A major breakthrough

Orioles: Howie Clark, 28, waited 11 years for a chance to play big-league baseball. Now, he's making the most of his opportunity with a .375 batting average.

July 26, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Andy Etchebarren could hardly wait to dial the phone. As manager at Triple-A Rochester, he had seen several players come and go, but few had made an impression like Howie Clark, and now Clark was heading to the big leagues, after 11 long years.

The call came right as Clark was leaving for lunch, and after getting told he was heading to Oriole Park, Clark said, "Etch, don't kid me."

"I would never kid you," Etchebarren said, "about something like this."

So Clark, 28, went to Frontier Field and packed his bags for Baltimore. Etchebarren, who first managed Clark at Rookie-level Bluefield in 1993, bid him a fond farewell.

"I'll be honest with you," Etchebarren said this week. "When I said goodbye to him, I went back in my office, and I had a few tears. I'm very proud of Howie Clark. He could have given up, but he never did."

It's a story that has become very familiar around the Orioles' clubhouse this season. Like 30-year-old rookie Travis Driskill, Clark is getting his first taste of the big leagues, the proverbial cup of coffee, and he's taking a big gulp.

With the Orioles beginning a three-city, 11-game road trip tonight in Boston, Clark is batting .375 (12-for-32). He has at least one hit in seven of his eight starts, and has proved his worth as a left-handed hitter.

Clark waited a long time for this, but he doesn't expect anyone to feel sorry for him. Those 11 seasons of professional baseball - 10 in the Orioles' minor-league system and last year in the Mexican League - weren't exactly purgatory.

"I figured as long as I had a uniform and I was playing the game I love, I was fine with that," Clark said.

The Orioles signed Clark in 1992 out of Huntington Beach (Calif.) High as their 27th-round draft pick. Before long, he started crossing paths with Driskill, who was trying to make his way through the Cleveland Indians' organization.

Clark remembers striking out against Driskill in his final at-bat of the 1994 season for Single-A Albany. Two years later, he got his revenge. Pitching against Double-A Bowie for the Canton-Akron team, Driskill had a no-hit bid with two outs in the ninth inning when Clark stepped to the plate.

"I never looked forward to him coming up to bat," Driskill said. "He's a pesky guy. He doesn't strike out very often. He has a good ability to put the bat on the ball."

With an 0-2 count, Driskill tried blowing a fastball by Clark, but Clark flicked it over the head of shortstop Enrique Wilson for a hit.

"I don't like to bring it up because he's a good dude," Clark said of Driskill. "But we always joke around about it."

Clark and Driskill were the quintessential 4-A players before their respective promotions. That label is used for players who seem too talented for Triple-A but not talented enough for the big leagues.

Driskill started 5-0 for the Orioles before a humbling stretch during which his record has dropped to 6-4. Clark was batting .330 for Rochester before his July 15 promotion, and he's having even more success in his first go-around against major-league pitching.

Besides simply producing hits, Clark has shown exceptional bat control. On Wednesday, for example, the Toronto Blue Jays tried a pitchout with Melvin Mora attempting to steal second base, but Clark foiled their strategy, reaching into the other batter's box and dumping a single into short center field.

"He's the opposite of most players nowadays," said Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley. "Most players who come to the big leagues are rushed a little bit, and they have a lot of learning to do. He's had a lot of at-bats [2,805 in the minors] to get ready for his opportunity. He's had an uphill battle for a long, long time, but maybe that's a blessing in disguise."

Clark might not have this chance were it not for injuries to David Segui, Jeff Conine, Mike Bordick and Chris Richard. Eventually, Orioles insiders say, Clark might become a valuable left-handed hitter off the bench. He can play almost any position, but he is limited with a below-average throwing arm.

"I always believed I would play here," Clark said. "I approached every game in the minor leagues as if it was my last game. That's how you still have to approach it here. I don't have the most talent in the world, so I have to give everything every day."

When Etchebarren called Clark, he reminded him that these promotions are tricky. Sometimes they last for only a couple of days.

"I said it doesn't matter," Clark said. "After waiting this long, I just want a taste of it. Even one at-bat would be great."

Clark doubled off the center-field wall in that first at-bat and hasn't stopped hitting since.

Howie Clark by the numbers

Date Opponent AB R H 2B RBI AVG July 16 Seattle Mariners 4 1 1 1 0 .250

July 17 Toronto Blue Jays 3 0 1 0 0 .286

July 18 Toronto Blue Jays 4 0 2 0 0 .364

July 19 Chicago White Sox 4 1 2 2 0 .400

July 20 Chicago White Sox 7 0 3 1 1 .409

July 21 Chicago White Sox 4 0 1 0 0 .385

July 22 Toronto Blue Jays 2 0 0 0 0 .357

July 24 Toronto Blue Jays 4 0 2 0 0 .375 Totals 32 2 12 4 1 .375

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