O's get serious, get Clark First baseman adds intensity to clubhouse seen as 'lackadaisical'

Brittle past is accepted

O's appear willing to offer Brown 6 years

December 06, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The Orioles not only announced the anticipated signing of Texas Rangers free-agent first baseman Will Clark to a two-year, $11 million contract yesterday, they used his acquisition to trumpet a new era within a clubhouse even club officials now criticize as previously uninspired and "lackadaisical."

General manager Frank Wren formally appointed Clark as the successor to defector Rafael Palmeiro as well as a prod among a group that distinguished itself for little last season except post-game vanishing acts.

Only a week after finding themselves cornered by an uncooperative market, the Orioles have pieced together next season's starting lineup by investing $102.5 million for four free agents and trading for a Gold Glove catcher. Friday's late-night signing of Clark -- finalized between Wren and agent Jeff Moorad a Fort Lauderdale rental car counter -- came only three days after Palmeiro accepted a lesser offer to displace Clark in Texas.

"When [Palmeiro's] decision came down [Tuesday afternoon], we regrouped and started looking at what would make us look like a better club. As I talked to Ray [Miller] and my staff, everything pointed to Will," said Wren. "There's no question he brings great leadership. That may change the tide a little bit about the way guys approach the game. There's not a guy in the game better about how he approaches the game than Will Clark. And that's not even talking about his ability."

Throughout a distinguished but injury-pocked 13-year career, Clark has rarely been bashful about venting his displeasure.

With the Orioles, he joins a reconfigured clubhouse that now includes smoldering slugger Albert Belle, second baseman and probable leadoff hitter Delino DeShields, catcher Charles Johnson and closer Mike Timlin.

Wren remains hopeful of signing free-agent pitcher Kevin Brown and acquiring two right-handed relievers. Brown is expected to pare his list of pursuers before next week's winter meetings with a final decision due before Christmas. Agent Scott Boras has insisted clubs offer Brown a minimum six-year deal. The Orioles are apparently willing to take that step.

Part of the team's future makeup includes a provision of Belle's five-year, $65 million contract that stipulates a no-trade clause becomes a limited no-trade clause following the 2000 season. The Orioles may then trade him to any of eight to 10 teams.

Miller has lobbied strongly for a change in the team's makeup since the Orioles tanked their way to a 79-83 record that included a 10-23 season-ending collapse.

Sentiment spread throughout the front office that a club filled with cliques and pending free agents became too comfortable with losing.

"One of the biggest criticisms of our club was the way it approached the game and how it had a lackadaisical approach at times," Wren said. " The changes we made were planned and calculated to bring intensity and to change the makeup of the clubhouse."

Even Clark contributed to the critique, saying of last year's fourth-place finishers, "On paper they were exceptional, but on the field there was something missing."

Miller proved persuasive in landing Clark. While the Orioles bumped their offer on Friday, Miller spoke at length with the six-time All-Star on Thursday.

"Ray made it very apparent the Orioles wanted me," Clark said.

Clark, who turns 35 in March, has played more than 123 games only once since 1993. He missed 136 games during his five-year term with the Rangers compared to six absences by Palmeiro during the same time in Baltimore. Able to play 149 games last season, Clark produced a .305 average, 23 home runs and 102 RBIs. His power numbers were his best since 1991 with San Francisco.

Clark's brittle health is an old issue within the warehouse. The Orioles almost signed him in 1993 but encountered resistance when they asked for his medical records. The Rangers were less demanding and hurriedly signed Clark, leaving the Orioles to pick up Palmeiro.

"It's sort of weird. I think five years ago if you had written a script you would have said Raffy would go to Texas and I would go to Baltimore. Those roles were reversed. Now here we are five years later and it looks like the script is happening," Clark said.

Forced to seek contingencies virtually to fill every need, Wren secured Clark by using the organization's deep pockets to overwhelm all competition.

"As late as last week, when things were happening, I kept saying there were players still out there," said Wren. "We feel that what has happened this week is evidence of that. Some players who signed were higher on other teams' lists than on ours. There were still players at the top of our list we could bring to our club."

Clark represents the Orioles' third choice at the position. A run at Chicago White Sox free-agent third baseman Robin Ventura that would have moved Cal Ripken to first also fell flat.

Having lost Mo Vaughn to Anaheim, Boston attempted to secure Clark but was blown away by the Orioles' updated offer.

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