The Major League Baseball Players Association has its offices on the 24th floor of a gleaming glass skyscraper at 12 E. 49th Street, in the heart of midtown Manhattan, just around the corner from the Commissioner’s offices on bustling Park Avenue. Spend some time lingering outside the Association’s steel-columned steps, and you’re likely as not to see just the folks you expect to see heading in and out of the building: old labor hands raised on tales tall and short of Marvin Miller’s legendary two decades as union boss, hard-bitten union attorneys trained in every detail of employee-side labor law brought on board during the Don Fehr era, and maybe even a few folks who joined the Association during Michael Weiner’s tragically short tenure at the top of the org chart.
What you won’t see, though, is much sign of Tony Clark’s signature hires as executive director of the Association. That’s because they’re at the ballpark.
The Association has always heavily involved players in its governance, of course — it is, after all, their union — but generally speaking only through the old player-representative/executive-subcommittee structure established in the 1960s, and not in the form of retired players actually on staff. Marvin Miller came from steel organizing, and the resumes of staff at the Association have, until recently, been populated heavily by previous work in the world of organized labor — folks coming out of the National Labor Relations Board or from other unions — and not necessarily work in baseball itself. Only in the waning days of Weiner’s leadership (with Clark as his deputy) did the Association really begin to seek out and hire former players to help advance and shape its work.
That process has accelerated significantly under Clark’s directorship. He is himself a former player, of course. If you glance around pretty much any spring-training camp these days — and a fair number of regular-season clubhouses besides — you may well see a broad-chested baseball man there off to the side, perhaps graying at the temples a little, taking some 23-year-old kid under his wing and teaching him the ways of the union. Bobby Bonilla. José Cruz. Steve Rogers. Javier Vázquez for international work. Phil Bradley, Jeffrey Hammonds, and Mike Myers, too. These are the men Clark has tasked with serving as the Association’s primary faces on the field, and its principal communicators with and to a membership that seems increasingly to have reason to be restive.
“They act kind of like a field organizer would in a typical union,” said a Players Association spokesman who declined to be named for this story. “Their job is to stay close in contact with all the guys on the 25-man roster [of the teams to which they’re assigned], and keep a constant communication going with them.” That’s an especially critical task for this union at this moment, because unlike most labor unions, this one doesn’t have a single factory floor or break room upon which to fall back as a natural meeting ground or organizing space. It just has its members, scattered far and wide at ballparks around the country. That presents obvious logistical difficulties.
And so the Association tries to stay in contact with the players as often as possible, in one way or another. During each winter’s Rookie Development Program, the Association makes a presentation which typically begins with MLBPA staff asking each player present to take out their phones and download the MLBPA app (rated for users ages four and up in the App store), which contains modules on player rights, health information, news and events, polls, a league calendar, and messaging — all in English or Spanish, as the player chooses. It isn’t clear how many players actually use the app regularly, but it’s clear that the Association is doing what it can to reach an audience that includes many who weren’t yet born when the last major baseball work stoppage took place. Sometimes a mass email just won’t cut it, and so the Association is trying to meet its members where they are.
Which is on their phones. Indeed, much of the Association’s contact with its members — certainly contact between special assistants and players — is by text. The Association’s highest-visibility moments, of course, come every five years or so during the yearlong negotiating process over the next collective bargaining agreement. But the public focus on those periods obscures the routine but no less important work the union’s employees do every day to enforce the provisions of those agreements once negotiated. Players text about anything and everything: per diems, health insurance, moving expenses, agent certification, on-field grievances — you name it, and the Association has probably gotten a text about it. If a special assistant — those are the former players — can’t handle a question, it’s referred to one of the many, many attorneys on staff, who can generally advise the player on the matter moving forward.
In many ways, then, the Association has moved well beyond the days when Marvin Miller would drop a well-placed quote in the New York Times or the AP to get a message out to his players. And the executive subcommittee — which consists of Jerry Blevins, Cory Gearrin, Paul Goldschmidt, Chris Iannetta, Collin McHugh, Andrew Miller, and Daniel Murphy — meets far more frequently now, in calls and meetings around the country, than it has in previous decades. But despite all the technology, the gold standard was then — and remains now — in-person communication, and that’s why Clark and his assistants spend most of the season traveling from big-league city to big-league city meeting with the membership, sometimes essentially at the drop of a hat, trying to keep their fingers on the pulse of what’s going on in their membership and how they can best support its needs.
The Association declined to discuss details of its meetings with members of each of the 30 clubs during spring training this year, which reports characterized as unusually engaged after the long, slow offseason. But it is pleased with the work of its special assistants, whom the Association feels are — generally speaking — better positioned, as former players, to relate to issues of concern to current players and to maintain player-to-player relationships on a continuous and informal basis. It seems a reasonable enough assumption.
“Having those guys out in the field,” said the PA spokesman,” where the players can see them, and where they’re visible and are having an ongoing discussion with [the players] — I think that has done wonders for us in terms of communication.” Maintaining those links — from the union with information, resources, and bargaining strategies; to the union with concerns, requests, and advocacy — seems quite likely to be critical for the Association as it enters what has the potential to be one of its most consequential half-decades in recent memory.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness. By night he tweets.