DUNEDIN, FLA.— The Blue Jays’ main workout Friday, on the eve of their Grapefruit League play against the Braves at Disney World, might have been the one they had before they took the field.
Friday’s practice began an hour late after a visit from Tony Clark, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, ran two hours and 20 minutes.
Clark visits all the major-league camps every year and his sessions, to which all members of the 40-man roster are invited, usually run about 90 minutes. The meetings offer players the chance to voice any labour-related concerns and ask any questions about the new collective bargaining agreement.
On this occasion, with catcher Russ Martin having strong feelings about how he was squeezed off Canada’s World Baseball Classic entry, and with Jays player rep Jose Bautista being an exhaustive debater, the meeting ran long. Luckily, the MLBPA was also handing out cheques.
Clark is a former major-league player, the first to head baseball’s union. He seems to enjoy the position, even the media wrap-up in every camp. But given his loquaciousness, he can be circuitous in his answers. When asked, light-heartedly, if Bautista had contributed to the added length of Friday’s meeting, Clark leapt to his defence.
“J.B. is an asset to our game on so many different levels,” Clark said. “There are a lot of different things that J.B. does that very few people know about or hear about or appreciate, whether that’s supporting the next generation of guys that comes behind him, or any of the work that he does in the communities that doesn’t end up on the front page somewhere.
“Not only that, but he is the role model for engagement in your individual career and taking control of the opportunities that may be presented, while also engaging and offering insight into things that may not just benefit him, but benefit the whole. Whether it’s in this room or outside this room . . . having conversations with J.B. and the values that he brings to that conversation are off the charts.”
Bautista, of course, is also among the group of veteran sluggers that seemed ignored and undervalued this winter. Suspicious? Clark is not willing to jump to conclusions, but revealed that an annual exercise at the end of each off-season is to interview agents and free agents about their dealings with clubs, making sure there are no alarms set off with regard to commonality of tactics or offers.
“It was an interesting market, to say the least,” Clark said. “Those conversations have already started. It’s not a new phenomenon, the engagement that we have on that level and, until we have it, I don’t have anything definitive to say about what it is we thought we saw.
“We look at not just that (slugger) group, we look at all the free agents that are out there. Each market tends to be a little different. Each market has a different number of players in it. A free market suggests that one year a handful of clubs may be interested in x and another year they may be interested in y. Or you have a group of teams in one particular market that aren’t interested in any of it. Trying to appreciate those types of trends is what we concentrate on.”
Front-office analytics seem to have changed the way many teams value player skill sets. Unfortunately for some players — Bautsta, Mark Trumbo, Edwin Encarnacion, Chris Carter and others — being a veteran and a home-run hitter are two descriptions that appear to have been devalued for free agents this winter.
Clark noticed this, but is not ready to say it is a trend. He believes baseball is cyclical. But one thing he is adamant about with regard to building a roster, as an old-school baseball man, is that there is no statistic available to take into account the presence of certain veterans in a clubhouse and the positive way they influence younger teammates.
“Anybody who’s been around the game a while has an appreciation for what a veteran presence, both on the field and off the field and in the clubhouse and otherwise, has for a team that’s looking to compete and win,” Clark said.
“Appreciating what that value looks like is something that we’re interested in trying to determine — whether it existed to the extent that it did before or whether it’s going to exist moving forward. What we’re seeing may suggest there may not be that much value on it now than there had been in the past.”
Another topic beaten to death recently is the pair of rule changes that Major League Baseball is in favour of: the no-pitch intentional walk, already approved; and raising the lower part of the strike zone to ostensibly create more balls in play, more game action and a better pace of play. That one still needs more study.
“I love our game, I think our game is also cyclical,” Clark said. “I know I was taught the game a certain way and it was played a certain way. The focus may have shifted some to where the concentration on the long ball and not as much on the strikeout became a bigger point of emphasis with respect to development. It’s a real possibility it may swing its way back, even without a rule change.”
What’s the main difference between the last two commissioners? Bud Selig is a purist, a baseball fan. Rob Manfred is a businessman, all about bottom-line. The belief is that if you can keep a baseball game in a tighter window, late-inning commercials maintain their value to advertisers. It’s not about bored fans.
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