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Harper plays right field for first time for Phillies

Philadelphia Phillies' Bryce Harper, right, holds up a baseball after taking batting practice before a spring training baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays Monday, March 11, 2019, in Clearwater, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

JUPITER, Fla. - The man in black sat at a picnic table between two poles.

To Tony Clark's left was the spring training home of a Cardinals organization that, while painstakingly prudent, prioritizes annual relevance.

To the right of the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association was the spring training home of the Marlins, a belly-up fish that floats while swearing it swims.

"There is an interest in the competitive nature of the industry being the backbone of the industry that moves us forward," Clark said behind his impenetrable sunglasses while wearing the union logo on his black polo shirt.

"For us," Clark added, "it simply comes down to a fundamental fairness, and a commitment to what we believe is important for our industry to be able to reflect, and that is a level of competition and hope across the board that affords every club, or as many as possible, the ability to suggest that they are positioning themselves to be the last team standing. All the other things fall in place with those two things. That's where our focus is."

I know what you're thinking.

Great, more words about the business of baseball. When is this discussion going to die down? The season is about to start, after all.

But what if it wasn't? Because that's where this could wind up, if owners and players don't take steps toward one another as they sprint toward the end of a collective bargaining agreement that expires after the 2021 season. Three seasons of ball, then strike? Hope not. Hope doesn't help much at the negotiating table, though. Here's something that would: some common-sense reform when it comes to tanking.

Clark's Monday morning meeting with the Cardinals was part of union leadership's annual tour, but this one was described as somewhat different by those in attendance. That's not unique to this camp. Players have shared an increased interest in understanding the current collective bargaining agreement and the changes they would like to see made in the next one. Back-to-back years of frigid free agency for players who are not 26-year-old superstars has alerted the once-oblivious. "Woke," one observer described. "Engaged," Clark preferred.

Clark selects his words like a good jeweler eyes diamonds. He was asked directly by Post-Dispatch colleague Derrick Goold if the tone of his recent meetings with players has shifted, from players showing interest to players pushing activism.

Seven seconds of silence passed.

"Good question," Clark said.

Six more seconds of silence passed.

"In some ways, I would say that," Clark said, sifting jewels.

What Clark was more forthcoming about during an extended conversation with a small group of reporters was that increased competitiveness in the game will be a primary focus for players moving forward. Hard to blame them. If you think (not) watching an intentionally terrible team is bad, try playing for one. And that tentacle of tanking is just the most obvious turn-off.

More teams trying to win increases the chances of Manny Machado and Bryce Harper signing before spring training. It means Dallas Keuchel would have thrown more spring training innings than you. It means there would be fewer reasons to wonder what baseball front offices are doing with their money in a world where 26-year-old Blake Snell receives just a $15,500 raise from the league minimum after winning the Cy Young Award, and 30-year-old seven-time All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel nears mid-March without work.

Players crying out against the agreement they agreed to does not sell. Neither does players pushing for contracts that ignore the aging curve. Players pointing out to fans that the game's growing revenue in too many cases seems to be going toward not improving teams, well, that makes sense.

"As we have gone through camp, yes, a lot of the dialogue has been pointed, and has been direct," Clark said. "But I see that as an example of the passion and commitment that our players have to making sure our best players are on the field at all times, that we have a system in place that suggests the level of competition that everyone is coming out to see is commensurate with the passion and commitment of the players that are on the field delivering it."

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred's claim that every team is trying to win is an insult to both players and fans. As constructed, baseball's draft rewards the biggest losers. You are better off being the last team in the standings than the one that missed the wild card by a game. Word is out. Teams are taking advantage. They want to win, but when? Fans and players suffer during the process, and not every team executes planned flops like the Cubs and Astros. Manfred wants to make pace-of-play changes now. The same urgency could be taken with tanking deterrents, like tweaking the draft.

Just as veteran players should push for increased compensation and faster-arriving free agency for their younger constituents, owners should acknowledge that their tanking peers are doing a disservice to the sport. Common ground awaits, if Manfred can see beyond his rule-change minutiae.

Clark and Manfred say they are willing to begin a dialogue that could get out in front of formal negotiations. When, where and what happens from there is as cloudy as baseball's future. Stopping the tank would help keep baseball from going in it.

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