In autumn of career, Clark longs for October

April 13, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- He is a classic turn-of-the-century Oriole, an aging veteran who has enjoyed a distinguished career but longs to accomplish more.

Remember Will Clark in 1989? He was one of the top five players in the game. And his performance in the National League Championship Series was one of the greatest in postseason history.

Clark, then with the San Francisco Giants, went 13-for-20 against the Chicago Cubs, driving in six runs against a young Greg Maddux in Game 1, then delivering a bases-loaded, series-clinching single off Mitch Williams in Game 5.

It was Clark's third full season. He was heading to the World Series. And like Cal Ripken, a world champion in his second full season, he figured he would return every year.

Ripken hasn't been back, but at least he could savor the Orioles' 1983 triumph. Clark hasn't been back, and his lone Series experience was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

"The earthquake," Clark said. "It was like everything just stopped. It took us 10 days to get back out on the field. And when we got back on the field, there was no emotion. We were playing amid all the tragedy around us."

The Oakland Athletics won the final two games quickly and quietly to complete their sweep of the Giants. Clark never regained his NLCS magic, finishing 4-for-16 with no RBIs after being hampered by tonsillitis in the first two games.

Who knew he would never experience another postseason thrill?

Clark, 36, competed in the last great pennant race, when San Francisco won 103 games in 1993 and finished second to Atlanta in the NL West. He then returned to the postseason with Texas in '96 and '98, but batted only .111 in two Division Series, and the Rangers didn't even reach the LCS.

"I'm to the point of my career where I'm living for right now," Clark said the other day. "It's a lot of fun going to the postseason, being in the postseason. I want to get back to that. That's what I'm playing for."

Such sentiments resonate throughout the Orioles' clubhouse, home to the oldest team in the majors, with an average age of 31 years, 363 days. For all these players have achieved as individuals, few have reached baseball's pinnacle.

Consider this trivia question:

Which current Orioles have appeared in the most World Series?

The answer is a stunner: Mike Timlin and Greg Myers, with two each.

Myers lost the past two seasons with San Diego and Atlanta. Timlin won in both his appearances with Toronto, throwing out Atlanta's Otis Nixon on a bunt to earn the save in the sixth and final game of the '92 Series.

B. J. Surhoff has played 13 seasons, Brady Anderson 11, Delino DeShields 10, Chuck McElroy nine, Mike Mussina eight -- and none has appeared in a Series.

Harold Baines has played 20 seasons, Ripken 18, Clark 14, Albert Belle, Scott Erickson and Mike Bordick nine -- and each has appeared in only one Series.

Ripken and Erickson were winners, as were Charles Johnson and Jeff Conine with Florida in '97. But for the most part, these boys of summer are men in autumn, trying to find their way back to October.

Clark is a lifetime .302 hitter, but there's a gnawing quality to his career, and not simply because of his failure to experience fulfillment in the World Series.

If not for his injuries, starting with a hyperextended left elbow that cost him 47 games as a rookie in 1986, Clark could have been a 3,000-hit man, a Hall of Famer.

"My career has been pretty good, considering that two months into it, I broke an elbow in half and played with that my whole career," Clark said. "I sit there every now and then and say, `What if that never happened? What would that have been like?' But I try to make the best out of it.

"I play with a lot more pain than most people do. I've had to grit my teeth and bear it a lot more than people see. The reason I do it is because I love doing what I do. I love being out there between the lines playing the game."

It shows. It has always shown. Think back to the '89 NLCS.

Maddux started Game 1 for the Cubs, coming off his second full season, in which he went 19-12 with a 2.95 ERA. Clark hit an RBI double in his first at-bat, a bases-empty homer in his second.

His third at-bat came with two outs in the fourth, the bases loaded and the Giants leading 4-3. Cubs manager Don Zimmer paid Maddux a mound visit, and the two agreed to jam Clark with an inside fastball.

There was just one problem:

Clark read Maddux's lips, anticipated the pitch and hit a grand slam.

To this day, Maddux puts his glove over his face when talking to his catcher, and Clark says with no small amount of pride, "That is where it came from, I think."

His Game 5 showdown against Williams was even more special -- so special, the San Francisco Chronicle recently named it the most memorable moment in Candlestick Park history.

Clark said his greatest major-league thrill was a home run off Nolan Ryan in his first at-bat. But he ranked his bases-loaded hit off the left-handed Williams a close second.

"It was a situation you dream of as a little kid in your back yard," Clark said. "Two outs. Bottom of the eighth. Trying to get the base hit to go to the World Series."

Clark got the hit, all right, a scorching line drive up the middle. For that brief instant, he was the toast of baseball. Who knew the earthquake would strike only days later? Who knew that a decade would pass without Clark returning to the Series?

He dropped 20 pounds in preparation for this season, and has reached base safely in 19 of his first 35 plate appearances while batting seventh for the first time since his rookie year.

He's the classic turn-of-the-century Oriole.

Trying to make time stand still. Chasing autumn ghosts. Playing for the Series.

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