April 15, 2024

Why did the MLBPA suffer an attempted mutiny, and what comes next for the union?


The Major League Baseball Players Association, historically a titan among sports labor unions, is vulnerable and unsteady after an attempted mutiny. No matter what happens now, questions about the union’s strength will linger into the next round of collective bargaining, in 2026.

Among them: can major leaguers restore unity in time for those negotiations? And will they avoid infighting with their minor-league counterparts over the union’s direction? In a few ways, the chaos of the past two weeks can be partially traced to the MLBPA’s decision to invite minor leaguers into the union.

But the most important question might be whether the MLBPA will make meaningful changes. Can executive director Tony Clark create buy-in among not only the players, but the agents who influence them?

As one sports-union veteran put it this week, all unions are “first, last and always about politics.” It’s hard for players to back a bargaining plan if they’re not clearly backing the person devising it.

“If you cannot generate a universally supported consensus as to what to do, you can’t hold in a fight,” said the labor veteran, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about an organization they do not lead. “You have to have the support of the players, which means that the job of the executive director is to be a political leader.”

No large union can ever please all its members. Similarly, not all complaints about the MLBPA leveled in the last two weeks, ranging from communication to budgeting matters, are necessarily fair. But fairness is largely irrelevant to the union’s future.

What will matter is whether Clark can quiet the complaints. Whether the MLBPA can create more believers.

“There are still a lot of players with a lot of questions and lots of anger,” one player agent said. “Remember, we’re talking about baseball players, so it’s not necessarily rational.”

The uprising has lost momentum since it became public two weeks ago. Clark regained some control on March 24, when a key player group inside the union put out a statement rebuking the opposition leader, Harry Marino, a young lawyer and a minor-league player organizer.

It seems highly unlikely that players will soon remove Clark, an ex-player who has held the job since 2013. And Marino appears to have no chance of joining union leadership while Clark remains atop the organization. But discussions in clubhouses as to the union’s future are still unfolding. How or when they will be resolved isn’t clear.

“We’re in the third or fourth inning of something historically bigger, and there needs to be some kind of change,” a second agent said. “I keep hearing the players want an audit. Which is probably what they just should have asked for in the first place, instead of trying to lop off heads.”

The MLBPA declined comment for this story. Neither Clark nor Marino has granted a published interview since the episode began.


The fate of Bruce Meyer remains one of the many unresolved questions. (AP Photo / Richard Drew)

The future of deputy director Bruce Meyer, whom some players wanted to remove, might still hang in the balance. Meyer, 62, is the players’ lead negotiator. The one major-league collective bargaining agreement he oversaw, the current deal, is widely regarded to be better for players than the previous two. But some players and agents nonetheless dislike his demeanor and approach. If Meyer is retained, staff could be brought in around him, with or without him being reassigned.

“What Bruce needs to do is tune out the agents and tune into the players, because the agent part is low-hanging fruit,” the first agent said. “It’s easy to be dismissive of all this saying, ‘The agents f—– me, that’s what this was, this was an agent-to-agent dispute, it’s all about agents trying to get back at (Scott) Boras.’

“If he does that, he won’t survive. But if he takes a look in the mirror and says, ‘You know what, these players, I should listen to them, and address it, he might be OK.’”

Tigers pitcher Jack Flaherty said last week he had “absolutely no idea” as to Meyer’s future.

“Those types of things are going to stay internal,” Flaherty said. “Bruce is somebody who has done a really good job as part of the union.”


Tigers pitcher Jack Flaherty was a pivotal figure in the union back-and-forth. (Kim Klement Neitzel / USA TODAY)

Flaherty is a member of the eight-player group, the executive subcommittee, that put out a statement on March 24 batting down Marino. Previously, for at least a week’s time, Flaherty had been a Marino backer. Flaherty expressed regret for his role in the mutiny to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal.

Marino’s platform and criticism of the union were at times broad and vague. But one area he pointed to, the union’s budget, could soon be in the news again.

The union typically files an annual financial report by the end of March every year. The document is then made public by an agency within the U.S. Department of Labor. As soon as this week, then, the union’s 2023 spending might be reviewable by players and media alike. Last year’s was filed on March 31, 2023.


A confluence of factors led to the uprising, but two in particular set the stage.

First, the unionization of minor leaguers in 2022 had a profound impact on the MLBPA’s structure. The union had roughly 1,200 members when it represented only big-league players. Suddenly, it had more than 6,000.

In a decision that was questionable at the time, Clark gave minor leaguers a near-equal say in votes on the union’s executive director and budget. Major leaguers have 38 votes, compared to 34 for minor leaguers.

Some minor leaguers eventually become major leaguers, and both groups count as professional ball players. But their economic and bargaining interests at times differ.

“The danger is that you set up the split between the minor leaguers and major leagues,” the veteran of sports labor said. “And that’s a problem in the long run for bargaining, because the owners’ objective is always to divide the players.”

A third agent felt the addition of the minor leaguers created a dynamic similar to what MLB faces with small-market and big-market owners.

Alternative voting structures were available. Whether major leaguers, who built the MLBPA, now push to change the voting set-up is to be seen, and they probably would need many minor leaguers to be on board with any change. Minor leaguers ultimately far outweigh the number of major leaguers inside the union.

The second factor that set the stage for the last two weeks was also born out of the minor-league unionizing effort: the arrival of Harry Marino.

Marino led a nonprofit that did the majority of grassroots organizing in the minor leagues before the MLBPA officially took in those players. The 33-year-old does not lack for ambition, and is unafraid of a public fight.


Harry Marino successfully organized minor leaguers in 2022. (Photo courtesy of minor league advocates)

When the MLBPA decided to unionize the minor leaguers in late summer 2022, Marino joined the union. Marino then clashed with Clark and Meyer, and left less than a year later, in summer 2023.

Subsequently, in the last few months, unhappy agents and players gravitated toward Marino, and vice versa.

“This was not the first time that there’s been discontent over the last decade at the PA,” the first agent said. “The single difference this time was, for a brief moment in time, there was an alternative presented to some group of players.

Agents, importantly, are not union members. However, they are certified by the union, and are central to its political calculus. Players trust their advisors, particularly on money and career matters.

Therefore, the more agents who back the union’s goals, the more effective the organization can be. But keeping agents happy is a tricky balancing act for the PA, because agents do not always have broader player interests at heart.

Since the day Clark hired Meyer in 2018 — if not since the day Clark was installed in 2013 — some players and their agents have been united in their dislike of this administration. But they always complained in the shadows. Besides lacking a candidate, the discontented parties seemed — and still seem — averse to putting their own skin in the game by speaking out publicly.

Then, with free-agent spending down overall this winter compared to the last two years, agents and players had a spark to act.

But in the end, Marino’s gambit to challenge Clark and Meyer was not as well orchestrated as his effort to unionize minor leaguers. Not enough veteran player voices stood behind him. Marino also might have struggled in part because of his own lack of tenure.

In a statement issued to The Athletic, he questioned whether players really want change. Marino said in a statement that after unionizing the minor leaguers in 2022, he left the MLBPA to form a new firm that would help other groups seeking to organize. He put that project on temporary hold in March, he said, when major leaguers came to him asking for help changing things within the union.

“I felt a responsibility to take on this project because of the troubling things I saw while an employee at the MLBPA, as well as because of my role in bringing Minor League players into the union,” Marino said. “After the last two weeks, it is unclear to me whether Major League Players in fact want change in the face of significant institutional opposition. As a result, while I will always be a resource for any baseball players who need assistance, I am excited to return my attention to publicly launching my new firm and organizing new groups of workers. We have all seen what those who are driven by power and money will do to try to keep a job. But for those who seek to serve, there is no shortage of important work out there to be done.”


Union-agent woes might be highly difficult for the PA to remedy. Many positions are long entrenched. But the union seems to have little choice but to try.

Sometimes, agents just want to feel better included in the union’s process. Some suspect Clark and Meyer show favoritism to the agent with more clients than any other, Scott Boras. No firm evidence of impropriety has been produced publicly. But politics don’t always hinge on firm evidence.

One effort the MLBPA undertook the last couple years probably complicated agent politics further.

In late 2022, the union made its conflict-of-interest rules tougher on agencies that also do business with teams and leagues in areas beyond player representation. Some of the biggest agencies broker sponsorship deals, for example.

Agents “must notify the MLBPA at the outset of discussions regarding or relating to a potential business relationship,” wrote union lawyer Robbie Guerra in a 2023 memo to all agents. “Failure to do so will result in discipline up to and including decertification.”

The full list of agencies with whom the union has engaged over the updated rule is unknown. One instance already went public: the MLBPA went after William Morris Endeavor, or WME, which was involved in the purchase of minor-league teams. A WME agent did not return a request for comment.

Excel in 2022 found the Angels a partner for their jersey patch. The union looked into that situation, people briefed on the matter told The Athletic. An Excel agent declined comment.

Many other agencies appear to have relationships that potentially could need PA clearance. In a non-exhaustive list of examples: CAA and Wasserman both have arranged sponsorships for teams. 

“CAA Sports has enjoyed a long-standing, very productive working relationship with the MLBPA,” CAA said in a statement. “For nearly two decades, we have worked collaboratively, ensuring that we are aligned on what is in the best interest of our clients, and, together, have yielded tremendous results.”

Casey Wasserman, chairperson of his eponymous firm, is also working with major-league owners on bringing big leaguers to the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. A Wasserman agent declined comment. 

The full list of agencies whom the union has engaged with over the updated rule is unknown. One instance already went public: the MLBPA went after William Morris Endeavor, or WME, which was involved in the purchase of minor-league teams. A WME agent did not return a request for comment.

Excel in 2022 found the Angels a partner for their jersey patch. The union looked into that situation, people briefed on the matter told The Athletic. An Excel agent declined comment.

Many other agencies appear to have relationships that potentially could need PA clearance. In a non-exhaustive list of examples: CAA and Wasserman both have arranged sponsorships for teams.

“CAA Sports has enjoyed a long-standing, very productive working relationship with the MLBPA,” CAA said in a statement. “For nearly two decades, we have worked collaboratively, ensuring that we are aligned on what is in the best interest of our clients, and, together, have yielded tremendous results.”

Casey Wasserman, chairperson of his eponymous firm, is also working with major-league owners on bringing big leaguers to the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. A Wasserman agent declined comment.

Over the years, and again this week, agents have spoken longingly of Michael Weiner. Weiner was an MLBPA lawyer who briefly served as executive director before he died of a brain tumor in 2013, giving way to Clark’s tenure.

“Just unquestionable feel, respect, character,” the second agent said of Weiner. “In any room he went into, including that with the commissioner, he was the smartest guy in the room, and had the best feel.”

What agents particularly miss is how they say Weiner listened to them. The MLBPA could weigh whether there is an avenue to making more agents at least feel heard. That could be through new hires dedicated to the effort, or new initiatives among current staff.

But agents haven’t been the only ones criticizing the union’s communication; Marino and the players who backed him raised the topic too. Collin McHugh, a recently retired pitcher and former executive subcommittee member, felt those concerns to be legitimate.

“There have been a lot of challenges from the communication standpoint, in my experience,” he said. “Things that probably do need to be addressed and remedied and streamlined and made more clear.”


Collin McHugh when with the Red Sox in 2020. (Billie Weiss / Boston Red Sox / Getty Images)

One major event previously raised questions about communication: the end of the lockout in March 2022. The eight-player subcommittee of the time felt players should continue to fight longer for additional gains. Most of the club player reps felt otherwise, and the latter group prevailed.

The quality of each team’s rep can matter greatly, because the union sometimes relies on a game of telephone. Information often moves out from the PA staff and the subcommittee to the reps, and from there, to the wider membership.

As an added complication, the union feels it needs discretion in what it shares, for fear the commissioner’s office will be an eventual recipient.

“Trying to keep things under wraps, I know that was a hard thing,” McHugh said of bargaining in 2022. “The players on the subcommittee obviously are privy to more information than the general player population. And the player reps who are on those calls are also trying to work as a middleman there. I know that there was a lot of communication that people were unsure of what players at the top, in the leadership roles, actually thought.”

In addition to Clark and Meyer, the union employs a player-services staff that is charged with communicating with players directly. Player-wide emails are sometimes sent out, too. A fourth agent recently lamented that his 23-year-old client won’t read a long email.

Whether the MLBPA examines and changes its member outreach efforts, by adding employees or otherwise, is to be seen.

On its own, the union’s still-nascent effort to educate and reach thousands of minor leaguers could require review after this episode. Many, if not all, minor-league player reps were supportive of Marino, people briefed on the process said.


Ultimately, a clock is running for the players to make repairs to their union.

The current CBA expires on Dec. 1, 2026. The owners are likely to aggressively push for change, including a salary cap or something like it, for four reasons: they felt they lost the last round of bargaining; the old television-rights model is in turmoil; the union might be weaker than it’s been historically; and the owners simply always want a cap.

Can Clark and the players create enough unity to stand behind any single vision in 24 months? Will they be able to withstand, if need be, a lengthy work stoppage?

“It’s still early 2024,” said the first agent. “There’s time for the union to be organized and together, and there’ll be kind of a common enemy, for lack of a better word.”

(Top photo of Clark: AP Photo / Jose Luis Magana)





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