How Tony Clark Keeps Baseball’s Union Moving Forward

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PHOENIX — 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.

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Baseball is more forgiving for young men with prematurely bad backs. Clark spent a few years in the minors before establishing himself as an every day 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 Yankees, Mets and 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 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 A.F.L.-C.I.O. 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 his athletic life, fighting for his career came naturally to Clark. As soon as his production diminished, he knew he would be replaced. Today, in different ways, the battles continue.

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“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 percent 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 C.B.A., there was a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking,” said Craig Stammen, a reliever for the 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.”

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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.

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“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 veteran outfielder currently playing for Milwaukee. “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.”

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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 up with the N.F.L.’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 W.N.B.A. and the United States 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.”

He’s not sure, either, that the expanded playoffs are accomplishing their goals this year.

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“What we were told, consistently, was the more teams that have a chance to make the playoffs, that it will positively and directly affect concerns we have about competitive integrity,” he said. “Year one, not so sure it’s done that.”

As for the significant new rule changes for 2023 that were announced last week, in which defensive shifts will be banned, a pitch clock will be instituted and the bases will be enlarged, Clark cautioned that changes to the game have always happened slowly, which has him worried about overcorrecting too quickly. All four player representatives on M.L.B.’s competition committee voting against the shift ban and pitch clock, but the six management representatives and the umpire on the committee supported them, so they passed.

Some tension between players and league executives over how the game is played is natural. The flood of data into the current game has increased that tension.

“The one-size-fits-all swing approach, the one-size-fits-all pitching approach, this idea that stats and data and a particular metric or combination of metrics can quantify the value of a single player, or group of players, is remarkable to me,” Clark said.

He added: “This is not an old school versus new school thing. Analytics has been around forever. But you find fewer baseball people are making baseball decisions. Certain things are overwhelming the system and not to the benefit of the game.”

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So Clark will keep moving toward what in his mind is a better game. Though 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.”

For Clark, what once was not even a thought has turned into a mission.

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“There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done, and there’s nothing more important to me than our fraternity, both active and inactive, and the next generation,” Clark said. “So being able to come on board and commit to protecting their interests and opportunities, I’m all in.”

It is a long way from standing in the batter’s box at old Tiger Stadium. Then again, unless you’re on the basketball court, there are no slam dunks. The key is to keep moving.

“Very rarely is it comfortable,” Clark said. “But it’s important.”



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