JUPITER, Fla. — Baseball players and owners took a first step toward salvaging opening day, nearing agreement Friday on an amateur draft lottery during lockout negotiations that included a surprise one-on-one meeting between Commissioner Rob Manfred and union head Tony Clark.
While an agreement on the draft was not complete, the talks gained momentum for the first time as Major League Baseball’s end of Monday deadline approached for a deal that would preserve opening day on March 31 and a 162-game schedule.
Talks will continue Saturday, the 87th day of baseball’s first work stoppage since 1995. The sides remain far apart on the big-money issues of the competitive balance tax thresholds and rates, salary arbitration eligibility, the size of a bonus pool for pre-arbitration-eligible players and the minimum salary.
In another sign of the disruption caused by baseball’s ninth work stoppage, MLB canceled three more days of spring training games through March 7. Exhibition games were to have begun Saturday.
But for the first time all week, both sides expressed a feeling they had moved in a positive direction.
Manfred had not attended bargaining since the first session of these talks in April. He has a home in the area and had been in the background at the ballpark during the first four days this week, speaking with management officials.
The players’ association had not known he was in the area, and Manfred surprised the union Friday when he asked for a one-on-one meeting with Clark.
Manfred then made the short walk from the offices near home plate where management officials had grouped, crossed the small driveway behind the right-field foul pole and entered the building containing the Cardinals spring training clubhouse, where players had gathered. He walked back about 20 minutes later.
The day included three negotiating sessions, a high for any day this week.
In an effort to address the union’s claim that teams are giving up on winning in an effort to gain a top pick in the amateur draft, MLB had proposed the top selections be determined by a lottery, such as the NBA began in 1985 and the NHL a decade later.
MLB has offered to have the first four picks determined by a lottery in which the teams with the three lowest winning percentages would have the best chances of getting the top pick. The union asked for the first seven selections to be sorted by lottery.
The sides exchanged proposals Friday on the number of lottery picks, adjustments and penalties, moving closer to agreement on format. For the first time in months of negotiations, there was immediate back and forth: MLB made a proposal, the union caucused and countered, and management is to respond Saturday.
Discussions also covered other areas and were described as spirited and at times emotional.
Management’s delegation included Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner, Colorado CEO Dick Monfort, Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem and Executive Vice President Morgan Sword.
Clark led players who included Max Scherzer, Andrew Miller and Zack Britton from the union’s eight-man executive subcommittee.
Players have not accepted Monday as a deadline and have suggested any missed games could be made up as part of doubleheaders, a method MLB said it will not agree to.
Once Monday passes, the length of the schedule would become yet another issue in the dispute along with possible lost pay and service time.
The union has told MLB if games are missed and salaries are lost, clubs should not expect players to agree to management’s proposals to expand the postseason and to allow advertisements on uniforms and helmets.