WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Tony Clark, head of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, visits every club every spring. Those meetings can run long, sometimes topping two hours, depending on the list of topics that need to be discussed.
This morning, Clark and his associates with the players’ union, walked into the Astros clubhouse at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and did not emerge until nearly four hours had passed.
Suffice it to say, this was no ordinary spring training meeting, and the topic that dominated the conversation was the scandal that has engulfed the baseball world like few others have in the history of the sport.
“The four hours’ worth of dialogue presented us an opportunity to discuss all kinds of moving pieces,” Clark said in a 17-minute session with reporters afterward. “And I can tell you that how we left this meeting was in the exact place we needed to leave it.”
Where does this whole conversation need to be left right now, though? That’s a complicated question, because the concerns of those inside the Astros clubhouse are vastly different than the concerns of those inside 29 other clubhouses today.
Astros players, who have spent this spring apologizing for cheating during the 2017 regular season and postseason by electronically stealing opponents’ signs and defending themselves for actions they don’t believe crossed the line, right now want the whole story to go away. They want to focus on the upcoming season.
They also want to make sure they’re personally protected from any responses - verbal or physical - that could be forthcoming from the opposing dugout, the stands or the Internet.
Several Houston players told reporters this afternoon they’ve received death threats in the last few weeks. Clark said the union has been in conversations with Major League Baseball about addressing those threats.
“There’s no doubt making sure that making our players and their families are able to go to and from the ballpark and perform safely is a huge piece of the puzzle,” he said.
On the field, the Astros have spent the last week reading and hearing from players on other clubs who suggest they will intentionally throw at them this season, on top of the overwhelming vitriol that has been hurled at them for their illegal actions during a championship season.
Clark and his union represent all major leaguers, which means they at times they are trying to protect both the players who engaged in the cheating scandal and those who are furious at those players for doing what they did and then insufficiently apologizing for their actions.
“We don’t gag our players,” the union chief said. “That’s not something we’ve ever done. But we do have, and will continue to have, conversations with guys among the comments they do offer. That’s something we always have done and will continue to do.”
Clark has only just begun meeting with players this spring. He was at Mets camp Wednesday. He was scheduled to meet with the Nationals, Marlins and Cardinals together at an off-site location in West Palm Beach this afternoon. He has many more stops to make across Florida and Arizona over the next month.
Does he believe there will be unity among players from all teams come opening day?
“I think we’re going to be all right when the dust settles, I really do,” he said. “And based on what has been told to me already, I’m pretty confident in that.”
Clark believes unity is possible in part by taking the Astros scandal and expanding it out into a larger area of concern many players have right now: the increased use of technology in baseball.
The Houston sign-stealing scandal was perpetrated by a front office well known for using analytics more than any other organization in the sport. Clark views this is as merely one example of clubs prioritizing analytics at the expense of the humans who play the game.
The union sees this issue showing up in areas such as the manipulation of players’ big league service time, placement on the injured list and a style of play on the field that sometimes goes against players’ wishes. Clark lumps all of these things together in what he describes as a “club culture” that overemphasizes metrics and the desire to be efficient above all else.
“This culture that exists against the backdrop of technology is manifesting itself in a way where you’ve heard me over the last few years say we need to have a conversation about what our game is and what it looks like,” Clark said.
“If we’re just talking about replay rooms, we’re not addressing all the issues that need to be addressed,” he added.
Those issues may need to be addressed, but those are big picture issues. At this moment, the focus around baseball is entirely on the Astros, how they cheated in 2017, whether they were still cheating in 2018 and 2019 and how they’re dealing with the ramifications of all of this.
“The guys are understanding. And you’re heard them apologize with regards to 2017,” Clark said. “They acknowledge the concerns that seem to be out there with respect to 2018-19. And the guys are wholeheartedly focused on making sure that themselves and players on other teams and our game in general, whatever conversations we need to have with the other side to make sure our game is in a better place moving forward, that we have those.”