Baseball’s Woes Require Human Solutions, MLBPA’s Clark Says

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Barry M. Bloom
·6 min read
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Major League Baseball and the union that represents the players began collective bargaining toward a new Basic Agreement last week, MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark acknowledged in a wide-ranging interview on Friday.

Several obstacles stand between players and owners, from the definition of service time to the effect of analytics on gameplay– all with a Dec. 1 expiration date looming and threat of a work stoppage on the horizon, Clark said during an appearance for SporticoLive’s MLB Valuations 2021 event, which takes place Tuesday.

Clark said some options exist if the upcoming negotiations for a new agreement aren’t settled by the expiration of the current five-year labor pact.

“Both sides can potentially agree to extend the deadline as a result of the progress that has been made,” he said. “There’s also a possibility of a work stoppage.”

If progress isn’t made, it’s possible that “the league decides to shut the door and lock us out,” he said. “But that’s way down the road. Those are always possibilities.”

As it stands, the first meeting at the bargaining table last week opened in typical fashion, according to Clark.

“The first session is always what the first session is, which is a reflection of each side’s view of the industry, where’s it’s at, what the challenges and the issues are, and things that any one side thinks needs to be addressed moving forward,” Clark said. “And what it’s going to do is lend itself to a number of meetings moving forward, where each side will make certain proposals. That will be the process the next few months with an eye on coming to agreement on or before Dec. 1.”

He called it “borderline criminal” that baseball frequently keeps young players in the minor leagues to delay service time toward free agency, which can be attained after six full seasons. He added that the San Diego Padres bringing a young player like Fernando Tatis Jr. quickly to the big leagues, as they did at the beginning of his rookie 2019 season, “should be the norm.”

Clark, the first players’ union head with extensive Major League playing experience, intimated that rule changes of the last two seasons, like seven-inning double-headers and the runner on second to start any extra inning, may not be here to stay.

“Rest assured that’s not something I’ve heard from players that they hope stick around,” he said.

Clark said he’s not against the use of analytics, per se. “Those have been around forever, but how they are being used is manifesting itself much differently,” he said. “How things are valued today how that is manifesting itself in our game is changing things.”

While Clark is “grateful” for the late MLBPA union head Marvin Miller’s pending induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, “The fact that he is no longer here, the fact that it took them as long as it did to induct him, elect him, is disappointing.”

CLARK ON THE ISSUES

Compensation: “Bringing earlier compensation in line with the value of those [younger] players is an important one. Bringing a higher level of our service-based system. Those are the big moving pieces. There’s a number of different ways to do that within the system, but the system itself doesn’t need to change.

“The second piece is how the system is responding to them, the groupthink among the 30 clubs and how they are collectively looking at players suggests a dramatic shift and one that we believe requires a conversation to move the market-based system forward and reflect the trends within the game.”

Players should be allowed to simply play: “What should happen is provide all the information and data they want to provide to guide them and then turn us loose when the lights come on. My first hitting coach in Detroit, Larry Herndon, gave us enough information to prepare for the game tomorrow, but it forced us to equip ourselves, equip each other and to think and adjust and adapt on the fly.

“What it didn’t do was to have us in a place where the game was being dictated from on high under the guise of progress and efficiency.

“Our game has always been about people. You can’t replace people, and you can’t make all the people the same people. It always has been that way. It always will be that way despite the commitment we’ve seen of late to the contrary to commoditize and dehumanize players.”

Service time: “The fact that San Diego had a ballplayer in Tatis who they believed could help them win ballgames [immediately] should be the norm and not the exception. There are a number of things that we are going to talk to the league about regarding service time manipulation.

“But most fundamentally in a world where your ability to move throughout the service-time spectrum is entirely based on your days of service, the manipulation of that service is borderline criminal, particularly when you take into account what is an average Major League career, which is about four years.

“There are ways to address it without changing the system. I don’t believe we can continue to function in a world where fans are questioning whether the best players are on the field all the time. We believe it’s damaging not just to the players, and their already short careers, but to the industry as a whole.”

About the state of the game: “The game of baseball as we have always known it is not broken. You hear a lot of people trying to tell you about all these different things that are wrong, and as a result want to come up with all these gimmicky ways to fix it. There’s nothing wrong with the game of baseball that more baseball can’t fix.

“Saying that, what some have done to it or are trying to do it has the potential to break it. That is not to suggest that we can’t think of ways on how to build on a game I already personally believe is perfect. Just coming up with rules to change what has been done to it is a very delicate proposition.

“I do believe the future is bright. I do believe the industry is fine from a business standpoint. Again, Sportico’s valuations are a testament to that. Having said that, there are opportunities for tangible growth. It’s going to require the industry to really look in the mirror to access how the changes of the last six, seven years, 10 years are changing the game on the field.”

Marvin Miller: “While I’m grateful and respectful for Marvin’s induction, the circumstances around it, the fact that he is no longer here, the fact that it took them as long as it did to induct him, elect him, is disappointing. We as players, we know the impact he had and recognize him as one of the most influential, impactful people in our industry. We will always be grateful for the contributions he has made.

“It’s unfortunate that it manifested itself in the way that it has. That he isn’t here and doesn’t have an opportunity, should he have wanted it, to offer his perspective and his experiences on the history from the labor side that often gets lost among the rhetoric that’s heard from management.”

MLB Valuations 2021 starts Tuesday at 1 p.m. ET. Besides Clark, speakers include baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, agent Scott Boras and executives from the Dodgers, Red Sox and Yankees.

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