E-mail: lneal@startribune.com