Inside the cracks at the center of the MLBPA — and what's next

IN THE IMMEDIATE aftermath of the Zoom call Monday night that threw the Major League Baseball Players Association into chaos, a veteran player, stunned at the mutiny that had unfolded in front of him, said to himself, “What the f— was that?” Over nearly three hours, he said, he had witnessed years of pent-up frustration from player leaders unleashed on MLBPA leadership. And one moment at the end of the meeting burned itself into his mind.

Earlier in the afternoon, a coordinated effort by players had unfolded to replace Bruce Meyer, the union’s deputy executive director and lead labor negotiator, with Harry Marino, the lawyer who had organized minor league players who eventually would become members of the MLBPA. Near the end of the call, the matter had been put to an informal poll, and a significant majority of the dozens of players in attendance raised their hands in favor of change. Faced with his hand-picked No. 2 receiving a no-confidence vote from a large portion of the union’s executive board, MLBPA executive director Tony Clark told the group that it was his decision whether Meyer would be removed from his job.

He was not wrong. Union rules grant Clark, not the players, the right to hire and fire. But the sentiment espoused by Clark in that moment roiled players throughout the game Tuesday and Wednesday, enveloping the union with the sort of palace intrigue typically reserved for a Sunday night HBO series. The veteran was among a large swath of players troubled by Clark’s comment after hearing him say consistently, over more than a decade running the MLBPA, that players run the union. The fallout cast questions across the rank and file not just about Meyer’s murky future but Clark’s long-term viability as executive director.

The call ended with no clarity on the future of union leadership. Backers of Clark have since rallied around him, attempting to whip support from players for what they believe will be a showdown for control of the MLBPA. While Clark could remain in charge of the union he has guided for more than a decade, the power play has damaged him considerably — and player leadership does wield the power to unilaterally vote him out of the position. If they do, Marino, the 33-year-old who blindsided the baseball establishment with a daring power play, could find himself not as Clark’s deputy but in the top role himself, though he’ll have to work to sway player leaders who were left in the dark about the move and know little about him.

Interviews with more than two dozen people involved in the fight — union officials, the outsiders seeking to unseat them, players on the union’s executive board and throughout the league and influence-wielding agents — offered a portrait of a union in flux amid an offseason of lower-than-expected spending on free agents. The cores of each side have been firmly established: union leadership, those skeptical of Marino and powerful agent Scott Boras advocating for status quo, while outspoken major leaguers, all of the minor league player leaders and influential player agents back the ouster of Meyer and, perhaps by extension, Clark.

Long trumpeted as the strongest union in America, the MLBPA is facing a seminal choice that will help guide the game’s future. With the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire Dec. 1, 2026, the MLBPA has plenty of time to rebuild solidarity and come equipped for its quinquennial clash with MLB. Which direction it takes might depend on which party can sell the players on its vision.

“WHY NOW?” another player leader asked Tuesday. MLB’s 2024 season was hours from beginning when the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres faced off in Seoul, and here stood the union in the throes of internal war.

There were several reasons for the urgency, but one was simply the calendar. With the end of spring training near, those who wanted change feared that players would lose interest in union politics during the season. It happened six years ago, when a group of players frustrated with a historically slow free agent market tried to form a coalition to remove Clark, the former All-Star first baseman who became the first ex-player to run the union when he took over in December 2013 after the death of Michael Weiner. It fizzled out, and Clark — who had led negotiations on the collective bargaining agreement in 2016 widely panned by players — pledged to hire help.

In came Meyer, a veteran attorney who had worked for the players’ associations of the three other major men’s professional sports. He arrived with a bulldog attitude and desire to fight the league and win back much of what the union had lost financially in 2016. Almost immediately Meyer rubbed MLB the wrong way — a point he wore with pride.

Meyer refused to accede when MLB wanted to cut players’ pay in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and commissioner Rob Manfred wound up implementing a 60-game season when the sides couldn’t strike a return-to-play deal. The hostility amplified after the 2021 season, when MLB locked the players out for 99 days. The eventual collective bargaining agreement won players a $20 million boost on the lowest threshold of the luxury tax, a 25% raise on the minimum salary, a $50 million bonus pool for arbitration-eligible players, a draft lottery to prevent tanking and incentives to not keep rookies in the minor leagues to manipulate their service time. While the executive subcommittee — one filled with Boras clients in five of the eight slots — voted 8-0 against the deal, a large majority of players supported it.

Two years later, though, the seeds of disillusionment that sprouted in those negotiations are in full bloom. After two robust free agencies following the latest CBA, the market this year slowed dramatically, from $3.9 billion guaranteed last year to $2.9 billion, and left veteran players without jobs on the eve of the season. Players have whispered about the lack of a clearly defined plan to outfox MLB’s enormous and effective labor relations unit, as well as the large salaries and travel expenses of the union’s leaders, which have only grown in recent years. The most recent defeat for some players was the San Francisco Giants’ release of J.D. Davis, the veteran infielder who received just $1.15 million of his $6.9 million salary because the collective bargaining agreement didn’t guarantee deals won in salary arbitration cases.

On top of all that, a narrative about a working relationship between Meyer and Boras has taken root. No firm evidence buttressed the notion, and both parties denied it, but among players and particularly the agents who competed with Boras, the perception hardened into a reality, though one that longtime executive subcommittee member Andrew Miller said he did not see.

“I wish it never got to this point of back and forth,” Miller told ESPN. “I was not always on the same page with Bruce, but he’s been a professional. I believe what he’s been quoted as saying about it not being true. It’s not something I ever saw that was worrying to me.”

The thought of some of those seeking change: Taking out Meyer could wound Boras, who is in the midst of an offseason when the free agent markets collapsed for numerous stars he represented. If Boras was vulnerable, Meyer could be the proxy to attack him.

If any of this change was going to happen, it needed to do so quickly. And Marino and his supporters believed he was the one to spur it on.

A left-handed reliever, Marino had spent two seasons in the early 2010s in the Arizona and Baltimore organizations. The paltry salaries paid to minor league players appalled him, and after going to law school at the University of Virginia, he left a law-firm job to attempt what no one previously had the gumption to try: unionizing minor league players. As the executive director of Advocates for Minor Leaguers, Marino married moral arguments with social-media savvy to affect change, securing minor league players housing paid for by teams. The work caught the eye of the MLBPA, which provided funding to the group, and Clark’s support of Advocates’ efforts — both offering advice to Marino or talking with players — paved a partnership that would ultimately imperil his job.

With minor leaguers prepared to unionize, the MLBPA offered to bring them under its umbrella and form a minor league unit alongside its big league group. It would be one of Clark’s signature achievements as executive director. He had toiled for seven years in the minor leagues. He lived the grind. He knew that unionization would drastically improve the lives of more than 5,500 players.

In early September 2022, the MLBPA sent out union-authorization cards. Soon thereafter, MLB voluntarily recognized the minor league unit, and Clark told The Wall Street Journal about Marino: “His consistency to the cause is as high as anyone that I’ve been around. It comes through loud and clear in how he fights for players and how he’s been willing to engage on any and all of the issues that are front and center. … [I]f this was going to become a possibility, Harry is someone you want to be a part of the equation.”

The minor league unit received 34 seats — one player from each team and four subcommittee members — to join the 38 major league players on the executive board. It bewildered some union officials, who worried that giving 47% of voting power to players who hadn’t spent a day in the major leagues could lead to a disastrous outcome. Especially if someone like Marino mobilized the group.

In recent weeks, he did. Marino, who joined the MLBPA as an assistant general counsel following the unionization efforts, left the union in July 2023, three months after negotiating the first minor league collective bargaining agreement. Though he had clashed with Meyer, with whom he worked on the agreement, and other union officials, he remained on the radar of a group of major league player leaders impressed by his work with minor leaguers.

They reached out to him earlier this year with a plea: Come fix the union. The coalition seeking change spanned players present and past. Former players such as Daniel Murphy, an executive subcommittee member in 2020, backed new leadership, telling ESPN on Wednesday: “Whether they get uprooted from their positions is not up to me, but I think guys are finally seeing the truth.”

With widespread minor league support, Marino knew he’d need a wider swath of current big leaguers. If he could map out a compelling vision, his supporters believed, MLB players were bound to join a campaign to replace Meyer. During spring training, Marino held secret meetings with player representatives in Arizona and Florida, avoiding Boras clients out of fear that they would kibosh his efforts. In recent days, he outlined his strategy in a one-page document distributed to some players and obtained by ESPN. In it, he criticized the MLBPA’s “mediocre staff and lack of clear bargaining strategy,” said it had “unproductive relationships with both the agent community and the league” and denounced its “inexcusable spending habits.” He pledged to “shift power back to the members” through “informed recommendations backed by data and reasoning” and “trim the waste and excess,” writing: “Our job is to make you rich, not the other way around.”

Marino also laid out a plan for his first 250 days as part of union leadership. He would hire an outside firm to perform an audit on the MLBPA’s finances, conduct a survey of players to learn about their issues with the union and bargaining priorities, and begin a nationwide search for senior leadership and a collective bargaining team “under supervision of the Executive Board.” At the MLBPA’s board meeting in November 2024, the document said, Marino would introduce the new hires and present goals and strategy for bargaining, propose a new budget and offer a plan for better communication.

His consortium grew, and by Saturday, a majority of player leaders — major leagues and minor leagues combined — expressed privately they were in favor of swapping Meyer for Marino. Marino took that information to Clark and proposed a plan: Marino would take over bargaining and build a team of veteran labor lawyers. He believed Clark would see the binary nature of the offer: Clark could say yes, and theoretically unify the group, but to say no could throw the union into conflict and put himself at risk. Clark asked for time to think.

On Sunday, a text chain among major league player leaders asking whether they wanted to replace Meyer with Marino — created to form a record of players’ votes — confirmed Marino had a majority. A day later, after union officials finished their final in-person meeting on their 30-team spring tour, Marino’s camp reached out to Clark and reaffirmed that they wanted to work with him as the executive director and Marino his deputy. Shortly thereafter, Clark called for the Zoom meeting.

It soon became clear that Marino’s read on the situation — that Clark would acquiesce and dismiss Meyer — was wrong. Clark backed Meyer, who was also on the call. They listened as players levied complaints on a variety of topics, from the dip in free agent spending to exasperation that some high-ranking players didn’t know that Clark had been given a new five-year contract in November 2022 until reading about it online. Players harped on union leaders’ poor communication.

Other players chimed in about Marino’s hypocrisy on the same subject. His campaign had intentionally left some players — and, by extension, their teams — in the dark. It was antithetical to the solidarity they preached, and the approach by Marino — who asked Clark to be included in the call but was not granted access — particularly bothered some players who were not familiar with Marino. Though Meyer’s support was limited, players asked why the union needed change and how Marino, with minimal experience, would make them better.

By Monday night, reports of the meeting circulated among players. On Tuesday morning, it dominated conversations in clubhouses across the game. A range of emotions revealed themselves: livid, confused, emboldened. Some player representatives knew about Marino’s play and didn’t inform their clubhouses. Others, left in the dark, didn’t have answers to questions asked by teammates. Officials from both parties spent the day on the phone, making their case to players. Boras went public, shredding Marino to The Athletic.

“If you have issues with the union and you want to be involved with the union, you take your ideas to them,” he said. “You do not take them publicly, you do not create this coup d’etat and create really a disruption inside the union. If your goal is to help players, it should never be done this way.”

To those convinced the Boras-Meyer link was real, the comments served as affirmation, further harming Meyer — and Clark as well — in the eyes of players. While it would be malpractice for the two top officials at the players’ union not to have a relationship with the agent who represents more major league players than any, power struggles often turn dirty, every small thing growing outsized.

Marino wasn’t immune, either. Critics painted him as a Svengali whose power over minor league players carried little weight, even if it would carry votes. They argued that he would bend to MLB and implement a salary cap. That he’s tied to CAA and WME, agencies whose clients have among the strongest voices, in the same way Meyer is to Boras. That his approach was an act of aggression, unseemly, in defiance of history and protocol.

In a statement, Marino told ESPN: “I have spent the entirety of the past two weeks in meetings and phone calls with Major League Players. From those conversations, three things have become clear. First, Players want to know how their hard-earned money is being spent. They deserve a full audit of the MLBPA’s financials. Assuming the staff has nothing to hide, this should not be a problem. Second, Players have lost confidence in the MLBPA’s current collective bargaining team and want to move in a new direction.

“Third, some Players have questions about me and what that new direction might look like. That’s totally fair. While the Players’ desire for change has been simmering for some time, over the past week it has come to the surface in a manner unexpected to everyone, myself included. As always, I will make myself available to speak to any Player who wants their voice heard and their questions answered.”

THE POSSIBILITY OF a Clark-Marino pairing running the union together died Monday. Perhaps it was never feasible, a half-measure, but that reality forces players into the sort of uncomfortable position that could conceivably save Clark. Because for all the warts players suggest the union has, all the dissatisfaction percolating, they like him personally. They liked him enough to extend his contract through 2027. And they might like him enough to let him see it through.

“The MLBPA has been and always will be fully transparent with its Players,” Clark said Wednesday in a statement to ESPN. “We recently negotiated two collective bargaining agreements on behalf of our members: a Major League agreement that made tangible Player gains in the face of an ownership lockout, and a first ever agreement on behalf of Minor League Players. An attempted takeover coordinated by a disgruntled former employee does nothing to change those facts.

“The question before us now is how we build from here. Those are conversations that we are having, and will continue to have with our membership.”

When the politicking settles and votes on the future of the MLBPA are taken, it will come down to the numbers. Though the board consists of 72 seats, currently 11 minor league representative positions are unfilled, cutting into Marino’s count for the potential removal of Clark. It’s unlikely Clark will be able to poach any of the 23 minor leaguers who do have a say — even if he makes the case that they would not be union members without him having pushed for a minor league unit — which leaves eight votes to give a majority to Marino’s side. If Clark were deposed and Marino made a play for the job, though, coming in to run the union on the strength of barely a quarter of big league clubhouses would leave him weak from the moment he started.

Knowing that — and knowing if he ties himself to Meyer, Clark could conceivably write his own end — Clark’s maneuver could be a repeat of 2018: Agree to dismiss Meyer or accept his resignation, then conduct a search for a new deputy executive director, only this time with more help from the executive board. At this point, it might be the clearest path to his survival. It is also not one Clark has made five days after Marino’s first meeting with him, indicating a bond with Meyer.

Clark started to do damage control Tuesday, telling players that his words about the decision to keep or fire Meyer being his did not reflect his true feelings that the will of players runs the union. How that lands — whether players believe Clark is genuine or simply a man trying to save his job — will color his attempt to survive in the coming days. The executive subcommittee met Wednesday night as well.

Next will be more phone calls, more canvassing, more impassioned rhetoric. Clarity will come soon enough. In an email sent to players Tuesday afternoon obtained by ESPN, Clark told players to reach out to him with any questions and that they will reconvene as a group in the coming days.

“The focus of this union,” he wrote, “has always been, and always will be, the Players.”

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top