Clark instills strong Will to succeed in Palmeiro

Ken Rosenthal

August 15, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

In 1984 Rafael Palmeiro became the first Triple Crown winner in Southeastern Conference history. It was the last time he overshadowed his Mississippi State teammate and rival, Will Clark.

That summer Clark earned a gold medal with the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. The next year he won the Golden Spikes Award as the nation's top collegiate player, and San Francisco made him the second overall pick after B.J. Surhoff in the amateur draft.

Palmeiro, 26, also was chosen in the first round, but at No. 22 by the Chicago Cubs. He has yearned to be considered the equal of Clark ever since. Six years later it's happening -- the big numbers, the increased attention, the dawn of the game's next great hitter.

Despite going 2-for-13 the last two nights against the Orioles, Palmeiro leads the majors with a .344 batting average. Clark ranks ahead of him in homers (23-20) and RBIs (87-63), but Palmeiro surely would drive in more runs if he wasn't batting at the top of Texas' power-laden lineup.

It might seem pointless comparing players in different leagues, but Palmeiro has always measured himself against Clark, who also is a lefthanded-hitting first baseman. In 1989, his first year in Texas, Palmeiro had his worst season, Clark his best. "I just had to regroup and start again," Palmeiro says.

It was merely the turning point of his career.

He lifted weights, hit in the batting cage, reshaped his entire thought process. Ask Orioles hitting instructor Tom McCraw about Palmeiro, and he replies, "That's sweet stroking at its best. Twenty pounds of pure granulated sugar."

"There's no book on him," says Orioles manager John Oates, who coached Palmeiro with the Chicago Cubs in 1986-87.

"You've got to throw everything you've got, in every count, in every location. You can't get him out the same way twice in a row."

Sounds a lot like Clark, but that's where the resemblance ends. As people, they're complete opposites. Clark, from New Orleans, is so intense and arrogant, he's easy to dislike. Palmeiro, from Miami by way of Havana, is relaxed and quietly self-assured.

Their Mississippi State team also included Chicago White Sox reliever Bobby Thigpen and San Francisco reliever Jeff Brantley. Palmeiro speaks warmly of Thigpen, but even now, he perceives Clark as his rival, and not a particularly friendly one at that.

"We're not close," Palmeiro says. "We're friends. We talk when we get together. But we were never close. Years go by and we don't see each other. I saw him for the first time in two years at the All-Star Game. That's the only time I say anything to him.

"He's real arrogant, real cocky, which is fine. I just get along better with Thiggy [Thigpen]. When I'm talking with Clark I feel like there's this guy who thinks he's God in front of me. Talking with Thiggy, it's like we're back in college again."

Clark, though, is but one motivator for Palmeiro. In '89, the Cubs said he couldn't drive in runs after sending him to Texas in a nine-player trade that brought them reliever Mitch Williams and helped them win the NL East. "Everyone in the world knows I've proven them wrong," says Palmeiro, who averaged 59 RBIs in 1988-89. "That's all I wanted to do."

Still, the criticism bothered him nearly that entire season. Palmeiro hit .361 through May 28, .235 after that. Texas manager Bobby Valentine says he was distracted. Palmeiro admits, "My attitude was just not there. I guess I became selfish. I thought about that year a lot during the winter of '89. I was not going to let it happen again."

Clark, of course, was a superstar by then. The '84 Olympics marked the point at which he began eclipsing Palmeiro. "I didn't get that glory like he did," says Palmeiro, who was unable to play for the U.S. team because he was not yet a citizen. "Everything fell into place for him. It didn't for me."

They had similar years at Class A their first pro season, but Clark jumped right to rebuilding San Francisco in 1986. Palmeiro spent virtually that entire year at Double A, and half the next season at Triple A. He didn't join the Cubs for good until 1988.

"I don't see him being above me -- I've thought that way since college," Palmeiro says. "But I think he's a guy who wanted it real bad, made it and put up some numbers. I just told myself I can do it. I don't think he's a better player than me. I've proven that over the last couple of years."

That might be overstating the case -- Clark has averaged 26 homers and 101 RBIs the past four seasons. Palmeiro has yet to reach those totals, but he has led his league in hitting at some point each of those years, and he's currently on a 29-homer, 92-RBI pace. That would surpass his previous highs of 14 and 89.

Before last night's game he approached Oates, whom he hadn't seen since the Orioles changed managers.

"I just wanted to congratulate you," Palmeiro told his former coach.

"Hey, you can leave here hitting .350," Oates joked. "Lighten up a little bit."

Palmeiro laughed, but he didn't quite get it.

Lighten up?

Not with Will Clark out there.

Not now. Not a chance.

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