Ken Rosenthal writes today that the players are taking a hard look at their union leader, Tony Clark. Clark just finished his annual tour of all 30 spring training camps to meet with his members. Rosenthal has spoken to a great many of them, including player representatives. Many are angry and voiced their displeasure at him. Some are talking about replacing him.
To be sure, it’s not yet a prevailing sentiment. Those who are unhappy with Clark are not going on the record with it yet. Those who still support him are. As with any group of folks who do their business behind closed doors, it’s hard to get a completely accurate account of what’s happening, but there is definitely dissatisfaction in the ranks, for all of the reasons we’ve written about in this space over the past several months.
As Rosenthal notes, now is the time for players to make a change if they are going to, because if a new Executive Director is going to effectively take the players to the bargaining table in 2021, he or she will need to get to know players, get up to speed on their issues and devise a battle plan in the next two years, not at the last minute. Rosenthal also notes that the union, compared to its counterparts in other sports, is understaffed, and if it’s going to increase its staffing, it should do it under a leader with security in the position, not with someone who could be a lame duck.
My personal view, bolstered by conversations I’ve had with people familiar with the dynamic of the union, is that while Clark is well liked, he and many of his lieutenants — including Rick Helling, Jose Cruz Jr., Bobby Bonilla, Phil Bradley, Jeffrey Hammonds, Kevin Slowey, Javier Vazquez and Dave Winfield — are former players and that hiring former players in leadership positions is not necessarily wise. Earlier this month the longtime counsel for the Major League Baseball Players Association, Gene Orza, opined that he would never want union employees who could work for both teams and the union. I agree, and when I see these sorts of guys in leadership roles, I can’t help but wonder if they wouldn’t be equally adept at serving in “special assistant” roles, with clubs, as so many other players do, and I wonder if that isn’t a problem.
No, I don’t think that these men are incapable of leading a union or disloyal or anything, but representing labor is not like a lot of other jobs. You gotta employ true believers and advocates who are not afraid to be bad guys and tough guys both with the opposition and with the rank and file to keep them in line. You gotta have guys who aren’t afraid to go to war. Bobby Bonilla is still on a club payroll for crying out loud. I don’t doubt that he does his job for the MLBPA, but man, those optics. Other former players may very well be friends and mentors of current members and may not be able to whip them into line when it comes time to hold a key vote. Above all else, the last thing on the mind of an MLBPA advocate should be worrying about The Grand Institution of Baseball and it’s history, because that itself is a subtle bit of leverage wielded by the owners in P.R. and labor wars. Isn’t being a very part of that history at least a minor hindrance in this regard? Wouldn’t you rather have union officials who aren’t afraid to be bad guys and who don’t have reputations in the game and among fans to protect?
I dunno. Maybe that’s all crazy, and I acknowledge that it’s pretty ideological. Thing is, though, when it comes to labor stuff, you gotta have a pretty clear ideology about things. You gotta be laser focused as an advocate, not as a steward or public figure. Mavin Miller didn’t care if anyone liked him. I’m guessing no one asked him for his autograph or invited him to an Old Timers day or to appear at a baseball card show. In my view, the union needs more wonks and fewer jocks.
In any event, interesting times ahead for the MLBPA and for Tony Clark.