PHOENIX — Oatmeal nearly gone, bacon in hand and another meeting stuffed with pointed questions behind him, the Apple Watch wrapping Tony Clark's wrist beeped with a message: "Time to stand."
The late-morning breakfast conversation here in a booth of the swanky hotel restaurant paused as the Major League Players Association executive director stopped to consider the message. The winter has been difficult, and the spring arguably has been worse. The seal on the latest Basic Agreement between the players and owners barely has been broken—the sides are just 15 months into the four-year contract—and yet free agents this past winter stepped into a deep freeze and, even now, a couple dozen remain unsigned. The agitation level is high.
The message on his watch was a simple reminder to the 6'8" Clark at various checkpoints throughout his workday. His back, which he first injured playing basketball at the University of Arizona in the early 1990s and then managed throughout a 15-year MLB career spanning from 1995-2009, has been flaring up this spring along with everything else. Though he wears the pain without complaint, you can see it in the stiff way he walks.
Because Clark is a grinder who tends to keep his head down, blinders on and works through what is in front of him until it is finished, he can use every reminder he can get to pause, stand and stretch his tight and aching back.
But here's the thing: As he led meetings with each of the game's 30 clubs throughout his annual tour of Florida and Arizona camps this spring, what he found was that the messages on his watch were nearly extraneous. Because in conversations with angry and frustrated players, as the deep freeze continued to ice free agents across an MLB landscape featuring an alarming number of clubs veering toward "tanking," "resetting" or "rebooting"—pick a term—he was buoyed by the sheer number of players delivering the same message as the one that kept beeping on his wrist.
Time to stand.
"The core concerns are resonating," Clark said. "Whether it was on the Florida coast or out here in Arizona, players are as connected and as engaged as they've ever been.
"Whether it is players speaking among themselves, players speaking to us or us speaking with them. Whether you are a young player who just came in or a seasoned veteran, if it didn't directly affect you, it affected part of your fraternity."
At Texas' camp in Surprise, Arizona, All-Star Adrian Beltre echoed the suggestion of Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen earlier this winter that players soon may have to consider their first strike since 1994-95.
"Strike, whatever it might be, we have to stay united and stick together," Beltre said.
"It's great to hear those comments," Kansas City outfielder Jon Jay added. "Bottom line is, we have to stay united and have each other's backs."
At the Cubs' camp in Mesa, Arizona, All-Star Kris Bryant, the 2016 NL MVP, vowed to study up on issues and prepared to "fight" for the players.
"We lost," Bryant said flatly of the union's failure to nudge the luxury-tax payroll threshold beyond $197 million. "But it's a situation we've got to learn from.
"I think it's opened a lot of people's eyes in terms of players who are going to speak up a little more and have their voices heard."
At the Dodgers' camp in Glendale, Arizona, starter Alex Wood referenced the eye-opening offseason observation from Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto that from a team's perspective "you could argue you're going to compete with more clubs to get the first pick in the draft than you would to win the World Series." And Dipoto is management.
"The biggest thing is the integrity of the game," Wood said. "Every spring we sit here and listen to Rule 21 about putting forth your best effort individually as players or as a team. And then you sit here and see half the league not putting forth their best effort to put the best product on the field.
"It makes you wonder how the commissioner and everyone can hold us to that level of accountability, but then you don't hold the organizations to that level. It makes you wonder about the situation we've gotten ourselves into."
Time to stand, indeed.
Some five hours earlier, darkness faded around 6:45 a.m. as morning broke across the desert. Inside the white GMC Yukon as it rolled toward a meeting at the Arizona Diamondbacks complex on a chilly, 59-degree dawn, Clark, 45, did not look the part of embattled union boss.
While growing restlessness among players and agents has yielded private complaining and public questions about everything from flaws in the new agreement to Clark's job security, he was as stoic and unruffled as ever.
"My focus always has been and will continue to be the players," he said. "A lot of the external stuff, I don't get caught up in. I didn't as a player, and I don't now.
"That's why sitting down with guys during spring training, asking questions of them, them asking questions of me against the backdrop of all the rhetoric that is out there, what they've heard and what they've been told…being able to do all of that has been really beneficial."
The current Collective Bargaining Agreement was agreed to in November 2016. One of the chief issues since has been the $197 million competitive balance tax (better known as "luxury tax") on each club's payroll that this winter effectively acted as a salary cap. Clubs exceeding $197 million for three or more seasons are subject to a 50 percent payroll tax, as opposed to 20 percent (for exceeding it for one year) or 30 percent (for exceeding it a second year). That's no small part of the reason stars such as Eric Hosmer (Padres), J.D. Martinez (Red Sox) and Jake Arrieta (Phillies) went unsigned until after spring training started and why veterans such as Jose Bautista, Melky Cabrera and J.J. Hardy remain unsigned even after Opening Day.
And why Mike Moustakas, after swatting 38 home runs last year and declining Kansas City's one-year, $17.4 million qualifying offer, failed to land a multiyear deal and came crawling back to the Royals this spring on a one-year, $5.5 million deal with $2.2 million in incentives.
This is where Bryant said the players "lost" in the CBA. Clark and some players prefer patience, saying that this agreement is just 15 months old and still needs to play out because there are no significant changes in this CBA versus the old one.
"That reset has been a part of the last three agreements," Clark said. "It's not new. Now…if they aren't rebooting and they are treating it as if that is the threshold to end all thresholds, then we're having a different conversation."
Clark continued: "And so the question for us is whether or not it is a reboot or a hard stop. If it is a hard stop for those teams or for any number of other teams, then we're in a different world."
One of the biggest criticisms of the players union is that while it negotiated increases to the payroll threshold, they weren't enough. From 2014-16, the CBT threshold on player payrolls was $189 million. The current CBA calls for increases over each of the next five years to an eventual $210 million in 2021.
First instituted in 2003, the CBT is an attempt to level the playing field—at least to a degree—between smaller-market clubs and Goliaths like the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox. But with MLB revenues reaching record proportions of more than $10 billion in 2017, there are those who believe the gap between the CBT threshold and each club's individual record revenues has become so great that clubs now are incentivized to protect their record revenues—from TV rights, sponsorships, etc.—in no small part because the threshold is too low.
"Obviously, you want the threshold as high as it can be," Clark said. "The CBT has been around for 20 years. We know there are some teams that historically respond to it one way, and we know there have been other teams that have responded to it a completely different way. And we know the vast majority of the league is not affected by it because they're not close enough to it.
"So the question becomes are teams changing how they are viewing it, and how are they viewing it? That would have less to do with the changes that were made and more to do with a fundamental shift in their philosophy."
As clubs change the way they value players and skew younger, membership is on guard. The union this winter filed a grievance against four clubs—Pittsburgh, Miami, Tampa Bay and Oakland—accusing them of failing to properly spend revenue-sharing money. This is a first. The union in the past has only threatened grievances against clubs it felt were not complying with their end of the revenue-sharing stream—Miami and Pittsburgh—and the simple threat led to productive discussions with the offenders.
"It's one thing not to look to sign a number of guys," Clark said. "But it is another piece of that puzzle when you are taking remarkably talented guys and moving them off of your roster and onto other rosters in an effort to try to create that atmosphere of a race to the bottom."
There is even clubhouse chatter that some players—including some of the game's top stars—may boycott some interviews with MLB Network television this summer, viewing the network as an extension of the owners with whom they are angry.
Some of the overall anger is being stoked by the players' representatives, many of whom are on the phone regularly venting to Clark. On Feb. 2, agent Brodie Van Wagenen fired this salvo on Twitter, writing that there is "a rising tide among players for radical change."
"Anytime you speak to a group of representatives who have been around for a while and they suggest we have never seen this, we have never heard this," Clark said, "antennas pop."
Exiting the SUV, Clark stretched and cleared his mind in the parking lot—time to stand—before walking inside for what will be close to a two-hour meeting with the Diamondbacks and members of his staff.
Clark is the first ex-player to lead the union. This makes him an easy target for criticism.
"I'm different than those who came before me, but my reference points in protecting players are the same," Clark said.
He was the handpicked choice of his predecessor, Michael Weiner, who died in November 2013, following a protracted battle with brain cancer. Weiner was an attorney, as was Don Fehr, the union boss from 1985-2009. Before them, the first head of the players' union, starting in 1966, was Marvin Miller, who was an economist for the International Association of Machinists, United Auto Workers and United Steelworkers.
For Clark, accepting Weiner's offer was the culmination of two decades of involvement in union labor issues. He started as the Detroit Tigers' player representative in 1997, just his second full season in the majors. His interest was piqued when he spent a full day at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, when he was in the Class A New York-Penn League in the early 1990s. He spent most of his time that day in the Negro Leagues area of the museum, which, he said, "helped me understand, as a black player, the opportunity I had and the responsibility that I had."
He saw that day the history of those who came before him and helped clear a path for him. And he understood that if he ever made it to the majors, it would come with the responsibility for doing the same for those who came after him.
By 2002, Clark moved from the player representative position to an American League Representative, a higher-ranking and more involved executive board post.
Shortly after his retirement as a player following the 2009 season, Clark accepted Weiner's invitation for a full-time executive board position.
"That's the role I anticipated having until Michael rode into the sunset," Clark said. "When he did, I would as well. Unfortunately, a couple of years later he's diagnosed with a brain tumor, and we lose him a couple of years after that."
Lines between management and labor were clear when Clark came up as a young player: The 1994-95 strike at the time was the fifth work stoppage in 22 years, and it was the mother of them all, lasting 232 days, longest in MLB history. Clark debuted as a rookie for the Tigers late in the '95 season after the players came back earlier that spring.
"I was very fortunate to come into the game when I did, surrounded by the player leadership that I was," Clark said. "And how that's shaped my perspective of the game on the field, in the industry, off of it and my responsibilities inherent within it."
It is the players, he emphasized, who drive the strategies. It is their union. His job simply is to understand their disposition on the issues and make judgments accordingly. And as Clark made the rounds this spring, he sensed strengthening resolve from a new generation of players who are fed up with what they view as the owners' duplicity following a long era of peace.
He hints at a coming intellectual arms race, conceding that the union is planning to increase its heft, noting that adding "talent and expertise in a number of areas"—including legal and communications—"is something we're looking at."
"The CBA gets thicker and thicker," he continued. "How we function as an organization both now and moving forward has to adapt."
Frustrated as some players are, some of the rhetoric is a little—or a lot—overheated.
For one thing, because players are in the middle of a negotiated contract, it is illegal for them to strike. That would have to wait until the current agreement expires after the '21 season.
Another is the idea that, in the last talks, the union fumbled some key issues such as payroll tax thresholds and compensatory draft picks tied to free agency to win luxury items such as extra seats on the team bus and a chef in every clubhouse. While it is true that the players wanted—and ultimately won—the bus and chef items, the union says that to portray negotiating away the big stuff in exchange for those "luxury" items is absurd.
"That's one of the most ridiculous things I heard all offseason," Clark said. "Sure, there are things that didn't exist before [such as the chefs]. But it did not come at the expense of not paying attention to the other pieces. Any number of folks are going to look at any number of items differently.
"Those who are trying to keep score likely haven't been in a bargaining room."
Bottom line is, certain items are shut-down-the-game issues. While the players are getting killed now for not forcing the luxury-tax threshold higher, until this current agreement they were doing just fine in free agency as MLB hit record revenues.
There were no egregious wrongs to right.
"Ideally, we want everybody to get to free agency earlier and we want the competitive balance tax to be incredibly high," Andrew Miller, the Cleveland reliever and a key union figure as an association representative, said. "But the reality is you have to negotiate these things and find a way to make them work for you. The game is in a really good place, and the agreement didn't actually change that much from 2011 to 2016.
"To say this hasn't worked the way we envisioned I think would be fair. But to say it's a failure, I don't think that's fair."
As for the "luxury" items criticism, Miller said: "Players get engaged in that because it's something we know and can relate to. The reality is, a lot of the big stuff, we trust economists and lawyers on that. They drive that conversation. Certainly, players are engaged in on-field issues, whether it's pace of play, things to do with uniforms, things we understand.
"But the reality is, we didn't sacrifice anything in draft-pick compensation to let guys wear cleats they want to wear. That's misinformed and disingenuous, and I get frustrated when I read that and hear that. It's just wrong."
Spring is the time of renewal, and whether cacti or palm trees fill the landscape outside the windows—and from the inside of Clark's GMC Yukon as we departed the Diamondbacks camp and rode toward breakfast, it's both—this year, "renewal" is a loaded word.
Several players and even a few union officials recalled former Commissioner Bud Selig's mantra, that all MLB markets should contain "hope and faith" heading into each Opening Day. While that always was a naive goal (see: Cleveland, from about 1969-93, among many other clubs), never before has the game seen this sort of behavior by so many clubs looking long term instead of short term.
"Everything about the CBA is grounded in the ability for teams to compete every year," Clark said. "Whether it's revenue sharing, how those dollars are distributed, the flexibility in the system on how to use those dollars, it was always done against the backdrop of each team doing everything it can with the resources it has to put itself in a position to be the last team standing.
"When there are professed interests by upwards of a third of the clubs [to rebuild instead of compete in 2018], if some of what we're seeing and hearing is to be believed, that's a concern. It's a concern because we all have a vested interest in the excitement around Opening Day, around the excitement, around the possibilities that exist because the ball does bounce funny ways sometimes. And so when that many teams say, intimate or suggest a salary dump, you just hope there isn't an adverse effect on the industry as a whole."
Said Miller: "It's easy to see why these organizations want to copy what the Cubs and Astros did. I don't think either side, players or owners, ever thought in the offseason of 2017-2018 it would be acceptable to the fans to tank. But now it's not hard to go read a message board or look at comments on FanGraphs or TradeRumors when the Pirates or Rays start dumping guys and seeing that people are OK with rebuilds. … I don't think we saw that coming, and it needs to be addressed."
A big test will come next winter when high-impact free agents Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson and others—Clayton Kershaw, if he opts out of his contract—come onto the market. It is possible that the Yankees, Dodgers and others sat out this winter's free-agent market in anticipation of that. And it's among the reasons Cleveland's Miller said he is taking a bigger-picture view than many others.
"Free agency is supposed to be a reward for players who have paid their dues, and it didn't work this year. That does not mean this deal is bad or irredeemable. We have to wait and see, and we have to make it work for us. The unfortunate thing is the players who do get caught [waiting for a contract]."
Miller has worked as closely with Clark as anyone and has no doubts that Clark is the right man to lead the players.
"It's not like there are people out there just walking down the street who are ready to become the executive director of a sports union. The reality is those people are hard to find.
"When we went through that process, Michael [Weiner] was a big part of it. And as much as we love Michael, his recommendation was Tony.
"There's always going to be growing pains. The reality is ... I think he's done a great job. Things aren't always going to go your way. Things aren't always going to be sunshine and rainbows. … We have to find a way to get through all this, and I think he's the right guy."
Clark, who took the position over several other opportunities within the game—broadcasting, coaching, managing and front office work—said he made this move because he felt it would connect him to "former, current and future fraternity members. There was no other job or opportunity that provided that significant a touch point for the group that I was most concerned about or believed in the most."
Since taking the top job, Clark hasn't even paused for a vacation. Too many responsibilities keep him tethered to the union's 1,200 members. He'll steal a three-day weekend here or a day there when he feels the walls closing in, and he makes sure to be home each afternoon in time to see his son's basketball or baseball game. In addition to his son Aeneas, who is 15 and plays shortstop and third base, Tony and his wife, Frances, also have two older daughters, Kiara, 23, and Jazzin, 20.
"Bottom line is, he knows what he's gotten into," said former infielder Damion Easley, whose family is so close with Clark's that they were neighbors in Phoenix for several years until the Clarks moved to New Jersey when Tony became the union chief. "It's a borderline thankless job; it really is. It's hard to please everyone. You've got different spectrums or players; you try to do the best job you can for each level of player."
He still exercises when he can—bike, treadmill, weights, some jogging—but especially at this time of year, spring tour in full force, that time too often disappears into the hours sitting in planes, cars and meetings.
"I'm holding on for dear life," he quipped. "If you give me truth serum, or even if you don't, there are times when I sure don't feel like a professional athlete."
By the time the current labor deal expires, there will have been 26 consecutive seasons uninterrupted by work stoppages, dating all the way back to when Clark played. It is the longest run of labor peace since the MLBPA became a recognized union in 1966.
As for where things go from here, well, it's all part of what Clark jokes is "turning my gray to silver, quick." And while he concedes that some days are more challenging than others, Clark presses onward, viewing his position as more of a calling than a job.
"Every player, whether I know him or not, or have direct interaction with him or not, is personal to me," Clark said. "So being in this … that's an easy one."
With that, he glances at his wrist. Morning has slipped into afternoon, and he's due at the airport to pick up his wife.
But first, as he lifts himself out of the booth … it is time to stand.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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