The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Tony Clark made his way from the ballfield to the board room

Tony Clark traveled an unusual path to become the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association but is proving to be the perfect fit for the job. (Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press)

NEW YORK – Maybe Tony Clark wouldn’t be here, in the corner office with the bustle of midtown Manhattan 24 floors below, had he not gone up for a rebound that day in practice, snared the basketball, twisted his ankle and wrenched his back, the beginning of the end of his promising career on the hardwood. Maybe he wouldn’t be here, with his shirt pressed and the knot of his tie right up to his throat, had he not been so athletically gifted that he was a first-round draft choice in baseball – heck, the second overall pick, right behind Chipper Jones – despite the fact that he played maybe 35 high school games.

And maybe he wouldn’t be here, heading into his first bargaining season as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, if not for a middle-of-the-night, sit-up-in-bed moment when he woke his wife and said: “I know what it is I’m supposed to do.”

There is a clarity about Clark, a this-is-how-it-is plain-spokenness that makes him seem, now, a natural for the job, not in small part because his 6-foot-7 frame and baritone cadence have long made heads turn and mouths stop. Yet with negotiations between the union and Major League Baseball on a new collective bargaining agreement due to begin this spring, his has been, in some ways, an unlikely path to this job, a path paved by tragedy and, Clark believes, divine intervention.

Baseball’s union, widely regarded as the most successful of the major sports, had been led by titans of labor law; Marvin Miller to Donald Fehr to Michael Weiner. A former player never before sat in the big chair. Clark could have enjoyed a comfortable retirement in Arizona, playing father to his three kids and husband to his wife and doing some television work – baseball, sure, but his first love of basketball, too.

“I thought he’d do the broadcasting thing, honestly,” said Damion Easley, a former teammate and one of Clark’s best friends from his playing days. “It seemed like such a good fit.”

Clark speaks precisely. The camera liked him. But those who know him also understand that such work would have left his other talents untapped.

“There are few people in any group who seem to have the respect of the others, who seem to be able to command a room from time to time, who are sought out for views on all kinds of things,” said Fehr, MLBPA’s head from 1985-2009 who now leads hockey’s union. “Tony always impressed me as someone who had that effect on other players from a relatively young age. … Of the players I’ve had occasion to know and work with, does it surprise me that he would be interested, that he would be really good at it? No, that doesn’t surprise me at all.”

Clark, then, might be the most surprised that he is in this spot. “Had no interest in it,” he said, sitting in his office earlier this month.

Yet the foundation for what he is doing now — galvanizing a membership of 1,200 with the CBA due to expire in December — and how he is doing it, with education and communication, was laid not only in his playing career, but before. After beginning his athletic career at the University of Arizona on a basketball scholarship, Clark played minor-league baseball in the summer only because the Detroit Tigers took him in the 1990 draft. He was becoming a first baseman, not a small forward. But it was job, not a passion.

“I really looked at it and even joked that I was a basketball player in a baseball uniform,” Clark said. He had no appreciation for the work it took to excel in baseball, little understanding of the game’s history. But after the back injury during his freshman season at Arizona slowed his development in basketball, he transferred to San Diego St. Slowly, he grasped that baseball was his path to a future. He made his major-league debut in the 1995 season – the season that started late because of the strike that had wiped out the 1994 World Series – and by 1997, shared the job of Tigers’ union representative with Easley.

That status, at age 25, serves as a window into not only the Tigers’ youthful state at the time, but also as a clue about Clark’s skills. He spent his first few spring trainings quietly listening to Detroit’s veterans, Alan Trammell and Cecil Fielder and Lou Whitaker and Travis Fryman, not just about the issues involved in the labor negotiations, but about baseball in general. When it became his turn to talk, he didn’t do so flippantly.

“Even as a young kid,” said Buddy Bell, then the Tigers’ manager, “the things that came out of his mouth, people would listen because it wasn’t lip service.”

“Tony doesn’t put on public faces,” Fehr said.

When the Tigers were moving into Comerica Park before the 2000 season, club officials were planning on putting the family section down the third base line. Typically, those sections are behind home plate – and therefore behind screens, where people weren’t as susceptible to foul balls. Pitcher C.J. Nitkowski, a teammate of Clark’s in Detroit as well as in the minor leagues, was concerned about the safety of his young family.

“I was furious about it,” Nitkowski said. He drafted a letter to top Tigers’ officials and shared it with Clark.

“He was like, ‘All your points are really great,’” Nitkowski recalled. “‘But you got to soften it a little bit, dude. You’re coming off way too angry.’”

“He had an understanding of the way you approach something like that, even as a player,” Nitkowski said. “He understood the value of being civil and the right way to have that conversation from player to management.”

This is Clark in top form. His father spent 20 years in the Navy and raised his three children as such. So Tony Clark wasn’t a rah-rah player. He wasn’t a fire-and-brimstone leader in the clubhouse.

“Being emotional was something I was taught early, if not controlled, wasn’t going to be beneficial,” Clark said. “I think by that time, I had a greater appreciation for the differences between players and management and the responsibilities therein, such that any conversation that needed to happen between player and management needed to happen on a certain level. If an issue was offered succinctly, if it was offered passionately but grounded in certain principles, that would be the type of language and conversation that could yield benefits for us.”

He had, then, the temperament for the job. But even after he was released by Arizona in July 2009, and it was apparent his career was over after 1,559 games and 251 home runs, it took a call from Weiner with a description of a job heading what Weiner envisioned as a player services department – visiting with clubhouses, outlining the issues in upcoming negotiations, making sure the MLBPA office in New York had a pipeline to the 30 clubhouses across the country, building a staff.

“Mike,” Clark recalled telling Weiner, “I appreciate the thought. I think your vision is right. But I don’t know that I want to commit.”

He went months without calling Weiner back. Broadcasting was comparatively easy. The pay was good. He could spend time with his kids. But in February 2011, he awoke with a start. He in turn stirred his wife.

“I said, ‘The reason I need to take this opportunity is because of the mark that I leave,’” Clark said. “‘I need to know that I did all I can do to make sure that the interests of the guys who are playing are protected, that the guys who played before us are respected and the group that comes next has it better than we did. The union is the only place that I can connect to all three of those entities and provide the kind of support that I would like to try to provide.”

So with that, Clark was back in clubhouses, telling Weiner that his charges weren’t as informed as they should be, arranging small-group lunches to usher in a younger generation of union leadership.

“He’s one of them,” said Dave Prouty, the union’s general counsel. “He’s a player. He talks their language and he knows what it feels like to be on the other side of it because he was for so long listening to the Don Fehrs and Mike Weiner. He knows when he’s got to get real with players.”

Weiner, in turn, knew when to get real with Clark. In the summer of 2012, Weiner was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. In bracing for the unknown, he gathered his senior staff and asked them all to come up with a transition plan should Weiner not survive. Clark declined. Weiner called him into the office.

“He jumped me down one side and up the other,” Clark said. By the end of the conversation, Clark not only had the understanding that Weiner, in his own mind, likely wouldn’t make it, but that Clark might well be his preference as a successor. Prouty, a career labor lawyer and longtime Weiner friend, might have been a more traditional choice given the union’s history. But Prouty and Weiner had a conversation, too, in which each wanted the other to say his choice first.

“I said, ‘Tony Clark,’” Prouty said. “And he said, ‘I 100 percent agree.’”

In Clark’s Manhattan office, behind his desk, there is a picture of Weiner, who died in November 2013, that is signed with a quotation: “Relish your family and friends. Go to ballgames. Whatever you like to do, do it – and cherish those moments.”

Bargaining, certainly, doesn’t seem like a moment to cherish. But Clark will use his position not only to negotiate around the issues that become centerpieces in any round of talks – free agency, arbitration, pension, revenue splits – but to insert into the conversation his own passions. He is not just the first former player to serve as executive director, but he is the first African American, too.

“We have a diversity problem,” Clark said. “More specifically, we have a problem in that we’ve lost generations of young black kids.”

This is an issue Clark figures to speak about in coming months, an issue with which he just might do what he has been doing since he was a young player 20 years ago: command the room.