NEW YORK -- Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association and a former All-Star and 15-year veteran, put aside his prepared acceptance speech Friday as he received the DreamBuilder Award at an annual fundraising luncheon for A Better Chance, an organization that helps students of color. Since 1963, it has transformed more than 15,000 bright young people into leaders in all sectors of industry, science and the arts.
Clark learned there at the Cipriani on 42nd Street that Michele Roberts, one of the audience members and his peer with the National Basketball Association Players Association, was a product of A Better Chance. He learned that the very person presenting him with the award, Xavier James, was an ABC alumnus. Clark, citing a "shift happening as we speak" among his union members in terms of "compassionate commitment" to youth, was so moved by the entire experience of hearing from several ABC Scholars that he went off the cuff and said the MLBPA will work with the organization to create new synergies for players and underserved students.
"I have notes in front of me, I have notes that I'm supposed to say, but I can't say them," Clark said. "I can't say them, because as I've listened to the program today, I have all kinds of things running through my head, so I'm going to scrap what I was going to say. The truth is, I am excited as I have ever been to be a part of something as special as the ABC and what the ABC is doing. ... It is a reminder to me of why I have the opportunity that I have.
"When I first came on board with the Players Association after I got done playing, it was a result of a relationship that I had with my predecessor, and friend and mentor, Michael Weiner. Michael, when I asked him what he was looking to do moving forward with the organization, the first thing he said to me was, 'A commitment to education, because educated players make educated decisions.' That resonated for me."
About 40 percent of the ABC Scholars' families make less than the national household median income of $51,000 per year. About 500 students annually are recruited and placed in outstanding college preparatory schools, and in 2016, ABC leveraged $13.6 million in financial aid for new Scholars. Their total enrollment for '16-17 was 2,063, featuring 67 percent African-American, 16 percent Hispanic/Latino, 10 percent multiracial/biracial and seven percent Asian. They are 61 percent female. There are 348 member schools that help create these opportunities.
This hits home with Clark not just because of what the late Weiner once told him, but also because of the message of education that his mother would echo when Clark was a Navy brat.
"When I learned more about ABC, I realized that laying that foundation and breathing into the next generation not only provided synergies and a focal point for myself personally, but [also] for our organization and where we are trying to go," Clark said. "Yes, we represent Major League Baseball players -- 1,200, [including] 750 members on Major League rosters. But there is a shift happening as we speak, and that shift is the compassionate commitment of the players, who a lot of times have the same background with respect to ... the opportunities they had.
"A lot of what we are doing now on the youth side is really to try to lay the foundation to provide more opportunities and more support for young people coming through. Obviously, it's a commitment to the young kids who are trying to play professional baseball. We want to tell a different story and provide new opportunities."
Sandra Timmons, president of A Better Chance, said Clark's spirited words were precisely why he was given this award. They also gave the Chairman's Award to Marvin Ellison, the JCPenney CEO who came from a tiny Tennessee town, and the Benjamin E. Mays Award to David Coleman, president and CEO of The College Board. Two ABC Scholars also received honors. Ahmadu Simpson received the Nancy J. Lucas Memorial Award for equity and justice, and Amari Dennis was given the Judith Berry Griffin Award for overcoming challenges.
"It's because of that passion, and because of that leadership example," Tillman said of Clark. "We want people to know that they can aspire to be the kind of star that he was on the field, but to also be the kind of star after he's off the field, creating opportunities for others."
Tillman said she looks forward to the synergy between MLBPA and ABC, and Clark said he will continue to be driven by a commitment to education.
"That level of support and encouragement along the way is what allows you as a kid to continue to dream and work hard toward a goal," Clark said. "Often, not only are they not provided the opportunity, but they're not given the encouragement to even follow it. So it is something, being here and seeing it and hearing it, it was personal to me and something that I'm excited about as ABC continues its programming and as we look to provide support ourselves."