Interview: Will Clark shares his views on baseball’s shortened season, today’s hitters
From the New Orleans playground level to Jesuit. From Mississippi State to Major League Baseball, Will Clark was equipped completely for the task of working to become a star and embracing the attention that went with it.
That is how you earn the moniker “The Thrill.”
For the better part of 15 years with the San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers, Baltimore Orioles and St. Louis Cardinals, Clark lived up to expectations and then some.
While many were taking advantage of performance enhancing substances and inflating numbers in what later became known as “The Steroid Era,” Clark accomplished so much in natural fashion.
It is only appropriate to describe Clark in that fashion.
His ability to hit a baseball was comparable to Roy Hobbs, the fictional character in “The Natural,” a left-handed hitter with a sweet swing and a penchant for the dramatic.
Clark has flair and always had a flair for the dramatic.
In 15 seasons, Clark batted. 303 with 284 home runs and 1,205 RBI. He amassed 2,176 hits.
Clark was a 6-time All-Star and won the Most Valuable Player award in the National League Championship series in 1989 as the Giants reached the World Series.
Clark led the National League in RBI in 1988 and won the Silver Slugger award twice. He was great defensively as well, capturing a Gold Glove in 1991. Clark is on the Giants Wall of Fame.
Clark has been inducted into the Bay Area Hall of Fame, The Allstate Sugar Bowl Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and the College Baseball Hall of Fame.
A guest on 106.1 FM on All Access Wednesday evening, Clark, who has never been shy about expressing opinions, addressed a host of topics, including the abbreviated 60-game regular season that will begin later this month.
“Just getting the guys out on the field, even if its for just a little bit is going to be a definite positive,” Clark said. “Back in our day, we played doubleheaders. If you really wanted to bulk up the number of games, you could play doubleheaders. The modern player, I don’t think they’re into that as much. Some teams are hot to start a season, others get hot later. That’s why you play such a long season and why its such a grind. A 60-game season, that’s basically just two months, who can stay hot for two months and go from there.”
With the shortened season comes some rule adjustments. That includes using the designated hitter in universal fashion, adding the National League to the American League, which always does. Clark played in both leagues.
“I’m more of a baseball purist,” Clark said. “I like the moves with taking pitchers in and out, double switching, using guys on the bench, stuff like that. When you are in the American League and you’ve got a DH, you just chunk nine guys out there and you let them roll. There’s a lot of times where guys on the bench will go two, three weeks without even playing. The DH has its positives in that you get another hitter in the lineup but it takes a lot of strategy out of the game.”
Clark is no fan of the short season rule of starting any extra inning game with a runner at second base.
“I don’t like it,” Clark said. “I’ve see it already. You get a good Major League team and you just bunt a guy over and you get a sacrifice fly. You could have long extra inning games just doing that in the Major Leagues, too! It’s interesting. Everybody’s always trying to speed up the game. The game is always going to be three hours. If you try to speed up the game, what’s going to happen is you’re going to try to stick more commercials in there. I get why there trying to do that stuff.”
With the recent documentary on the 1998 season and the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the focus on what happened in that area with steroid use has come to the forefront once again. Clark had a front row seat, competing against both.
“I did not see the documentary,” Clark said. “I witnessed it first-hand. Everybody knows what was going on. It’s no secret. There are a lot of guys that you don’t know that were doing it. That’s just the way it was back then. There was no law against it and it was legal. Not until (Jose) Canseco came out with it in his book did that change. The guys took advantage of what they took advantage of then at that time.”
While the names of Barry Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Canseco, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro and Alex Rodriguez and others have been mentioned or linked to that era, Clark is certain that there were many others whose names were never really mentioned.
“You can pretty much see it on paper,” Clark said. “A guy hitting 10, 12, 10, 12 (home runs) and all of a sudden, he hits 45 or 50. You go, ‘whoa, wait a second here.’ You don’t learn how to hit a home run overnight. You can just flat out see by looking at stats. I’m not going to dwell on that because that was part of my era. I know it was going on. I decided that I was going to do things the right way. I had a nice career doing things the right way. I was thanking people instead of out-cheating them.”
The thrill of The Thrill’s career was reaching the World Series in 1989. Then came the earthquake in San Francisco just prior to the start of game one with the eventual champion Oakland A’s.
“It was definitely difficult,” Clark said. “In 1985, the team had lost 100 games and that’s when I got drafted. I made my debut in ’86 and in 1987, we’re in the playoffs. It was a quick turnaround going from 100 losses to being in the playoffs two years later and another two years later, we’re in the World Series and it got interrupted by the earthquake. It definitely affected you. When you get to a World Series, you don’t expect it just to end for 10 days and when you resume, it’s like spring training all over again. It took a lot of the luster out of the World Series.”
Oakland swept the Giants in four games when the series finally took place.
On April 8, 1986, Clark made his Major League debut against the Houston Astros in the Astrodome, the closest Major league ballpark to New Orleans.
Living up to his nickname, Clark thrilled everyone.
In his first at-bat, on his first swing, Clark homered off of future Hall of Fame inductee Nolan Ryan, becoming just the 53rd player in Major League history to hit a home run in his first Major League at-bat.
“I’m walking up to the plate going well, ‘I’m just going to look for his fastball because I’ve never seen anything that fast before in my life,” Clark said. “The first pitch to me was a curve ball and it really surprised me (it was a called strike). I started giggling a little bit. Two pitches later, I got one of my fastballs and when I hit it, I hit it good but I didn’t know it was going out. I was hoping it would hit off the wall or something and it got out and I was ecstatic coming all the way back to home plate.
“I had the whole family there. It was pretty unbelievable to do it before your family and friends. When you go up to home plate against a guy like that in your debut, there are so many things going through your brain and so many emotions going through your body. To get up there and just flip that switch and get in that competitive mode, it’s a little tough to do. It was one of those situations that over my career, I was able to do that quite a bit.”
Clark reminisced about his youth and how good a time it was in his young life and development as a baseball player.
“I had come from NORD (New Orleans Recreation Department) playground ball and kind of graduated to Babe Ruth ball with Firmin Simms, who recently passed,” Clark said. “I learned a lot of baseball there and I went into high school at Jesuit and I was really just trying to make the junior varsity team and wound up making the varsity.
“The guy in front of me got hurt so I started as a sophomore and Jesuit had won the year before, they won state championships in both prep and legion and then I came along in ’80 and we won state championships in prep and legion again and went to the American Legion World Series in ’80.”
So many Jesuit players signed to play off the 1980 team at the next level.
“I think it was nine out of 13 over the course of two years that signed DI scholarships so we had a lot of talent coming through Jesuit at that time,” Clark said. “Rummel, De La Salle, Holy Cross, it was good to be in the Catholic League back then.”
Clark went on from Jesuit to Mississippi State and became an even bigger star. While he considered staying home to play for Ron Maestri at the University of New Orleans, Clark simply wanted to get away to face different competition.
“It came to was I going to stay home and play against guys I’d been playing against since I eight years old or should I go get some new competition? Clark asked himself. “I decided on the new competition. I picked Mississippi State because they had a first base job open and it was about four and a half hours from New Orleans and mom and dad could come see me play on weekends.”
Clark knows he made the right decision to head to Starkville.
“Looking back on it, we were in the top five all three years I was there, we made it to regionals all three years and made it to the World Series in 1985,” Clark said. “It was just a phenomenal three years of baseball. In the middle of there, chunk in the Olympic Team. I think I was prepared very well for pro ball. Ron Maestri did a great job. He came after me hard. I told Ron at the end that I just needed new competition. UNO was really good. Augie Schmidt was a Golden Spikes winner and they were a team that went to the World Series. The SEC provided great competition.”
Are there players in Major League Baseball today that Clark has enjoyed watching?
“I like guys that can kind of do it all,” Clark said. “A guy like Mike Trout. I like watching him play a lot. When he first came to the Cardinals and I had just retired, it was Pujols and I followed Albert’s career the whole time.”
Clark does not like what he sees with the direction of offense in professional baseball.
“There’s so many guys in pro ball now that you kind of admire but the game has changed as far as the hitter goes,” Clark said. “It’s almost like it’s okay to go up there and hit .230, .240, .250, strike out 150 times, hit 20 homers and drive in 55 runs. That right there in my era was what we would call not a good hitter. If you’re going to hit .285, .290, .300, you’ve got to do some work and you’ve got to be really good at your craft. Driving in 50 runs, you can do that in a month if you get hot. It takes some skill to drive in 100 runs every year.”
With the change in direction of offense comes a change in the attitude of how others look at offense.
“The expectations now are a lot lower on the hitters,” Clark said. “These things that I keep running into, especially in the minor leagues with guys that get drafted and stuff are these launch-angle guys. They’re swinging up at the ball and dropping their shoulders. Nobody’s ever staying on the plane of the baseball. When you see a guy that stays on the plane of the baseball, he’s going to be one of your better hitters. He’s going to be your .300 guy.”
The words were spoken like a truly outstanding hitter who batted over .300 for his career. Clark was simply a superb hitter and player.
The Thrill may be gone from the playing field but he is still imparting wisdom to young players while continuing to watch and embrace the game he loves and is and will always remembered fondly by those who loved watching him play with an intensity that was virtually unmatched.
Click here to learn more about Will Clark’s career.
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Sports Media Association, National Football…