Opinion: Union chief Tony Clark still optimistic MLB will play games in some way in 2020

Tony Clark, sitting in his Phoenix-area home Wednesday morning, looks at his cellphone, sees Jackie Robinson’s picture as his screen saver, and reads the immortal words again.

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.’’

Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, recognizes and embraces his vital responsibility during this coronavirus pandemic that has shut down baseball and the rest of the sports world.

He impacts not only the lives of his own three children but also every professional baseball player, from Mike Trout to kids his 17-year-old son’s age. They’re relying on his guidance, wisdom and support at an unprecedented time. 

Clark knows how badly the players want to return to the field and start the 2020 season. He hears all of the ruminations of different scenarios, but he knows no plan can be seriously discussed, let alone presented to his own players, until COVID-19 is under control.

“Everything centers around two things,’’ Clark told USA TODAY Sports in an expansive telephone interview, “the amount of testing available and a vaccine. And how it can be mitigated in the public arena as much as the professional arena.

 “And it can’t be at the expense of public testing.’’

Clark was on a 30-minute telephone call last week with MLB officials discussing the possibility of all 30 teams quarantined and playing in Phoenix. He also has listened to the idea of radical realignment with teams playing games at their own spring training complexes in Florida and Arizona. Teams playing games alone at domed major league stadiums. Or even in Japan.

Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark

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It’s frivolous talk at this point. There’s nothing to discuss now. The coronavirus will let everyone know when a time comes to seriously discuss various options.

“We don’t have the answers,’’ Clark said, “and we don’t expect those to come anytime soon.’’

It’s impossible to know what will ultimately happen, but it’s premature to agonize over the various scenarios, Clark says, without knowing  which players would be willing to be separated from their families, let alone agreeing to pay cuts for the loss of revenue playing in empty stadiums.

“It would be premature to have that discussion,’’ Clark said. “I’m not going to negotiate through the media.’’

While players are mixed on the idea of being separated from their families – with stars such as Los Angeles Dodgers’ Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and Angels’ MVP Mike Trout resisting the idea – Clark said no discussions have transpired on the feasibility of playing games without some of the game’s biggest names.

“We’re still a ways from that,’’ Clark said. “There have been a lot of ideas thrown out there, but not much to the depth of them. Once we find ourselves in discussions with the league in terms of options and variations, we in turn can present those ideas to the players, and the players can decide what makes most sense.

“But for now, there’s simply too many assumptions being made what it’s going to look like.’’

The only thing understood in his conversations with players is they would be willing to play in empty stadiums, providing it’s safe, with testing procedures in place that are also available to the general public.

“It’s not ideal,’’ Clark said. “Playing in an empty stadium would be a different animal, with different looks, different sounds, and a different feel. But everyone understands and appreciates the world we are in right now. The challenges are real, and if that requires not playing in front of fans, the adjustment is part of it.

“But knowing we can bring the game to the fans, having them watch the broadcasts, is valuable, too.’’

Clark, who has constant dialogue with medical experts, along with executives from sports unions across the world, is cautiously optimistic there will be baseball in 2020. How long of a season, how it looks and what infrastructure changes will be made is anyone’s guess.

“Folks are missing our game, that’s the thing I hear daily,’’ said Clark, a former 15-year All-Star first baseman. “There’s a love for our game and respect for our game. Speaking to our experts and speaking to other unions across the world, we’re seeing how they are navigating, experiencing and sharing ideas.

“I’m a glass half-full guy anyways, but as I sit here on April 15, Jackie Robinson Day, I continue to remain optimistic that the possibility of playing still exists.’’

Clark shared the heartache with his son, Aeneas, whose high school season was canceled. Clark’s wife, Frances, and son moved back from New York to Phoenix during Aeneas’ junior year simply to provide a better opportunity to play collegiate baseball. Clark would fly cross-country every weekend to be with them. Now, just after watching his son strike out 11 batters in a complete-game performance, their potential championship season was canceled, and likely his high school graduation ceremony, too.

“It’s been tough, a challenge for everyone,’’ says Clark, who recently visited his 70-year-old mother, talking only through a screen door.

Clark says the uplifting component of this crisis is the response by players. He sees Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, catcher Martin Maldonado and others donating $3 million in medical equipment to Puerto Rico. He sees Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo donating daily meals to Chicago nurses. He sees Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright donating $250,000 to help minor leaguers pay bills and provide for their families.

“It is tremendous, and it has been consistent,’’ Clark said. “Our guys do this routinely, and I’m glad attention is being drawn to it. The players recognize the impact they have, nationally and globally, and they’re focused on helping the best way they can.’’

Who knows, maybe the difficulty Major League Baseball has had marketing its players will be eased, with players donating their time and money, others interacting through video games, with everyone in this together.

“The dynamic of player and fan engagement is critical on whatever happens next in our industry,’’ Clark said. “Our players have always had the desire to engage with the public, with the fans, and now more people are seeing that. There’s an opportunity now and moving forward that we can have dialogue and come to an understanding what should happen for the betterment of the game.’’

Now, more than ever, MLB and the players can experiment with ideas this season, whether a different way to determine the outcome in extra-inning games, seven- or eight-inning doubleheaders, realignment or even tinkering with the game’s fundamental rules.

“Lord willing, we find ourselves on the baseball field,’’ Clark said, “this year will always be different than anything we experienced in the past. There’s an opportunity to talk about all of those things. Guys are willing to engage and talk about change, especially in the backdrop of what baseball is navigating.’’

In the meantime, Clark and his players can only pray for a return to normalcy, where it’s safe for fans to gather once again, see their favorite teams and be entertained by the best ballplayers in the world.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done,’’ Clark said, “with an eye on health and safety. There is so much out of our control, but what we can control is educating ourselves.

 “The players are staying prepared, they’ve been engaged across every clubhouse, and when it’s safe to play baseball again, our players will be ready and can hit the ground running.’’

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