Oh, What a Thrill! Will Clark: Career Overview (Part 5)
Part 5: An Established Major Leaguer
This is the fifth 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.
In 1989 Clark put together the best season by a New Orleanian since Hall of Famer Mel Ott in the 1930s. Although he fell short of winning the World Series with San Francisco, Clark’s performance put him on the national map as a premier player and positioned him well to ink a deal with the Giants that made him the highest paid player during 1990. He would go on to register three more all-star seasons during his next three seasons with the Giants, although they would suffer some of the worst records during his tenure.
After an outstanding regular season and an even more dynamic League Championship Series, Clark wasn’t a factor in the 1989 World Series, as the Giants were swept by the Oakland A’s in four games. However, the Giants’ defeat and his relative lack of productivity didn’t detract from the reputation he had earned as an impact player during the season, and in fact he reached a new level of respect by the baseball community. The 1990 Baseball Guide published by The Sporting News perhaps best described the magnitude of his achievements in 1989, “There comes a moment in the career of every baseball star when he crosses the line that separates mere public awareness from true athletic greatness. For Will Clark, that time came during a dramatic five-game performance in the National League Championship Series.”
Clark’s standout season couldn’t have come at a better time, since his previous contract had expired at the end of the season. In January, the Giants made him the highest-paid player in Major League Baseball history with a four-year $15 million contract. The contract averaged $3.75 million per year, including a $2 million signing bonus, the largest ever given to a major-league player. Obviously pleased with re-signing Clark, Giants GM Al Rosen told The Sporting News, “Will Clark is the premier player in the game and he earns every cent. He plays like a Hall of Famer, and he should be paid like one.”
In preparing for the upcoming 1990 season, Clark reflected on the benefits he and his teammates reaped from having Kevin Mitchell in the cleanup spot the previous year. Even though Mitchell had outpaced him for the NL MVP Award, in an article in 1990 Complete Baseball Handbook, Clark had the following perspective, “I don’t begrudge Mitch his success. His great start probably gave me twice as many pitches to hit last year. He made us a better and more confident team.”
However, the Giants were a much different team at the beginning of the 1990 season. By the end of May, they were in last place with a 19-29 record, 14 games behind the division-leading Cincinnati Reds. Clark was hitting a meager .253 with nine home runs, 34 RBI, and an uncharacteristically low .305 on-base percentage.
June was a turnaround month, as the Giants won 19 of 27 games, including a stretch of 16 wins in 17 games. Their run differential for the month was a positive 71. They moved up to second place, but still trailed the Reds by 9 ½ games.
Clark was voted the starting first baseman for the All-Star Game again. He got one of only two hits by the National League team who was stymied by an AL pitching staff that allowed only four baserunners the entire game. Leading up to the mid-summer classic, Clark engaged in a “war with words” with Jose Canseco over the fact that Canseco had recently surpassed him as the highest paid player. Upon hearing about Canseco’s deal, Clark scoffed at the press, reportedly calling the A’s outfielder an “over-rated three-toed sloth with no arms.” He said “Let that jerk over there have all the fun he wants.” Canseco reacted in a statement to The Associated Press, “It’s not on the top of my list for me and Will to become friends.”
July was another productive month, such that the Giants gained another four games on the Reds. Clark raised his performance during June and July, batting .327 with an on-base percentage of .394, although he failed to hit a home run during July
The team looked for signs of optimism to climb back further in the race with the Reds, including a retrospective peek back to 1951 when they were 13 games behind Brooklyn in mid-August. The New York Giants, as they were known then, eventually overtook the Dodgers to claim the pennant by winning a one-game playoff game at the end of the season on Bobby Thomson’s home run.
However, the current-day Giants swooned again in August (12-17) largely due to a patchwork pitching staff and then rebounded in September (17-11), but it wasn’t enough for the Giants to overtake the Reds for the division title.
Clark finished the season with a .295 batting average, 19 home runs, and 95 RBI. For most major-league players, it would have been considered a successful season. But it was subpar for him, especially when compared to 1989. He had 52 fewer total bases, while his on-base percentage dropped 50 points. During a 78-game stretch from mid-June to mid-September, he hit only three home runs and 31 RBI.
There were questions about whether his new record-setting contract had affected his game. But in an interview in early September with The Sporting News, Clark insisted money had nothing to do with his drop in performance, but rather the new way opponents were pitching to him. He said, “I’m seeing sliders on the black (the edge of the plate) and nasty split-fingers.”
However, it wasn’t until the final trip of the season that Clark revealed that a problem in his left foot, a condition called Morton’s neuroma, had hampered him all season. The ailment forced him to constantly hit to the opposite field. He said he had concealed the problem because he didn’t want to use it as an excuse for his decline. The condition had begun in spring training and continued to worsen.
In a March 1991 Times-Picayune article, Clark said, “This was something I could go out there and play with and make some adjustments to alleviate the pain. We were in a pennant race. I wasn’t going to say anything about it. The trainer knew, but he was the only one who needed to know. I didn’t need sympathy. I just wanted to go out and play.”
Clark had surgeries during the offseason to address the foot problem and remove his bothersome tonsils. During spring training in 1991, the foot surgery appeared to have worked, as Clark was pulling the ball to right field again with no issues.
The Giants had another horrible start of its season when they posted a 16-32 record during April and May, which put them last in the NL West. However, Clark was having a decent season with a .272 average, nine home runs, and 36 RBI. He attributed his lower-than-usual batting average to hitting many of his line drives directly at fielders.
By the All-Star break, he raised his average to .295 to go along with 15 home runs and 59 RBI. He was selected to his fourth consecutive All-Star Game and got a single and a walk in the National League’s loss, 4-2.
By mid-August the Giants climbed to within six games of the NL West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers. Clark and teammates Kevin Mitchell and Matt Williams were all having good years for home runs, with each talking about taking the league’s home run crown. They were on a pace to each hit 30 or more homers for the year, something that the Giants hadn’t done since 1966.
However, more than capturing the home run title, Clark was interested in winning the Gold Glove Award for first basemen. He told The Sporting News in mid-August, “You can have all the offensive awards there are. I want the defensive award. I want the Gold Glove.” At the time, he had made only three errors.
Clark was named the National League Player of the Month for August, when his slash line was .347/.408/.678 and he compiled 41 hits, 14 doubles, seven home runs, and 28 RBI. His production put him in discussions for the Triple Crown and NL MVP.
However, when he fouled a ball off his kneecap in early September, it affected his productivity. During the final month, he hit only three home runs and 14 RBI and averaged .253.
The Giants took a nosedive to finish the season in fourth place, 19 games out of first place. Their only consolation was sweeping the Dodgers during the final series of the season to allow the Atlanta Braves to capture the division title by one game. The Giants’ 75-87 record was their worst since Clark had arrived.
He didn’t win the Triple Crown or the MVP Award (he finished fourth), but he did collect first-time hardware for the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards. Clark concluded the 1991 season with a .301 average, 29 home runs, and 116 RBI. He led the league in total bases and slugging percentage.
Kevin Mitchell was traded by the Giants to Seattle over the winter in an attempt to acquire much-needed pitching that had been the Giants’ Achilles heel the past two seasons. Amid long-standing rumors of tension between Clark and Mitchell, it was speculated that Clark had something to do with Mitchell being dealt away, by urging the Giants’ front office to rid themselves of the troubled outfielder. (Mitchell had previously caused the Giants some embarrassment from a domestic dispute with his wife.) In reality, Clark would be losing protection in the lineup by not having Mitchell around him, and he would not have encouraged that possibility.
Clark entered the 1992 season with his seventh consecutive Opening Day starting job at first base. In the six seasons preceding him, the Giants had six different first basemen in season openers. Throughout his short career, he had been among the league leaders in batting average, home runs, and RBI and had finished in the Top 4 of the MVP Award voting in three seasons. Yet he thought his best year may be ahead of him when he told USA Today Baseball Weekly, “I haven’t had my career year. I’ve had some very consistent years, where I’ve hit a lot of home runs. I’ve had years where I’ve batted extremely well, and years where I’ve driven in a lot of runs, but I don’t think I’ve had a year yet where I’ve combined all that.”
With Mitchell gone and third baseman Matt Williams having a poor season, Clark’s slugging numbers were down during April and May because he was being pitched around. But he was still getting on base at a .417 clip and was selected as the Giants’ sole representative on the National League All-Star team. He hit a three-run home run in the eighth inning of the All-Star Game, but the American League won for the fifth consecutive year behind Ken Griffey Jr.’s three hits.
San Francisco had been tied for first place on June 1, but took a quick downturn to fourth place within two weeks. The months of August and September were brutal for the Giants, as they won only 20 of 56 games. They eventually dropped to fifth place, 26 games behind division-leading Atlanta Braves.
The Giants were looking for a reason to explain their poor performance. Even manager Roger Craig attributed it partially to uncertainty around the announcement on August 2 that Giants owner Bob Lurie would sell the team to a group in Tampa-St. Petersburg, after not gaining approval to build a new stadium in San Jose. But it’s more likely their drop-off was related to their inability to score runs, second-lowest in the National League.
Clark finished the season with 16 home runs and 73 RBI, his lowest totals for these two categories since his rookie season. His batting average was .300, and he had a career-high 40 doubles at that point in his career.
San Francisco was able to retain the Giants franchise when Lurie sold the team to Safeway chairman Peter Magowan. His first major change was the signing of free-agent Barry Bonds to a $43.5 million contract in early December. Bonds had just won his second National League MVP Award and led the league in on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) for the fourth straight year. This was good news for Clark who sorely missed having Kevin Mitchell in the lineup in 1992.
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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.