Tony Clark was hoarse. It had been 37 days since Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred issued the report that described the Houston Astros as cheats, more than enough time for baseball to say, debate and move on.
Instead, the sparks of disgust erupted in a hell of indignation. Instead of letting the fire go out, Manfred and the Astros threw logs behind logs into the fire.
This metaphor is exhausted. This is Clark’s voice. As executive director of the players union, he meets with all teams during spring training. On Wednesday, he held his first meeting this spring, with the New York Mets players.
Clark might have to talk about the report for another month, every time he enters a room full of angry players because the Astros players cheated and got away with it.
The Astros lost their manager, general manager and some draft picks. The Astros players lost nothing but respect and admiration: without suspensions and without losing the World Series championship they won in 2017, the year Manfred ruled that they had cheated.
Wherever a television camera has ventured into spring training, it has followed the wrath of some of the game’s brightest stars: Mike Trout, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Kris Bryant, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton.
Clark doesn’t ask for sympathy. But he is the type that remains to explain to each team why the Astros players were not punished.
“The rules in the books regarding the theft of posters clearly state that clubs and club staff can be disciplined, and not players,” Clark said.
Before Manfred issued his report, did the union executive board, the leadership of elected players, discuss whether players should be disciplined anyway?
“This was not a situation where there was a conversation,” Clark said. “That’s what the rules say. For that consideration to be made in the future, there will have to be a change or an amendment to the rules.”
Manfred should have explained that in his report, perhaps this way: the players were granted immunity, because we needed their testimony to get to the truth, and because our rules did not allow the discipline of the players in this area. We look forward to working with the union to strengthen those standards.
In contrast, in a nine-page report in which the word “immunity” never appeared but “transparency,” Manfred wrote that Astros players would not be disciplined because it would have been “difficult and impractical,” difficult to determine the degree of responsibility among individual players, impractical because many of those players had already joined other teams.
Clark must balance the wishes of the Astros players with the wishes of the players who hate the Astros. He could survey all players, in a secret ballot, about whether the Astros should be stripped of their title. If an overwhelming majority voted yes, it could challenge Manfred to do so.
But why risk breaking his membership with the collective bargaining that will take place next year, when Clark will need a unified front more than ever? It is better to look to the future, to avoid another scandal instead of continuing to discuss this.
“The voice of the player here is going to dictate the best way forward,” Clark said, “both in the use of technology on and off the field, and with respect to the integrity of the game in general.”
What players want, Clark said, is continuous access to video during the games, using custom software that would allow a batter to check his previous bats, with video clips that don’t start until the receiver has issued the signs. That said, Clark said players are in favor of the limitations in the video.
“The boys want the reproduction room removed,” he said. “The boys want to talk about repetition in general. The boys want to talk about eliminating live streaming. The boys want to talk about the elimination of cameras, the standardization of the cameras in each of the stadiums, and they want to know where each of these cameras is and what each one of them does. They also want to access the information provided by the cameras, both in individual and group players.
“And they want to talk about a form of discipline associated with the particular nuances of this topic.”
Manfred has said that public shame could be enough discipline for the Astros, which means they can be ashamed. But its owner, Jim Crane, said he didn’t think he should be held responsible, and that the theft of posters might not have had an impact. His shortstop, Carlos Correa, said the Astros won the “fair” World Series.
None of those comments calmed the storm. Nor did Manfred rule out the World Series championship trophy as “a piece of metal,” a comment he later apologized for.
On the other side of the phone, Clark still sounded hoarse. Does he believe that the anger of the last two weeks was a response to what the Astros did in stealing signs, or how the commissioner and the Astros have treated him?
Clark chuckled. He paused for nine long seconds. He finally offered an indirect answer, but the laughter and the long pause talked a lot.