Health, victories elusive for Clark

Inside the Orioles

His injuries, club's woes frustrate first baseman in search of title ring

Baseball

June 25, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

SEATTLE - "I don't think disillusioned is the word. Frustration is probably a better word."

And with his concise two-sentence synopsis, Will Clark leans back in the clubhouse, staring ahead wide-eyed. Clark sees all. As the team's first baseman, clubhouse sheriff and its most vocal presence, he has witnessed and suffered much during his 1 1/2 seasons in Baltimore. Like most within the Orioles' veteran clubhouse, he expected last year's team to fare better than 78-84 and this year's team to do better than be tied for last place in the American League East.

"I'm a realist," says the Orioles first baseman. "I've been through many different situations, most of them good, a few of them not so good. Last year was probably as frustrating a year as I've experienced. This year hasn't been what we wanted so far, but it hasn't been anywhere near as frustrating."

When Clark signed a two-year, $11 million contact as a free agent, the Orioles were restructuring their clubhouse following a season in which 13 pending free agents dotted the roster. Clark followed the team's 1998 MVP, Rafael Palmeiro, and was coming off a monster season of his own with the Texas Rangers. Injuries have dogged him with the Orioles, creating questions about his role, his team and his future when his contract expires at the end of this season.

Fast approaching another career crossroads, Clark says he will play as long as his body allows him to perform at a high level.

A sore right shoulder and muscle spasms have limited him for much of this season, depriving him of power and forcing him to adjust his approach. Clark has never been a classic power hitter but retains a classic swing. His mind-set is more closely aligned to a leadoff hitter's - work counts, get on base, score runs as well as drive them in. Only recently has Clark been able to consistently drive the ball to all fields. "I probably make more adjustments now than I did earlier in my career," he says. "You have to."

Clark is expert with a verbal needle, which he applies to reporters, teammates and coaches with surgicial precision. He gladly receives his share of barbs as well.

"You see him on the other side of the field and you think he's the most arrogant jerk in the game," said one of Clark's current teammates. "But when he's on your side, you see him differently. He cares a lot about winning. He wants to help younger players."

What hurts most, however, are questions about his health and his ability to play.

"I've really, really enjoyed going out there to play. I enjoy it as much now as I did when I was in college," says Clark. "The only thing to put any damper on it whatsoever have been the injuries. But they're not injuries that are conditioning-related. I broke my elbow in half 15 years ago and was told I was going to have arthritis. And I'm having it in the form of bone chips. I take a line drive off my thumb [last season]. Was that conditioning-related? No. I chase a fly ball in Texas and ran into a wall. Is that conditioning?"

Clark owns 265 home runs, more than 2,000 hits, almost 1,150 RBIs and four 100-RBI seasons. Asked what statistical goals remain, Clark shakes his head. "I'm not preoccupied by numbers at all. I know that there are a lot of people around the game who think their numbers are the most important thing. To me, what's important is winning. That's why I'm still playing. I've put together some numbers. I feel I've had a pretty solid career. I just want to win."

Clark's 15-year career has included six All-Star and four postseason appearances, including 1989 when he batted a record .650 for the San Francisco Giants in their five-game LCS elimination of the Chicago Cubs. The Giants' reward that season was participating in a World Series disrupted by earthquake and dominated by the Oakland Athletics, who took more than two weeks to complete a four-game sweep of the Giants. Clark still hasn't enjoyed the feel of a World Series win.

"I'm not playing for money. I've got all I need. I'm only playing for a ring right now," he says.

Clark says he thinks it can still happen with this team and stubbornly refuses to write off a season that has found the Orioles overmatched on the road and within their division. "We're 7 1/2 games back," Clark said last week. "That's not out of sight. Have we played well? At times. Will we play better? I guarantee it. This team has talent. We should be winning more than we have."

Following the Orioles' 8-5 loss to Oakland in the second game of the current road trip, Clark said what many have known but chosen not to admit: For whatever reason, the team's pitching has collapsed on the road. No lead is safe, as proved in Oakland, where the Orioles dropped three leads en route to being swept three games.

"It's one thing to lose by getting beat," says Clark. "In this game, that's going to happen. You understand that on some days you're going to be outplayed or outpitched. It's another thing to beat yourself or not hold onto a lead. When you have the chance, you need to win."

His desire firmly in place, Clark can only guess at where next winter will carry him. He arrived at Fort Lauderdale this spring screeching to anyone who would listen that he had no intention of becoming a platoon player this season. Knowing he will play next season at 37, Clark no longer makes such a claim. "If the situation is right ... if the team has a good chance to win, sure, I'd consider it," he says.

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