From early on, union head Clark destined to lead
Ex-big leaguer seized baseball opportunity after injury ended basketball career
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Reality set in for Tony Clark in the summer of 1992.
Clark's college basketball career in limbo because of a back injury his freshman year at Arizona, he had returned to baseball after that injury forced him to miss the 1991 season. And on an off-day, Larry Parrish, his manager at short-season Class A Niagara Falls, took Clark to Cooperstown to tour the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
"You have the ability that you could be in here someday," Parrish is reported to have told Clark.
The praise was nice, but what hit home was an exhibit on the Negro Leagues.
"It changed my perspective and gave me a clear idea of what I had to do," Clark said. "You hear stories, but it was there that I started to realize what Jackie Robinson and the other men had done so unselfishly. It was when I realized my responsibility was not only as a player but as someone who could build off the opportunities others created for my generation to help generations that follow me."
A longtime player rep during his big league career, which ended with his July 2009 release by Arizona, Clark went to work for the Major League Baseball Players Association. After the death of MLBPA executive director Michael Weiner last November, Clark was a unanimous choice to assume the role of executive director, the first former player to hold that position.
Clark never backed down from a challenge. He was active in student government in high school and junior high school, although when he got to college, "I didn't have a lot of time. I was a full-time student, played basketball and in the summer played baseball."
Back in Clark's high school days, his long-term expectation was basketball, and few people questioned his focus.
"I was a 6-foot-7 guard," said Clark, who broke Bill Walton's San Diego-area high school single-season scoring record.
Clark's career plans, however, changed drastically after a scrimmage in the first week of practice his freshman year at the University of Arizona. Clark went up for a rebound, his foot landing on a teammate as he came down, causing Clark to make a sudden twist and suffer a back injury. He tried to play through the injury that year, but the pain never disappeared.
Clark had to sit out the baseball season in 1991, and he transferred after his freshman year to San Diego State, where Jim Brandenburg was his basketball coach.
"I had recruited him out of high school, too," said Brandenburg, who coached Montana and Wyoming before San Diego State. "He was a heck of a baseball player, a power-hitting switch-hitter, but he was even better in basketball.
"He could go six, eight inches above the top of the rectangle [top of the backboard]. He was so athletic, so smooth he could play any of the positions on the court, and could have done it in the NBA if he had been healthy."
The back, however, never allowed Clark to reach his potential in basketball. It also impacted his baseball career, but he still spent all or part of 15 seasons in the big leagues. Clark was an American League All-Star in 2001 and played in the postseason with the Yankees in '04 and D-backs in '07. He finished his career with a .262 average, 251 home runs and 824 RBIs.
"No regrets," Clark said. "I enjoyed my career."
Clark was called up by Detroit in 1995. He had been with Triple-A Toledo in 1994 when the players went out on strike, resulting in cancellation of the World Series and a delay to the start of the 1995 season.
That was the last work stoppage in baseball.
When the current agreement expires after the 2016 season, baseball will have enjoyed 21 years without a work stoppage, the longest current stretch of any team sport.
Clark knows that will be his first major challenge. Weiner had been the prime negotiator for the players during the peaceful term, and there is a universal feeling that Weiner and MLB chief operating officer and head negotiator Rob Manfred developed a good working relationship.
"I was at the table as an active player and in each bargaining session since I retired, so Rob and I have a relationship," said Clark, who became a player rep his second year in the big leagues. "Any time there is respect between the opposing sides, it works in everyone's best interest. You go into every negotiation looking for an agreement, but you also know who you represent and you have to make sure you have their best interest at stake."
It's about leadership, a quality that Clark has long possessed. He remained a leader on the court and on the field.
"When he was a kid, he had that aura," Brandenburg said. "He was very intelligent and very personable. The other kids would always look to him to see how he reacted."
They weren't disappointed.
Clark was all about taking care of business.
And he still is.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.