Flashback: Thrilling moments in Will Clark’s MLB career

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Will Clark

Former Jesuit High School and major-league star Will Clark acquired the nickname “The Thrill” early in his professional career. He was a rookie with the San Francisco Giants in 1986, when teammate Bob Brenly tagged him with the moniker that stayed with him throughout his 15-year career. He would eventually provide fans of the Giants, Rangers, Orioles, and Cardinals with many memorable thrills.

Clark’s career was filled with countless big hits.  Altogether he amassed 2,176 hits in nearly 2,000 games. He became a six-time all-star in the majors. In his best season in 1989, he was runner-up for the National League’s MVP Award, and he finished in the top five of the award’s voting in three other seasons.

Clark exuded confidence in his hitting ability from the very start of his pro career. He gained a reputation for being cocky and brash, but he could back up those traits with impressive at-bats. His performances in college as the Golden Spikes Award winner and in the 1984 Olympics as Team USA’s leading hitter had prepared him well for the majors. He was accustomed to playing on the big stage when he arrived in the majors and would prove he could live up to the name “Will the Thrill.”

Following are three of Clark’s many momentous major-league games. Click here for a nine-part series covering Clark’s entire career.

April 8, 1986: Home Run on First Major League Swing.  Clark won the Giants’ first base job coming out of spring training, having unseated veteran Dan Driessen. His pro experience consisted of only 65 Class A games the year before.

In his brief pro career, Clark had already shown a penchant for hitting memorable home runs. In his first minor-league game for Fresno in 1985, he hit a home run. In his first exhibition game for the Giants in spring training in 1986, he hit a towering 430-foot home run. His MLB debut game would produce yet another milestone.

With Opening Day for the Giants being played in Houston’s Astrodome on April 8, many of his family and friends from New Orleans made the five-hour drive for his major-league debut game.

Clark was batting second in the lineup that night, facing the Astros’ vaunted strikeout pitcher Nolan Ryan in his first at-bat. After Giants leadoff batter Dan Gladden grounded out, Clark next stepped up to the plate. On a letter-high fastball, his first swing delivered a 420-foot home run into the center-field bleachers, thus becoming the 50th major-league player to hit a round-tripper in his first plate appearance.

The Giants went on to defeat Houston, 8-3. Indicative of his self-confidence, Clark said after the game, “Everybody tries to make a big deal of it—the pressure and all. They ain’t dealing with a kid. I’ve been all over the place. I’ve been around.”

It would be Clark’s first of 284 career home runs. He went on to have great success opposing Ryan, MLB’s career strikeout leader. He posted a spectacular slash line of .333/.385/.889 and six home runs in 36 official at-bats versus Ryan.

October 1, 1989: Batting Title Race Decided on Last Day of Season.  Clark had highly productive seasons in 1987 and 1988, but he would establish himself as one of MLB’s premier players in only his fourth big league season in 1989. One of the outstanding aspects of this season was his consistently high batting average during the entire season. He had previously been known as more of a power hitter, having led the National League in RBI and finished third in home runs. His batting average became evidence of having rounded out his game.

Throughout the season, Clark was matched with San Diego’s Tony Gwynn for the batting title lead. It was new territory for Clark, while Gwynn had a reputation as a perennial front-runner, having already led the National League three times and finished third and fourth in two other seasons.

Going into the last game of the season on October 1 in San Diego, Clark held a narrow lead over Gwynn, .3339 to .3333. However, with a boisterous Padres crowd rooting against him, Clark ultimately relinquished his lead, and Gwynn captured his third consecutive title. Gwynn collected three hits to only one for Clark, giving Gwynn a final edge by three percentage points, .336 to .333.

Clark commented after his disappointing second-place finish, “I got beat by the best [Gwynn], and there’s no disgrace in that.” Gwynn countered, “I ended up winning it, but that doesn’t take away from Clark’s year.”

Gwynn eventually garnered eight batting average titles, earning him a bronze plaque in Cooperstown. Clark hit over .300 in 10 of his 15 seasons and finished with a .303 career average.

Will Clark

October 4, 1989: Record-Setting Performance in NLCS Game 1. The 1989 San Francisco Giants, led by Kevin Mitchell and Will Clark, won their second NL West Division titles in three years, and then faced the Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series.

Clark hadn’t played particularly well (.271 batting average without a home run) against the Cubs during the regular season, which included a 2-for-11 performance against pitcher Greg Maddux, the starter in Game 1. Furthermore, Wrigley Field was not one of his favorite hitting parks, because he had trouble picking up pitches there.

However, his past performance against the Cubs wasn’t a predictor of his future performance in the Series.  He put on a hitting display in Game 1 that set numerous records for post-season play.

He got the Giants on the board in the first inning with a run-scoring double off Maddux. He hit a solo home run in the third inning, followed by a grand slam home run in the fourth, causing Maddux to take an early exit from the game. He finished his hitting spree with a single in the sixth and then settled for a walk in the eighth inning. Powered by Clark, the Giants wound up winning the game, 11-3.

Clark’s six RBIs set a single-game playoff record and his 11 total bases set a record for National League playoff games. He tied NLCS records for most hits, runs scored, and most times reaching base safely in a single game. Opposing Cubs manager Don Zimmer summed up Clark’s outing, “He had a helluva week tonight.” However, Clark didn’t stop in Game 1. During the five-game series in which the Giants prevailed, Clark’s slash line was a whopping .650/.682/1.200.

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Richard Cuicchi

New Orleans baseball historian

Richard Cuicchi, Founder of the Metro New Orleans Area Baseball Player Database and a New Orleans area baseball historian, maintains TheTenthInning.com website. He also authored the book, Family Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives. He has contributed to numerous SABR-sponsored Bio Project and Games Project books.

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