There might not be fans in the stands, but there are plenty of lawyers at baseball’s negotiating table.
Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association came to a truce of sorts Tuesday that will initiate a 2020 season delayed for three months by the coronavirus pandemic.
The agreement came after weeks of intense negotiations between lawyers representing players and the league’s 30 teams that ultimately ended with MLB commissioner Robert Manfred Jr. implementing the terms of a previous accord reached in March.
The talks involved dozens of in-house lawyers and at least a half-dozen law firms, three sources familiar with the negotiations told Bloomberg Law.
MLB’s top two executives are a pair of labor litigators in Manfred and deputy commissioner Daniel Halem, both of whom were once partners at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and Proskauer Rose, respectively. Proskauer partner Neil Abramson, co-chair of the firm’s labor and employment law department, served as outside counsel to the league for its negotiations with the players’ union. Proskauer has been a longtime legal adviser to MLB.
Halem led a team of league in-house lawyers working on the matter that included senior vice president and deputy general counsel for labor relations Patrick Houlihan and Paul Mifsud, a former Proskauer associate now serving as head baseball operations counsel, a role he was promoted to in January after serving as a deputy general counsel for labor. Morgan Sword, an executive vice president of baseball economics and operations, led a non-lawyer contingent for the league.
The abbreviated 60-game season will see Opening Day take place sometime in late July after a mid-summer “spring” training, with games being played in ballparks devoid of fans due to Covid-19.
On March 26, shortly before the start of the aborted 2020 season, players agreed to take a prorated share of their full salaries for any games played this year. The league, however, subsequently sought to extract further pay cuts from players after it became clear that teams would receive almost no in-stadium revenue this year from fans due to coronavirus-related prohibitions on mass gatherings.
Halem, who also serves as MLB’s chief legal officer, a role he assumed in late 2014 after serving six years as general counsel for labor, exchanged a series of increasingly contentious letters with union representatives as the pushback over player pay grew rancorous.
“I must have misinterpreted your June 6th letter,” Halem wrote in one letter leaked to media outlets. “I thought the letter reflected a willingness on the part of the Association to discuss in good faith the economics necessary for the Office of the Commissioner to waive its right under the March Agreement to resume the 2020 season only when there are, among other things, no restrictions on fan access. After reviewing the Association’s counterproposal, I stand corrected.”
The MLBPA was founded in 1966 by Marvin Miller, a legendary labor rights negotiator who was slated to be posthumously inducted this summer into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. That enshrinement will now take place in July 2021 as a result of the coronavirus.
Miller’s legacy was the creation of the most powerful union in professional sports. MLB is the only major North American sports league without a cap on player salaries—there is a luxury tax on teams that spend over a certain threshold—a testament to the power of the MLBPA. The union and the league, both of which are based in New York, have quarreled during the past five decades with lockouts, strikes, and other legal battles—the sport is so litigious its name adorns a specific type of arbitration.
The legal lineup fielded by the MLBPA was led by Bruce Meyer, a former partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges in New York who was hired by the union in late 2018 for the newly created position of senior director of collective bargaining and legal.
Meyer managed an in-house squad of MLBPA lawyers representing players that included general counsel Ian Penny, deputy general counsel Matthew Nussbaum, assistant general counsel Jeffrey Perconte, E. Hiram Arnaud, and Robert Lenaghan, and Gregory Dreyfuss, an arbitration expert and former assistant general counsel who last year became its director of analytics and baseball operations.
Those briefed on the matter told Bloomberg Law that the MLBPA also consulted over the past few weeks with outside lawyers at a handful of firms on various legal issues: Winston & Strawn co-executive chairman Jeffrey Kessler and antitrust and commercial litigation partner David Greenspan; Sidley Austin appellate litigation partner Virginia Seitz; Altshuler Berzon appellate and class action litigation partner Michael Rubin; Bredhoff & Kaiser tax and employee benefits partners Douglas Greenfield and Jenifer Cromwell; and Kurzban Kurzban Tetzeli & Pratt name partner and immigration law expert Ira Kurzban.
The two sides will soon have to return to the negotiating table. The league’s collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 season.