Tony Clark was a pretty good basketball player. back in the day. So good, in fact, that the Detroit Tigers could select him with the second pick of the 1990 MLB draft — right behind Hall of Famer Chipper Jones — but could not sign him without letting him play college basketball in the winter.
In 1994, Clark put down his basketball. In his first full minor league season, he hit 23 home runs and drove in 99 runs. He finished in triple A, and in any other year might have been promoted to the major leagues when rosters expanded in September.
No one was promoted that September. The season ended in August.
On Aug. 12, 1994, the players went out on strike, rather than accede to the owners’ demand for a salary cap. The strike ended the next April, after 232 days, and the players had successfully resisted the cap.
Clark made his major league debut in 1995, the first of his 15 seasons. None were interrupted by a work stoppage. Now, as the possibility of a strike or lockout looms as large as it has at any time since 1994, Clark is the executive director of the players union.
On the other side of the bargaining table, representing the owners: Rob Manfred, the commissioner. In 1994, Manfred worked for a law firm, advising the owners.
“It was a really difficult time for the game,” Manfred told The Times. “I think it was the one time in our modern history that the game actually took a step backward.”
It also was the one time in modern history the World Series was called off. For the Montreal Expos, the team with the best record in 1994, the road to the World Series turned into the road to extinction.
In 1994, the average attendance was a then-record 31,256. It was not until 2004 — the first year in which players could be suspended for testing positive for steroids, after almost a decade of a drug-fueled home run derby — that the average attendance again topped 30,000.
That average dropped back below 30,000 in 2017. The average in 2019 also is on pace to fall for the sixth time in seven seasons, which could make a strike or lockout particularly ominous.
“I’m pretty confident we’re smart enough not to take another step backward,” Manfred said.
Manfred played a role in the labor war of 1994, but many of the owners he represents now did not own teams then.
Clark was a minor leagueplayer, and many players he now represents were not alivethen.
Is Manfred confident that all parties involved are informed enough about the ill effects of 1994 to avoid a strike?
“It’s certainly true on our side,” he said. “I hope it is on theirs.”
Clark said he believes there is an opportunity to resolve the current issues without a labor war. But he also said the lessons of 1994 go beyond baseball taking a big step back.
“It was one of the most challenging times in our history,” Clark told The Times. “But when you believe in a fundamental level of fairness and rights, and that is the reason you are willing to take a stand, there are going to be repercussions — some near-term, some longer-term. So I can appreciate that it was difficult. It wasn’t pretty.
“Owners were looking to declare an impasse, replace major league players with scabs, and force a salary-cap system on us. From that early point in my career, I understood there are always challenges when you sit down to negotiate.”
The current collective bargaining agreement does not expire until after the 2021 season, but the two sides met last month in an unusually early start for labor talks. The union presented some concepts — bargaining would be an overstatement — because it is the party most interested in change.
The owners are generating more revenue than ever. At the same time, the promise of the current system — a player must play six years to reach free agency and potentially strike it rich — has been undermined by analytical data that shows older players too often have been paid too much for past performance.
The result: the dozens of older free agents offered relative dimes on the dollar over the past two winters, or cast aside entirely.
The aggravating factor: teams playing for the future, eliminating jobs for veterans while saving millions of dollars.
The possible solution: reconstructing player compensation so higher wages go to the players analytics say tend to be most productive, the younger players whose salaries now are dictated by the team for the first three years, then subject to the decision of an arbitrator for another three.
The details of any such solution will not be easy to agree upon. At risk: Twenty-five years of labor peace.
Which, while desirable, is not foremost on the minds of negotiators. Clark recalled something his predecessor, the late Michael Weiner, told him.
“Your goal is not labor peace,” Clark said. “It’s to find a fair and equitable deal.”
In 1994-1995, finding that deal took a prolonged strike that turned off fans, emptied the October calendar, cost players shots at record-breaking seasons, and invited unqualified replacement players to work through spring training.
The cost of that strike is a great deterrent for a repeat in two years. Let the negotiations commence.