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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The man who keeps baseball’s union moving

With Tony Clark running the show, M.L.B.’s players have labor peace, are on the path to unionizing minor leaguers for the first time and say they are fighting for the soul of the game.

By Scott Miller

Tony Clark learned long ago not to stay in one spot. There was a time when basketball was his future. Keep moving, the coaches instructed. It makes you harder to defend. Off he went to the University of Arizona and their Hall of Fame coach, Lute Olson. Clark’s path was certain.

“I knew that was the plan,” he said.

Then he blew out his back in his first Wildcats practice. Eventually, he transferred to San Diego State and kept trying to make things work. For two more years, he kept baseball at arm’s length while chasing his hoop dreams. The Detroit Tigers, who had selected him with the second overall pick in the 1990 draft after his senior year of high school, waited. And soon enough, their patience was rewarded.

Baseball is more forgiving for young men with prematurely bad backs. Clark spent a few years in the minors before establishing himself as an everyday first baseman with 30-homer power in the majors. He made the All-Star team in his final year with Detroit, 2001, and his 15-year career included stints with the New York Yankees, New York Mets and Boston Red Sox.

“This was not the road map, not what I anticipated doing, had planned on doing or was what I was interested in doing,” Clark, now in his ninth year as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, said over breakfast in Phoenix late last month. “But here we are.”

It is September, the playoff races are crackling and the ink on the new collective bargaining agreement is still drying. And Clark, 50, is still moving.

Shortly after finishing his oatmeal and fruit plate, he was completing details to unionize more than 5,000 minor league players, offering power to a group that has traditionally been treated as disposable labor. In Washington, soon after, Clark announced his union would be joining the AFL-CIO. Strategically, the hope is that aligning with the nation’s largest labor federation and its 12.5 million members will allow growth both in terms of influence and power.

Throughout Clark’s athletic life, fighting for his career came naturally. As soon as his production diminished, he knew he would be replaced. Today, in different ways, the battles continue.

“Complacency is not an option,” Clark said. “I’m not wired that way. We as baseball players can’t be wired that way. And so being comfortable is not necessarily something that’s comfortable. That’s in large part how I try to lead our organization. If we’re static, we’re going backward.”

Clark was named the union’s director of player relations in 2010, the year after his retirement. Michael Weiner led the union then, and his goal had been to build out a formal player relations department that would engage and educate the next generation of players. Clark was to work as Weiner’s wingman in that capacity and then ride off into the sunset. Three years later, Weiner was dead from a brain tumor. Clark, upon Weiner’s recommendation in those final months, succeeded him.

Some days were better than others as Clark settled into the job. Negotiations for a new labor deal with owners were bruising in 2016. For the first time since Marvin Miller organized the players in the 1960s, their average annual salaries declined year over year, dropping 6.4% from 2017 through 2021.

Clark and the union leadership came under fire. They hired Bruce Meyer, an experienced labor lawyer, to be the lead negotiator for the next deal.

“I think in the last CBA, there was a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking,” said Craig Stammen, a reliever for the San Diego Padres who was a player representative during the 2016 negotiations. “There were a lot more players involved this time around. The executive committee and the subcommittees made it a point to get as many people involved as we could. There should be no complaining as to why we didn’t do this or did do that.”

As Stammen explained, going into that 2016 deal, “nobody saw analytics come in and change things to where the owners didn’t want to pay anybody over 30.”

The new five-year labor agreement was an arduous slog for both players and owners — the 99-day lockout was the second-longest work stoppage in baseball history — and six months later the dust is still settling. The players hoped to “change some habits,” Clark said, referring to management.

“The changes and attacks on the game itself, turning players into commodities and assets and dehumanizing them, how it’s affected the game on the field, that decision-making as a whole has players understanding and more engaged on the details and the facts and, thus, willing to voice their opinions and concerns in ways that are necessary,” Clark said. “Not just necessary for them as current players, but necessary for the next generation of players that comes and reflective of what the players have done before. And so we’re encouraged.”

“Fraternity” is one of Clark’s favorite ways to describe the union, because it encompasses not just the current players but the alumni and the minor leaguers as well. Clark reminds his fraternity, both with his actions and his words: Keep moving.

“I can remember going back to when we were trying to vote on who was going to represent us next,” said Andrew McCutchen, a 14-year outfielder currently playing for the Milwaukee Brewers. “We all came together at the time and we were like, this is it. Tony Clark has been through some things. He has some old-school vibe, he was in front of things in the past, so he understands as a player, from the players’ standpoint. He gets it.”

The addition of Meyer — who in early July was promoted to deputy executive director of the union — has afforded Clark more time to devote to areas beyond labor strategy. In 2019, baseball’s union teamed with the NFL’s players to create One Team Partners, an organization that hopes to help athletes in all sports capitalize on their name, image and likeness. Unions from Major League Soccer, the WNBA and the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team soon joined.

Clark also spearheaded efforts to increase the players’ licensing programs and business deals in recent years that have increased the union’s cash reserves by hundreds of millions of dollars.

On the field, Clark is more circumspect. The game’s competitive integrity under the new labor deal, to him, remains a work in progress. Cincinnati and Oakland conducted fire-sale trades as soon as the lockout ended, and Washington unloaded as the season unfolded.

“What we saw coming out of the lockout, we believe, was planned by those teams all along,” Clark said. “It wasn’t anything that was in the deal that was going to affect the decisions that those clubs had already made.”

So Clark will keep moving toward what in his mind is a better game. Although his contract is up this year, it is expected to be extended when the union’s executive board meets in November.

“I don’t want to get too far out ahead of that,” said Gerrit Cole, the Yankees starter who is a member of the union’s executive subcommittee. “But I give him high marks for certainly the last go-around here.”

Adding Meyer and promoting Matt Nussbaum, the union’s general counsel, have helped, Cole said.

“Tony doesn’t need to be the lead negotiator,” Cole continued. “He just needs to be the leader of the union, and that’s creating solidarity, it’s informing the players, it’s a lot of tireless, thankless work. He’s been up to every challenge ever since we voted him in.”

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