Tony Clark takes over powerful baseball players’ union

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NEW YORK (AP) — His baseball career over at age 37 after 15 major league seasons, Tony Clark wasn’t sure what to do next.

He spent a short time working for the MLB Network as a studio analyst in the summer of 2009. That wasn’t fulfilling enough.

“Literally, I shot awake one morning after trying to determine what route I wanted to go, because I knew sitting at home was not something I was wired for,” he said. “And I told my wife I know what it is I’m supposed to do.”

And that was to accept an offer to join the staff of the Major League Baseball Players Association as director of player relations under new union head Michael Weiner.

So Clark turned to Frances and explained his thoughts and concerns. Their life in Glendale, Ariz., was familiar and comfortable, especially now that he no longer lived the life of an itinerant ballplayer.

“It’s going to cause a lot of travel, and the phone is not going to turn off, but I know this is where I’m supposed to be,” he remembered telling her. “She smiled, and I asked her what she was smiling about. And she said, ‘Well, I could have told you a long time ago that this is where you were supposed to be, but I had to let you make you own decision.'”

Just 2½ years later, the union and Clark were upended in August 2012 when Weiner was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive malignant brain tumor.

A succession plan was put in place, and Clark was promoted to deputy executive director last July. And after Weiner died in November, the 41-year-old Clark took over as executive director of America’s most successful labor union, the first player in a line of succession that included only Marvin Miller, Donald Fehr and Weiner over nearly a half-century — plus the short, unhappy tenure of Kenneth Moffett.

Prone to soft, grandfatherly tones with lengthy sighs, Miller was an industrial firebrand. Fehr, most comfortable speaking in lengthy, lawyerly and professorial discourses, was viewed by management as a similar gadfly. Then came Weiner, with a smile, informal manner and a laid-back common touch to go along with brilliant intellect.

Now, for the first time, a player is in charge and will put his own imprint on an organization whose members averaged nearly $3.4 million in income last year.

Clark may be 6-foot-8, but players don’t feel like he’s talking down to them. He went to his first executive board meeting in 1999, after his fifth big league season, and joined collective bargaining in 2002 in 2006. He became a voice of authority.

“He was always a guy that everyone looked up to as far as young players coming up. Veteran players always fed him questions. They had a problem, they would go to Tony Clark,” All-Star relief pitcher Joe Nathan said last summer. “He’s still a guy that everyone thinks that’s the guy to go whenever you have a question, and he’ll have an answer.

“He is a natural leader.”

He speaks in measured sentences, focused narrowly on what he intends to say. In a modern media world where partial quotes can become headlines, he eschews polemic sound bites and issues statements that can tend to the anodyne.

“He’s a smart guy. He’s a thoughtful guy. A careful guy. He’s considered in terms of what he does. He has the respect and confidence of the players, which is the absolute essential for the job,” said Fehr, now the head of the NHL Players Association. “He thinks through what he says. There’s no doubt about that. But I think he speaks to players pretty directly and pretty to the point and in a pretty-concise way, at least that’s my memory. It certainly was true in the ’06 negotiation.”

After eight work stoppages from 1972-95, baseball has enjoyed labor peace since the end of an epic strike that wiped out the World Series for the first time in nine decades. Industry revenue, just under $1.9 billion in the last full season before the 7½-month walkout, topped $8 billion for the first time last year.

Baseball’s current labor contract runs through the 2016 season. Clark will be tested by the annual negotiations to toughen the drug agreement — Commissioner Bud Selig has proposed more stringent penalties — and the first round of bargaining in more than four decades that didn’t include either Fehr or Weiner.

Clark consults regularly with Fehr and Gene Orza, the union’s former No. 2 official.

“I am very fortunate that we not only have a very talented, very skilled staff, but we also have those who have bled union, who will continue to bleed union and who have and offer a perspective that will be beneficial on any number of levels going forward,” Clark said. “The support mechanism we have in place, the expertise that we have access to, the expertise that we have on staff is solid.”

He spoke in a conference room at the union’s headquarters — Weiner’s office remains vacant, and Clark won’t say whether he’ll ever shift into it.

In this May 15, 2006, file photo, Arizona Diamondbacks' Tony Clark starts his head-first slide to score on a hit by Johnny Estrada during a baseball game against the San Diego Padres in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Roy Dabner, File)

In this May 15, 2006, file photo, Arizona Diamondbacks’ Tony Clark starts his head-first slide to score on a hit by Johnny Estrada during a baseball game against the San Diego Padres in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Roy Dabner, File)

Born in Newton, Kan., Clark never thought he’d wind up a baseball player. His No. 1 sport was basketball, and by the time he was graduated from Christian High School in El Cajon, Calif., in 1990, he had scored 2,549 points and averaged 43.7 points per game during his senior season. He went to the University of Arizona and San Diego State, but his hoops career was ended by a disk injury during his freshman year that required surgery.

Detroit selected him with the second overall pick of the 1990 amateur draft, and he didn’t make it to the big leagues until 1995, after stops in Bristol, Tenn.; Niagara Falls, N.Y.; Lakeland, Fla.; Trenton, N.J. (where he hit a grand slam into the Delaware River in June 1994); and Toledo, Ohio.

Travis Fryman, a five-time All-Star who now is a special assistant in Cleveland’s front office, remembered meeting Clark shortly after the draft.

“He wasn’t your typical, brash, cocky, flashy, young first-round draft pick. He carried himself beyond his years,” Fryman said. “In a locker room, you have a way of sniffing out the guys who are kind of phonies and those who aren’t. And I think in Tony’s career in the big leagues he was an authentic guy. I do think he’s a natural leader.”

When Clark talks to rookies these days, he can relate to those lengthy bus trips and lonely nights across small-town America during their climb through professional ball.

He does it with the status of an accomplished-but-not-great career, one that concluded with a .262 batting average, 251 home runs and 824 RBIs. He never made it to the World Series but got an at-bat in the 1991 All-Star game, pinch hitting for Edgar Martinez in the sixth inning at Seattle’s Safeco Field and striking out against Jon Lieber.

Now, his competitive stage has shifted from the batter’s box to the meeting room.

Perhaps the biggest change in the new job is a new home. After nearly 17 years in Glendale, Clark and his wife moved in June to Closter, N.J. His drive to the office starts at 6 a.m. in order to get over the George Washington Bridge before traffic starts to back up.

Dad says it has been a challenging adjustment to the entire family, especially for 16-year-old Jazzin and 11-year-old Aeneas.

“The hardest part of moving from Arizona to New Jersey was leaving our family, our friends, and our church … basically our entire support system,” Frances said in an email. “We knew how important it was for Tony to be able to spend as much time observing and learning from Michael. With Michael in our hearts, we were in the right frame of mind for this transition and the next season of our lives.”

Their oldest daughter, 19-year-old Kiara, returned home for Christmas for a little over a week during the break between semesters. She’s a 5-foot-11 guard at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif., following in the path of both parents — mom was a guard on the women’s team at Grossmont College in El Cajon.

In New Jersey, they found themselves in a new experience.

“We had our first snowball fight, and we had an opportunity all of us to purchase our snow boots (his were size 15) and run around with our heads cut off outside,” Clark said.

His job requires him to spend significant time on the road — more than 100,000 miles annually. Not that he has to worry about cramming those long legs into a middle seat near the back.

“Needless to say,” he said, “at this point in time I’ve earned significant flight miles and status on just about every airline possible.”

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