Oh, What a Thrill! Will Clark: Career Overview (Part 3)
Part 3: A Quick Rise to Stardom
This piece is the third in a series of articles that detail the career of native New Orleanian Will “The Thrill” Clark. Watch for additional weekly posts on the Crescent City Sports website. Click here for the full series.
After an amateur career that saw Clark compete in a Babe Ruth World Series, American Legion World Series, state baseball playoffs, Olympics competition, and College World Series, there probably has never been a more prepared player for the major leagues than Clark. Then after only 65 games in the minor leagues, he didn’t disappoint anyone once he got to the big leagues. He made an immediate impact with the San Francisco Giants, who selected him as the Number 2 overall pick in the 1985 draft. Within three years, he would become a bonafide star.
After being selected by the San Francisco Giants in the 1985 Major League Baseball Draft as the second overall pick, Will Clark began his professional career with Class A Fresno in the California League. His penchant for dramatic pro debuts began in his first game with Fresno when he hit a home run in his first-bat. However, it should have come as no big surprise, since he had already played on some of amateur baseball’s biggest stages.
Clark was instrumental in Fresno’s resurgence during the second half of the 1985 season when they recorded 49 wins against 25 losses, after having trailed Salinas in their division by 12 games in the first half. Fresno defeated Salinas in the division playoff and then defeated Stockton for the overall league championship. Clark posted a slash line of .309/.458/.512, while recording 10 home runs and 48 RBI in only 65 games
He was invited to the Giants’ spring training camp in 1986 as a non-roster player, but wasn’t expected to make the big-league club. However once he got into the Giants’ lineup during exhibition games, Giants manager Roger Craig couldn’t find a good reason to take him out. In his first game in a Giants uniform on March 7 against Oakland, he drove in four runs.
Clark had the benefit of working with legendary Giants all-star first baseman Willie McCovey during the spring. McCovey was able to help him with his work around first base, but reportedly couldn’t find a flaw in Clark’s swing. Clark wound up beating out 14-year veteran Dan Driessen for the starting job, as Craig couldn’t ignore Clark’s .288 batting average, four home runs, and 16 RBI in 18 games. Craig expressed confidence in his decision, “He (Clark) had done everything we’ve asked and he has major league written all over him. Sometimes it takes six or eight weeks to find out about a young man’s ability, but we think he’s ready to step in and play first base now.”
The Giants opened the regular season on April 8 against division rival Houston Astros at the Astrodome. Clark’s debut game was the earliest a Giants position player had reached the majors since World War II. By comparison it took Giants great Willie Mays 116 games to reach the majors, while all-star shortstop Chris Speier did it in 129.
In his first major-league at-bat against the Astros, Clark faced career strikeout leader Nolan Ryan in the first inning. On Ryan’s third pitch and Clark’s first major-league swing, Clark deposited a letter-high fastball into the centerfield bleachers, 420 feet away. He became the 50th player in major-league history to hit a home run in his first plate appearance. With a flock of Clark’s family and friends attending the game, the Giants won, 8-3. Clark would go on to have great success against Ryan during his career. In 39 plate appearances against Ryan, he belted six home runs, drove in 11 runs, and posted an OPS of 1.274.
The fanfare that accompanied Clark’s first few months, along with his brashness and confidence, drew mixed reactions from his teammates. Veteran catcher Bob Brenly gave him the nickname “The Thrill” for his early heroics. On the other hand, some of his other teammates agitated Clark by painting his favorite cowboy boots orange. They didn’t know how to take Clark’s demeanor. Some resented how he made the game look easy. In an interview in 1987 with The Sporting News, teammate Jeffrey Leonard, who took his turns razzing Clark the year before, recalled about Clark’s rookie season, “I knew I could get to Will. He was a hotshot All-American making the big bucks and he missed all those minor league bus rides. I introduced him to a lot of stuff he was going to run into as a major leaguer. There was not envy or jealousy involved. All the publicity he was getting meant nothing to me. But I was curious about him. I wanted to see what Will Clark was made of, so I tested him a lot.”
Clark helped provide a much-needed spark for the Giants who had lost over 100 games in 1985. After the first two months, they were in second place in the NL West Division behind Houston. But Clark’s contribution was derailed on June 3, when he was involved in a collision with Montreal Expos first baseman Andres Galarraga and suffered a hyper-extended elbow that kept him on the disabled list until July 26.
After several pinch-hitting at-bats, Clark returned to the starting lineup on August 4, and he proceeded to hit .319 for the rest of the year, after having batted .260 before his injury. For the season, he batted .287 with 11 home runs and 43 RBI in 111 games. He finished fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting won by St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Todd Worrell. Aided by a new crop of young players, the Giants posted their first winning season since 1982 and finished third in the NL West.
Clark had surgery over the winter to remove bone chips in his elbow, and he worked with physical fitness guru Mackie Shilstone to help build up his strength to generate more power. Furthermore, he decided he needed to be more consistent in his at-bats. In an interview with The Sporting News in April 1987, Clark remarked about his 1986 season, “The quick start made me think the majors would be easy. I got hot early and I thought I could hit everything. Sitting out with the injury allowed me to do a lot of thinking and re-evaluating. I decided to be more selective and to look for my pitch instead of swinging at theirs.”
Regarding the animosity of his teammates last year stemming from his brashness and lack of perceived humility, Clark further commented in The Sporting News, “That doesn’t bother me so long as it doesn’t carry over onto the field. I think a lot of the publicity I got last spring ticked off some people, but I really had no control over that. I know some of the guys didn’t like it. Some of the comments went beyond good-natured kidding. But I can’t worry about the jealousies.”
The Giants started out strong in 1987 and were in first place at the end of April, although Clark was hitting only .266. Two months later, Clark was hitting .323 while Jeffrey Leonard and Candy Maldonado were providing a one-two power punch. The Giants remained close to first place through mid-July, when they acquired Kevin Mitchell from San Diego. His bat provided another boost, and the Giants took over sole possession of first place from the Cincinnati Reds by August 21 and never relinquished the lead. It was the Giants’ first division title since 1971.
At one point in the season, Clark hit eight home runs in eleven games and had nine consecutive games with an RBI. He was named NL Player of the Week twice during the season. Clark finished the regular season with a slash line of .308/.371/.580 and led the Giants with 35 home runs and 98 RBI. Clark attributed his stats increase to being able to avoid injuries and to sustain his strength late in the season, aided by the conditioning he did with Shilstone. In only his second major-league season, he was fifth in the NL MVP Award voting won by Andre Dawson. However, Clark was named the Giants team MVP.
The Giants faced the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series and held a 3-2 lead after Game 5. However, the Cards shut out the Giants in the final two games to claim the pennant. Clark hit .360 for the series, while Leonard captured the Series MVP with four home runs and a .417 batting average.
The 1987 season was not without its share of friction in the clubhouse involving Clark. The Sporting News reported that Clark and Leonard “engaged in fisticuffs” before a game on August 25 in Philadelphia over an argument regarding the signing of baseballs. Clark down-played the incident as “no big deal,” while Leonard, noting that boxing promoter Don King was in attendance at the game, laughed it off saying, “He was here to promote his next big fight.”
However, Clark would agitate his teammates by throwing temper fits after poor at-bats, by throwing his helmet, or slamming the bat rack. After Giants clinched the division title in September, a celebrating Clark shouted an expletive into a television camera that had followed the team into the clubhouse after the game. The Giants drew criticism for Clark’s behavior, but Clark shrugged it off by saying, “They should be happy they’ve got someone with spirit after the deadheads who have been here.”
Over the winter Clark had time to reflect on his season. He attributed some of the friction with teammates to his emotionalism. He said his grumblings after poor performances were misunderstood by his teammates. He told The Sporting News in the spring of 1988, “I will make an effort this season to place the game behind me as quickly as possible. I really don’t want to tick anybody off. I need to come down off that adrenaline rush when the game is over. It’ll come with maturity.” He had long talks with his family about his image and vowed to make concentrated efforts to improve his persona with teammates and the media.
Manager Roger Craig told SPORT magazine in the spring of 1988, “He’s (Clark) got a lot of growing up to do. I’ve talked to him quite a bit about that. He does a lot of things he’s sorry about later.” On the other hand, Craig noted about his star player, “I regard a lot of our guys as indispensable, but if I had to pick one, it would be Will Clark. In addition to his natural ability, he has the charisma that puts people in the park.”
Clark signed a one-year contract with the Giants over the winter for $320,000. He would become eligible for salary arbitration after the 1988 season, when he approached his prime earning potential.
The 1987 season naturally brought increased expectations for Clark in 1988. Yet no one had higher expectations than Clark himself. He began to draw comparisons with Mark McGwire, the prolific power hitter for the Oakland A’s across the San Francisco Bay. Clark had outshined McGwire when they were teammates for the 1984 Olympic Games. But now McGwire had emerged as a legitimate slugger, leading the American League in home runs with 49 in 1987.
The Giants got off to a relatively slow start in 1988, but by the All-Star break held second place in the division with a 46-39 record. Clark wasn’t hitting for a high average (.271), but his on-base percentage was a healthy .386 and he was leading the National League with 68 RBI. For the month of June, Clark was awarded the National League Player of the Month, the first Giants player since Darrell Evans in 1983.
He was voted to his first All-Star Game, beating out Keith Hernandez and Andres Galarraga for the starting spot. He was the first Giant to be voted to the team in 15 years. He went 0-for-2 in the American League’s 2-1 win.
Clark began winning the admiration of his peers and opponents with his approach to hitting and desire to win. For example, in an interview with The Sporting News in July 1988, Chicago Cubs Don Zimmer commented about Clark, “The thing about it is, the guy knows he can hit. A lot of people on the other side will look at Will Clark and see that he’s got a few mannerisms, he’s got a little cockiness about him, so they don’t like him. But they would have to know Will Clark like I do to appreciate him.”
New York Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez offered his assessment of Clark for The Sporting News, “There’s no question Will and (Andres) Galarraga are the next two standouts at first base. Will seems to have a real good knowledge of the strike zone, and he doesn’t swing at many bad pitches.”
Clark was the most productive Giants player to come along in about ten years. He became the first Giant to drive in 90 runs in consecutive seasons since Bobby Murcer in 1975-76 and the first to hit 25 homers in consecutive seasons since Jack Clark in 1978-79.
However, the Giants had a significant drop-off from their division title the year before. Despite Clark’s efforts, their offense was spasmodic and the pitching staff was beset by injuries. The Giants finished in fourth place in the NL West with an 83-79 record.
He led the National League in RBI (109), walks (100) and intentional walks (27) and finished with a .282 batting average and 29 home runs. He had the highest RBI total for a Giants player since Willie McCovey (127) in 1970. For the second year in a row, Clark finished fifth in the voting for NL MVP and repeated as the Giants team MVP.
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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.