Pat Caputo: Tony Clark, The Tigers And Why He Presents Hope MLB Returns

Clark, the MLB Players Association Executive Director, is at the core of baseball’s possible return during the pandemic.

Pat Caputo
May 13, 2020 - 9:30 am
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It was dusk at Tiger Stadium. General manager Bill Lajoie stood outside the hitting cage watching as his off-season acquisition Cecil Fielder repeatedly bombed batting practice pitches deep into the upper deck.

He turned to a reporter nearby and said: “I was in San Diego to see this kid. He hasn’t played much baseball and is raw, but he’s a switch hitter with power like that.”

The Tigers held the second overall pick in the upcoming 1990 MLB Draft.

“Going take him?” the reporter asked.

Lajoie raised his eyebrows and walked away.

Sure enough, a few weeks later, the Tigers selected the player from San Diego with the second overall selection.

His name: Tony Clark.

Clark, the MLB Players Association Executive Director, is at the core of baseball’s possible return during the pandemic. To understand him in his current position, it’s helpful to know about his stint with the Tigers.

Clark went through baseball’s bargaining process early. Subsequently, he understood at an early age what is presented as honey by owners is sometimes toxic for players. You know, like the term “revenue sharing” being code for “salary cap.” Baseball is the only major team professional sport without either. It figures to be a sticking point in MLB’s proposal.

Clark’s negotiation with the Tigers was not smooth. Neither was the early portion of his career. There was a time when he appeared on the path to becoming one of the biggest draft busts in MLB history.

Clark was far more well-known as a basketball player. On today’s rating list, he would have been no less than a 4-star, maybe even a 5-star. At 6-foot-8, 205 pounds, Clark averaged more than 43 points per game as a high school senior. He signed with the University of Arizona, one of the top programs in the nation at time, to play basketball.

Clark’s father, Arthur, drove a hard bargain with the Tigers. Clark was allowed to play basketball. He received a $500,000 signing bonus, nearly double that of future Hall of Farmer Chipper Jones ($275,000), the first overall selection that year by Atlanta. The Tigers had never given a draft pick more than $175,000 (Kirk Gibson 1978). It was the largest signing bonus presented to a high school prospect the first 26 years of the MLB Draft.

Clark subsequently hit .164 with just a home run in 80 plate appearances in rookie ball. He played only five games for Arizona’s basketball team, leaving the program early his freshmen season and eventually transferring to San Diego State where he averaged 11.4 points in  28 games over two seasons before turning to baseball full time.

Clark developed back issues, which hindered his progress in both sports.

Arthur Clark, a strong-willed naval officer, remained outspoken, though. He was perceived as a helicopter dad by many in the Tigers’ organization, although those of us who talked to him at the time understood it wasn’t true. He was just a vehement defender of his son’s rights and options.

Tony Clark dealt with frustration exceptionally well. He was wise beyond his years.

He worked through his persistent back issues to have a solid MLB career. Clark hit 30 or more home runs four times. He twice drove in more than 100 runs. Clark played in an All Star Game and hit 251 home runs as a 12.3 WAR player during 15 seasons. The Tigers left him exposed to waivers after 2000 and the Red Sox picked him up. Tigers’ fans used to lament that Clark did his best work after games were decided. It seemed to be true, but he was a contributing role player on several contending teams after leaving Detroit.

Given the fickle nature of the baseball draft, Clark wasn’t exactly a bust. He had an .857 OPS as a Tiger.

More importantly in regard to his current role, Clark was an outstanding teammate. He was a calm, yet strong voice of reason in the clubhouse. “Trusted” would probably be the best word to describe Clark.

There was plenty of grumbling among the rank and file Clark gave in too much during the 2016 Collective Bargain Agreement. Organizations have played cost-cutting games with service time. Analytics have put many clubs in rebuilding mode which is perceived as tanking. It’s left a glut of veteran free agents often unable to get anticipated value or without jobs.

Clark is in a precarious spot. The players need their money. Most are nowhere close to the top of the pay scale. The challenge of ensuring health while resuming baseball during the pandemic is massive. The owners set players up as potential villains with their revenue sharing rhetoric. It won’t be simple for Clark to control the narrative.

But Tony Clark has the background for it starting at a young age with the Tigers. He has the demeanor and experience to handle it, too.

Clark is not the type to back down, but he is reasonable. Hopefully, MLB will be, too.