What's next for baseball? Fallout from Rob Manfred's incendiary negotiating tactics will be felt for years

History may remember June 15, 2020, as the day a baseball season came crumbling down. It may also remember Monday for something even more surprising — it was the day that many baseball fans started to miss their old punching bag, Bud Selig.

Rob Manfred, MLB’s current commish, went on TV and said he’s not 100 percent certain there will be a baseball season in 2020 after all, reversing course in less than a week and trying to undermine the players union’s declaration of, “It’s time to get back to work. Tell us when and where.”

Players were dumbfounded to the point of curse words and calling out the commish. Bryce Harper seemed to ask the Philadelphia Eagles if they had a place for him, and Jason Kipnis wondered if NBA commissioner Adam Silver might be interested in jumping ship. 

“Fire Rob Manfred” was in the trending column on Twitter. Trevor Bauer was putting together threads that made more sense than anything we’ve heard from the league recently. We went from Manfred saying “unequivocally” and “100 percent” there will be a season to giant shrug emoji in just five days. Even during a pandemic with concurrent widespread civil rights protests, five days is a stunning amount of time to possibly dismantle an institution.

[Timeline: How MLB’s negotiations to restart the 2020 season devolved into a disaster]

Baseball fans: Get ready, because you may be witnessing the destruction of baseball as we’ve known it for the past 25 years.

Make no mistake, this isn’t a new problem. This coronavirus-propelled labor dispute isn’t the disease baseball is fighting. It’s a symptom of a problem that’s been lingering since the last collective bargaining agreement. Figuring out how to restart a season that was paused by a pandemic only fast-forwarded us to what could be a bleak future for America’s pastime.

If you love baseball even a little bit, you have questions about what you’ve seen over the past week, the first of which is probably some version of “What the Fudgesicle is going on?” But there are some bigger issues at play, too.

Rob Manfred said Monday he's not certain there will be an MLB season in 2020, which set off a firestorm of reaction from players. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB via Getty Images)

Is a work stoppage looming?

What we’re seeing is not something where the two sides are going to hug, make up and get back to normal next week. Baseball had been on pretty solid footing since the 1994 strike, through the rest of the Selig era and into Manfred’s reign. More solid, at least, than it had been in the previous 25 years. What we’re seeing now are all the hard feelings that were lingering below the surface.

Owners want to limit salaries, which is why we saw the idea of revenue sharing floated prior to these negotiations beginning in earnest. Salaries are the one arm of the game owners don’t have complete control over. Players, meanwhile, feel like they’ve gotten beaten up in CBA negotiations on every issue but salaries.

In recent years, these issues have come out in free agency, with usually plentiful markets drying up for veterans. People in the industry thought baseball was heading toward a lockout or strike before this. The current CBA expires after 2021 and for at least two years now, it’s been widely believed a work stoppage was on the horizon. 

Now it just feels like we’re living in the undercard of that fight.

Is Manfred the right leader to navigate this?

Major League Baseball’s commissioner doesn’t work for the people of Twitter — so Manfred doesn’t need to worry about the “Fire Manfred” talk — but he does work for the team owners. That means it’s his job to keep the game healthy and keep the money rolling in.

This entire clash has been about making the owners as much money as possible in 2020, so Manfred is doing his job. But it’s worth wondering whether his approach will work in the long run. Alex Coffey of The Athletic posted this summation of Manfred’s approach from a former senior MLB employee and it tells you exactly what the players are up against:

So Manfred likes to win? Not a surprise, given what we’ve seen. But what’s different this time around is that the players haven’t backed down. The crux of this entire argument is players believing they deserve prorated salaries for a potential 2020 season — that “a day’s work is worth a day’s pay.” With every proposal, they haven’t balked. Manfred’s attack-dog style works when he knows the other side will back down.

But what about when the players decide they’re not afraid of the attack dog?

What baseball stands to lose

Forget the money for a second, which is something that neither side has done recently. Baseball stands to lose a lot more than dollars if it can’t work this out. 

In a very short time, we went from looking at the post-pandemic sports ramp-up as a time for MLB to shine to looking at MLB wasting away another opportunity to engage new fans. And now? Baseball has turned itself into a daily facepalm.

What gets lost in the conversation is this: Mike Trout is perhaps the greatest baseball player of all time and we may lose an entire season (or more) of his prime. The Dodgers were positioned to finally win another World Series this year. The Yankees were positioned to chase a title too. Ronald Acuña Jr., Christian Yelich, Francisco Lindor, Cody Bellinger and Nolan Arenado are just a few potentially generational talents we’ll miss out on.

All of these things stand to make the owners money, make the players money and help MLB in the long run. Leaving them on the bench does not.

And common people — whether they blame the owners, the players or both sides — will have a hard time coming back to this game if it turns its back on them again in such a high-profile moment.

A league like MLB, which is already a distant follower to the NBA and NFL, has a chance to lose its place in America’s heart entirely.

So can baseball survive this?

This is the biggest question of them all. 

Will baseball survive in the short term? Maybe not this year. Not based on what we saw Monday. Or maybe this is all just a stalling tactic by the owners to get the number of games they want at the pay rate they want and they’ll play ball by August.

But then what? Imposing a season against the players’ wishes isn’t a long-term strategy for labor peace. Neither is rubbing the players’ noses in this mess.

Major League Baseball isn’t going to fall apart because of this. Industries that collect $10 billion per year in revenues don’t wither away because of labor strife, but this fight didn’t just come out of thin air. Both sides are angry. Both sides believe they deserve more. And in the past few weeks, baseball has proven it may prefer to tear down the house instead of find common ground inside it.

Parts of this game are broken, there’s no doubt. So the only solution may be to tear it down more before it can be fixed.

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