'We want to play,' but focus is on MLB players' health and safety, union chief Tony Clark says

Union chief Tony Clark, the players' association and baseball owners can't seem to get past their differences and make a deal happen. MLBPA

Tony Clark was first familiar to fans from his playing days as a switch-hitting slugger, hitting 251 home runs over a 15-year career in the majors. During his career, he became active in the Major League Baseball Players Association, including being a team player representative. He moved into a full-time role with the union in 2010, and was elected as the first former player to become its executive director in December 2013. He was leader of the players' association during negotiations for the current collective bargaining agreement with MLB in 2016, which expires on Dec. 1, 2021.

With questions about player and fan safety during the coronavirus pandemic, the status of the 2020 season and a future deal beyond 2021 all yet to be determined, ESPN's Marly Rivera caught up with the union chief last week to find out where the players' association stands and how he has responded to the unprecedented challenge of the pandemic as one of the industry's leaders, as a former player and as the father of a ballplayer.

How has the pandemic affected you personally and your family?

Tony Clark: We've been very fortunate to not have my immediate family or even extended family test positive and experience the challenges and loss that come from contracting the virus. We're very fortunate in that regard. I remember in 2001 as a player when 9/11 happened, being separated from my family during that time. That was remarkably difficult. This time, although I am physically separated from our two oldest daughters who are in Charlotte, North Carolina, and in Dallas, respectively, I am with my wife and my high school son. I take some solace in that.

Regarding your son, Aeneas, who is a high school baseball player, how is he dealing with this as a student-athlete?

Clark: It's challenging. I think any young person, even if he or she is just a student, particularly when they are a student or an athlete in their senior year, they come into that year with lofty expectations and hopes and plans ahead of stepping out of the nest and into college or into the workforce. This pandemic has changed those plans. My son is dealing with it as you might anticipate any senior student-athlete or student is dealing with it, uncertain about tomorrow, upset about the near-term changes to school in general and changes to the athletic season, but attempting to stay positive throughout.

I am glad to be able to spend time with him and my wife during this window of time, providing support, tangible or otherwise, as he chooses what tomorrow looks like as best he can for continuing his athletic career as well as his academic career. But he is challenged like all young people who are concerned about tomorrow and uncertain with what's going to come out today as a result of what we're experiencing.

I know it's a broad question, but what has been the biggest challenge in terms of your responsibilities, leading the MLBPA during this unprecedented time?

Clark: To make sure that we stay engaged with our membership and access expertise and experience in the areas that we need to in order to provide substance to that engagement. The uncertainty is the challenge; the unknown is the challenge.

As ballplayers, we're used to putting together a game plan and doing our best to execute that game plan, most of which is under our control. In addition, we're used to starting our season at a particular time and used to being busy during a six-month period that is our regular season, and then having an offseason in preparation for the next year. All of that is in question. Not to mention the support that we often provide for our families, immediate and extended. In a time when millions are out of work, ballplayers are experiencing a lot of those same things. And that's the challenge.

Even as you provide information and updates and engage players, you still don't know yet a definitive date on the calendar when things might return to some level of normalcy. You continue to work through it as best you can while remaining available to answer as many questions as you can, even if there aren't answers to them all.

How are you staying engaged with your membership when you -- and all the union reps -- are used to being around the players day in and day out? In a practical manner, how do you stay engaged?

Clark: It's a different challenge and one that requires adjustments so that you can continue to engage. Technology provides a lot of those forums and formats to do so. Whereas we are not able to have face-to-face interactions, we focus on individual calls or conference calls or texts or emails or daily briefs, along with communication with the agent community, so there is a three-way method of communication that's consistent, there's continuity in the messaging. All of that has to be taken into account during unprecedented times, particularly the one that we're in right now.

How do you deal with this new part of your job description as a leader, helping players to deal with that anxiety when facing the unknown?

Clark: It goes back to helping them to handle uncertainty. In the world we compete in, there is more certainty and control. While being in an atmosphere that is beyond your control, we have to anticipate what type of support and engagement players need. Our group is very diverse, which means there are language components to it as well. We have to do our best to communicate often and substantively with all of our players. There are often going to be misses, where emails end up in spam folders and texts go to wrong numbers, and those types of things happen. But you remain diligent in that engagement. While in the past that may have been once a week or biweekly or even monthly depending on the topic or issue, now we have extensive daily communications.

If sports are a reflection of a healthy society, how does one strike the balance that returning to baseball is important, but not above health and safety? How do you serve your membership and keep that perspective?

Clark: It is a very delicate balance. We've had some experience, either as players or as a media group or even as an industry as a whole, navigating historical challenges; this one is different. You attempt to keep your finger on the pulse of your individual communities. You keep your finger on the pulse of what's going on in your state and federally. You keep your finger on the pulse of what's going on internationally and watching how certain folks are responding to the same situation. Some folks are further down the road than we are. Some folks are further behind than we are.

If you understand that there may never be a perfect time or that you may not be able to align yourself with that perfect time, you take in all the information that you have, you put all the safety measures in place that you can and you make the best decision you can at that time, with the hope that when the first pitch is thrown that it is indeed the right time. That folks are in a position to tune in, watch, and have a respite from the challenges that we all know exist beyond our front door right now.

It is a delicate balance. It always has been. This one is different or includes different moving pieces into the equation. We'll continue to work internally against the backdrop of all the information and experience we can gather, and then hope to be able to work alongside the league to find that right spot in time to get us back on the field. And we do hope it is sooner rather than later.

Heading into a CBA year, how has working together through this crisis affected your relationship with commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB?

Clark: The lines of communication have remained open even during the challenging windows that we've had, and there will undoubtedly be more. I can tell you that in the nearest term and in the foreseeable future, the lines of communication are open, and as long as they are open, there's an opportunity to work through and try and find common ground despite our differences.

I've heard from a lot of players, and you've seen some of the comments out there from stars like Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, who have spoken out against some of the proposals to resume play. Quoting Carlos Correa, he told me he doesn't believe the right plan to bring baseball back is out there yet. Is there a proposal out there that seems to have the best chance?

Clark: Despite all that has been floated and all the rhetoric that is out there, we have not received anything formal that details an actual plan. To Carlos' point, unless or until we see and receive an actual proposal with a plan or plans -- because my guess is there's going to need to be flexibility in whatever is going to be considered -- it's all assumptions. It lends itself to the uncertainty because there's a lot of ideations, but not any substance behind them just yet.

I don't know that there is a definitive plan yet. We continue to engage our experts to best appreciate a number of the logistics and challenges associated with playing in this climate, in this atmosphere. Unless or until we receive something and are able to work through it, anything out there is just a best guess at this point.

We want to play. As players, we want to play. As these ideas find their way into mainstream media, there are some ideas that seem to make sense, there are others that don't track very well. All of them are being viewed against the backdrop of getting back on the field and affording our guys an opportunity to do what they love to do. At this point, it's unfortunate that there are things that keep finding their way into the conversation and are being represented as proposals when they aren't.

We have to provide fact and separate that fact from fiction and do so daily at this point in order to make sure that players have a reference point that they can inquire about or a line of communication that they can reach out to to confirm what it is that they are hearing or not confirm it.

Can you describe the language negotiated last month when it comes to players' compensation?

Clark: We have an agreement in place that speaks to a reduction in player salaries in a season that's less than 162 games. That agreement is in place. Any further discussion, then the league has the ability to make additional proposals against the backdrop of situations that may have been contemplated in the initial agreement but are different or may be different moving forward, and we have the ability to respond.

Having said that, we've talked a lot today about health and safety. That is going to be the biggest challenge. That is where the focal point of any discussion moving forward needs to be. That's what we will be focused on. We'll see whether or to what extent the league is focused on something different. Our position is that with respect to player salaries, we've had that discussion already. Our focus now is on health and safety moving forward.

Is it fair to say that your membership will not come to an agreement to start the 2020 season if they don't feel that the necessary preventive measures are in place?

Clark: It would be difficult for us or our experts, in a scenario where risk is not mitigated significantly, to make that recommendation. That's why we have the folks working with us in force in the fashion that we do, so that we can find ways to do exactly that.

Can you comment on how much discussions about a new CBA have been part of the current discussions about resuming play?

Clark: There have been no discussions about a new CBA as part of the resumption of play for 2020.

You have seen comments out there from some of the top agents, who don't seem to agree with a lot of things that the union has agreed to. How does that relationship with the agent community play out in this crisis?

Clark: We remain in contact with our agent community. There are often going to be disagreements, but more often than not there is agreement in what are the best interests of those that we represent.

Do you think we can create a playing environment that's safe from infection? Do you think it's possible?

Clark: We are working with experts and anticipate working with the league to mitigate as much risk as possible. But those discussions have not been had formally yet.

During the discussions that you've had with MLB, have you discussed what would happen if an active player gets infected after returning to play?

Clark: We have discussed it and will continue to.

How do you deal with liability? Has that been resolved or is that part of the discussion? If a team opens for business and someone gets the coronavirus ...

Clark: That is an ongoing discussion as well.