Oh, What a Thrill! Will Clark: Career Overview (Part 4)

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This is the fourth in a series of articles that detail the career of New Orleanian Will “The Thrill” Clark.  Watch for additional weekly posts about Clark’s career on the Crescent City Sports website.  Click here for the full series.

Within three years of making his major-league debut, Clark had already compiled a productive career in which he became one of the top players in the game.  Within that relatively short period, he took the San Francisco Giants to a division championship; but being the competitor he was, that obviously wasn’t going to be good enough for him.  He helped lead the San Francisco Giants in 1989 to their first World Series since 1962, although a powerful earthquake and a powerful Oakland A’s team got in their way of winning it.

The 1988 season was an advantageous one (.282 BA, 29 HR, 109 RBI, and 100 runs scored) for Clark, as he became eligible for salary arbitration after the season.  Clark asked for $1.2 million, while the Giants initially countered with an offer of $900,000.  They settled on a deal worth $1.125 million.

Part of the Giants’ spring training preparation included a trip to Clark’s hometown of New Orleans to play a two-game series with Bay Area rival Oakland A’s.  The A’s defeat of the Giants twice in the Louisiana Superdome exhibition turned out to be a preview of their meeting eight months later in the Fall Classic.

The 25-year-old Clark and Kevin Mitchell, who had been acquired by the Giants in July 1987, got off to sizzling starts for the 1989 regular season.  Through April 19, Mitchell had a major-league leading five home runs and 19 RBI, at the same time Clark compiled a 10-game hitting streak and drove in 12 runs during the first 13 games.  The Giants’ power duo quickly acquired the nickname “Pacific Sock Exchange,” in an analogy with A’s sluggers Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, popularly known as the “Bash Brothers,” who combined for 74 home runs the year before.

Clark told The Sporting News about his incredible start of the season, “I’ve never had a start like this.  I’d attribute it to a lot more work this winter.  I just felt there were some things I had to do to improve, so I doubled my batting practice.  The weather in New Orleans was good, so that helped.”  With regard to his production with Mitchell, he added, “They’re still pitching carefully to me.  (Clark had 19 walks in April.)  But now it’s more likely to hurt them.  It’s the same as it was with Rafael Palmeiro and me at Mississippi State.  If one guy didn’t do it, the other guy would.”

Clark and Mitchell dominated National League statistics at the end of May.  One or the other was on top in nine different offensive categories.  They were on a course to combine for 80 home runs and 285 RBI.  Clark was named the NL Player of the Month, with Mitchell also getting strong consideration.

Hitting experts marveled at Clark’s natural swing.  The Giants’ own batting coach, Dusty Baker, commented about it in The Sporting News, “Will’s main asset is a tension-free swing.  He doesn’t muscle the ball like most power hitters.  Will uses leverage extremely well.  He’s a hitter, not a slugger, and what he’s doing now shouldn’t come as a surprise.”

Clark gave credit for his mechanics to Barry Butera, a New Orleans-based coach and former Boston Red Sox minor-leaguer.  Clark told The Sporting News, “I was a dead pull hitter in high school, but my swing was revamped by Barry Butera, who was a Ted Williams disciple.  We placed a lot of emphasis on leverage and using the hips, because I wasn’t big and strong. I’m not a hacker, so my success is based on a fluid swing, bat speed, and perfect contact.”

When the time came for All-Star Game voting, Clark’s popularity gained him more votes than any other player.  With the Royals’ Bo Jackson as the runner-up, it was the second time he had finished second to Clark, the other being the SEC Player of the Year Award in 1985.  At the All-Star break, Clark was hitting .332 with 14 home runs and 64 RBI, while Mitchell’s average was .295, with 31 home runs and 81 RBI.  The Giants were leading the Houston Astros by two games in the NL West Division.  They were in first place for only the sixth time since they moved to San Francisco in 1958.  Three of those teams (1962, 1971, and 1987) captured titles.

Clark and Mitchell were gaining national notoriety by being compared to the most prolific power combos of the 1980s.  Their productive season was even likened to 1961 when Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were deadlocked in a race for most of the season to break Babe Ruth’s 60-homer mark.  Entering the final month of the season, the Giants’ duo was embroiled in a race for National League MVP honors.  Mitchell’s game was largely based on his ability to hit home runs, whereas Clark was delivering balanced results in batting average, on-base percentage, and power.

In fact, Clark battled San Diego’s Tony Gwynn for the batting title for most of the season.  The competition came down to the last two games of the season against each other in San Diego.  On September 30, Gwynn went 3-for-4 to move within a percentage point of Clark, .333 to .334.  The next day Gwynn repeated his 3-for-4 performance to finish at .336 and win his third straight title, while Clark, who was booed heavily by the home crowd, managed to get only one hit in four at-bats to end up at .333.

The Giants had taken sole possession of the NL West on June 17 and never relinquished the lead for the remainder of the season. They finished with 92 wins, three games ahead of the Padres.

They faced the Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series.  The Cubs’ offense was led by Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace, and Andre Dawson, while Greg Maddux and Rick Sutcliffe were at the top of the Cubs’ rotation.  However, Clark had one of the best-ever series in playoff history as the Giants had an easy time with the Cubs, winning the series, 4-1.

Clark had a perfect day at the plate in Game 1, garnering four hits in four official at-bats and drawing a walk.  He scored four times and drove in six runs, practically single-handedly defeating the Cubs.  He homered twice off Maddux, including a grand-slam in the fourth inning that effectively put the game out of reach for the Cubs.  After the game, Clark downplayed his performance in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, “Anything can happen in a seven-game series.  I just got locked in a groove, but it doesn’t mean I have this park or the Cub staff in my pocket.”

But Clark would indeed have Cubs pitchers in his hip pocket during the rest of the Series.  He continued his torrid hitting, winding up with 13 hits and two walks in 22 plate appearances in the five games.  He compiled a whopping 1.882 OPS.  Clark’s 11 total bases were a record at the time.  He was the clear choice for MVP of the Championship Series.

The Giants advanced to play Bay Area rival Oakland A’s in the World Series, the Giants’ first appearance since 1962.  Oakland was coming off its second consecutive American League pennant, despite having slugger Jose Canseco for less than half of the season due to injuries.  The A’s featured a starting rotation that included 21-game winner (Dave Stewart), two 19-game winners (Mike Moore and Storm Davis), and 17-game winner (Bob Welch).  The entire A’s pitching staff posted a remarkable 3.09 ERA for the season.

The A’s made quick work of the Giants in the first two games of the Series at their home stadium, winning 5-0 and 5-1.  The Giants’ bats went dormant with only five hits in Game 1, although Clark and Mitchell accounted for two apiece.  In Game 2, Giants hitters managed to get only four hits. Suffering from tonsillitis, Clark went hitless for the first time in a 1989 playoff game.

The Series moved to Candlestick Park, and what followed in Game 3 on October 17 was one of the most bizarre events in World Series history, although not because of what occurred during the game.  Just minutes before the game was to begin, a magnitude 6.9 earthquake struck the Bay Area and lasted 17 seconds.  Players from both teams frantically abandoned their dugouts immediately following the initial tremors and gathered onto the field with their families.  Candlestick Park incurred damage to its upper deck, while electric power and all communications lines within the stadium were knocked out.  Out of safety concerns, the Series was postponed indefinitely by MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent.

Clark at first thought that fans were rocking the stadium.  In The Sporting News he commented, “I didn’t immediately catch the magnitude of it.”  But like most of the players, after the game his attention quickly turned to the communities that had suffered vast devastation in both San Francisco and Oakland, “We’re not as worried as much about baseball as about people’s health and property.  We’ll worry about baseball in time.”

Not certain of the status of Candlestick Park for Games 3, 4, and 5, over the next several days Vincent considered several options for the remainder of the Series, including moving the games to Oakland’s Coliseum Stadium and even potentially cancelling the rest of the games.  Of course the preferred scenario was to resume the Series at Candlestick, but more time was needed to verify the safety of the stadium.  Ultimately, Vincent stated his intentions on October 19 to play Game 3 at Candlestick on October 24, pending the verification.  In the meantime, the players had to busy themselves, so many did personal appearances in affected areas of the community.  Both teams went through the motions of playing simulated games in an attempt to maintain their sharpness, but the players had a hard time getting their heads into the games.  Giants players practiced in Candlestick Park while construction workers in hard hats were repairing the stadium.  They had hopes the layoff would negatively impact the A’s pitching, and their offense would finally awaken.

The stadium was cleared to resume the Series, as cracks in the upper deck structure were able to be repaired, and Game 3 was played as re-scheduled in San Francisco.  The A’s Dave Stewart, who stymied Giants bats in Game 1, drew the starting assignment and again allowed five hits but yielded three earned runs this time.  Leading 4-3, the A’s broke the game open with four more runs in the fifth inning and finished with a 13-7 victory.  Collecting a hit and a walk, Clark was not a factor in the game.

The Giants were optimistic that more of their offense would show up in Game 4, like it did the day before when they collected seven runs on 10 hits.  However, the Giants got behind early and their six runs in the sixth and seventh innings were too little.  The A’s won, 9-6, to sweep the Series.

The Giants had four days off in between the deciding Game 5 of the NLCS and the start of the World Series.  Then they were off 11 days between Games 2 and 3 of the World Series.  They were unable to mount any type of momentum for the World Series after a convincing defeat of the Cubs.  Clark summed up the experience in an Associated Press interview, “It was not exactly what you call a run-of-the-mill World Series.”

Mitchell bested Clark for the National League MVP Award, as he led the league in home runs (47) and RBI (125).  However, Clark had the best major-league season of any New Orleans native since Hall of Famer Mel Ott in the 1930s.  He enjoyed a well-rounded season, ranking first in runs scored (104), second in hits (196), third in RBI (111), third in triples (9), fourth in doubles (38), third in slugging percentage (.546) and third in on-base percentage (.407).  Clark also added 23 home runs.

He was a model of consistency at the plate, as he hit .375 in April, .351 in May, .303 in June, .307 in July, .352 in August, and .316 in September.  He hit .325 at home and .341 on the road.  He hit .321 against lefties and .340 against righties.

Clark had done practically everything possible in 1989 to position himself for his next contract negotiation over the winter.  Even his “just average” World Series performance wouldn’t diminish his overall market value.

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Richard Cuicchi

New Orleans baseball historian

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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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