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January 23, 2003

Breaking Balls

The Thrill is Gone

by Derek Zumsteg

I grew up going to Mariners games, but while visiting family in San Francisco, I always enjoyed seeing a good team play outdoor baseball in Candlestick. I loved the Giants teams from 1985-1993. They played in the sun, they were young and good, and people came out to see them, all of which made for a dramatic difference in the amount of fun I had. While I still follow the team, I've never been as big a fan since 1993. Because after the 1993 season, when the Giants were the best team ever to not make the post-season, Will Clark wanted to stay in San Francisco, and it didn't happen.

Clark had hit .299/.380/.499 in his eight seasons in Candlestick. He'd been to the All-Star Game every year from 1988 to 1992, finished in the top 10 MVP voting four times, top 10 in OPS+ five times. And while the primary tool of a first baseman is his bat, Clark was also stellar with the glove:

	Will's		Lg. 1B		Will's		Lg. 1B
	Fielding	Fielding	Range		Range
Year	Percentage	Percentage	Factor		Factor
--------------------------------------------------------------
1986	0.989		0.992		 9.94		8.31
1987	0.991		0.991		 9.76		8.47
1988	0.993		0.991		10.10		8.65
1989	0.994		0.992		 9.85		8.38
1990	0.992		0.992		10.29		7.88
1991	0.997		0.992		 9.60		8.44
1992	0.993		0.993		 9.79		8.38
1993	0.988		0.992		 9.04		8.01

(Source: baseball-reference.com)

Defensive statistics aren't bulletproof, but you can look at them and start to draw conclusions. Like this: that's a huge difference in range factors. Huge. So huge I had trouble finding a comparable first baseman. Doug Mientkiewicz, noted glove man, had a 9.44 RF in his best defensive year of 2001, and the league RF was 9.39. Sean Casey had a 9.60 RF last year, and the league average was 9.39. Clark was playing on a whole other level from his peers; from 1987-1989, I consider him to have been the best overall player in the game.

Clark was the premier Giant, part of a young core that included Matt Williams and Royce Clayton. He appeared opposite Mark McGwire in posters implying a cross-bay rivalry. I couldn’t find Will Clark jerseys to buy in Bay Area team shops during the summer, and ended up waiting 15 years before I bought an authentic jersey of someone else (Chris Snelling, but that's another story).

He and the team had agreed to general terms of how much a year he would make, but they wanted to give him three years, and he wanted more. He was happy in San Francisco, he wanted to spend the rest of his career there, and was disappointed the team didn't feel strongly enough about it. They parted ways and neither was the same thereafter.

In the following years the Giants promoted J.R. Phillips, played Mark Carreon, Todd Benzinger, Phillips again...yeah. The Giants went 55-60 in the 1994 strike year, 67-77 in 1995, and 68-94 in 1996. Barry Bonds was blamed for the bad years, and was bewildered--at one point lashing out at fans who would applaud a .132/.135/.211 Phillips, while booing him. Dusty Baker got them over .500 in 1997, where he's somehow kept them since then, with notable spikes sprinkled in. The 1997 season was also the first where they had even a good excuse for a first baseman, in J.T. Snow.

Now I understand that Clark wouldn't have made those teams contenders. And I know that staying in San Francisco wouldn't have kept the bone chips out of his elbow. But as he followed Rafael Palmeiro from team to team, with his bat declining even while in Texas, Clark was forgotten behind players like Frank Thomas, McGwire, Jeff Bagwell, and even Jim Thome, after he moved across the diamond from third.

Fans in Texas and Baltimore weighed his diminished contributions against his free agent contracts, and often found him wanting. Clark still occupied a special place in my heart, even then--when I took over doing The Week in Quotes, Clark was one of the guys I could count on for a quality quote every week, even with the cursing cut out. Someone had certainly told him how to talk to the press at some point in his career, but he just didn't care.

So in 2000, Clark was traded from the moribund Orioles to the Cardinals to take over for the injured McGwire, and he came alive. It wasn’t regarded as an important trade at the time--with our own Chris Kahrl writing: "At least they didn't give up that much to get Timlin and Will Clark. While each of them should be useful, they're not going to be as useful to the Cardinals as a Sean Casey returning to form will be for the Reds."

The fans in St. Louis welcomed him, and Clark looked renewed, as if he was enjoying playing in front of fans who cheered and liked him, for a playoff contender. Clark hit a scorching .345/.426/.655 in 79 games with the Cardinals (Casey, who was good back then, hit .372/.431/.661 after the All-Star break), and the Cardinals won the division by 10 games before losing to the Mets in the NLCS (an NLCS where Clark hit .412/.474/.706).

But that wasn't the coolest thing that happened in 2000. In Game 3 of the ALDS, Garrett Stephenson was starting. Stephenson, who was badly overworked in Philadelphia, leading to his long feud with the Phillies (and Curt Schilling, who took his overwork like a man and asked for more), was not doing well. With two outs in the fourth, Stephenson was obviously in pain, and Reggie Sanders fouled off a pitch. Clark walked out to the mound, yelled at Stephenson--told him not to be a hero, to think of his career, and the team, and that there were pitchers who could finish the game for him. And then Clark pointed to the dugout, and Stephenson left the game. It was strange that it was Clark out there and not LaRussa, but that Clark would do that: get the starter out of a playoff game and take the blame if it backfired--when your manager, regarded as a genius, had left him in--definitely showed some backbone.

Of course, the Cards went on to lose to the Mets, and Clark opted for retirement. He was only 36, had hit .319/.418/.546 in his last season, and the Cardinals wanted to keep him around. But instead of hanging around, he walked away after one of the best seasons in his career. And while there's some evidence that the long goodbye can seriously hamper a great player's chances of getting into the Hall (see Ryne Sandberg and Goose Gossage, who both received shockingly low support considering their achievements), I wonder if Clark's decision to head home cost him a chance at a Hall of Fame plaque.

If Clark were playing today, heading into the 2003 season, and he'd managed to stand in for even 120 games a season, he'd be looking at getting his 2,500th hit, his 500th double, 325th HR, 1,500th RBI, 1,250th base on balls. I see where he falls short of what we want to see in a Hall of Famer: sustained domination, particularly--he almost certainly wouldn't have led the league in anything, or even finished top 10 in a major offensive statistic in almost a decade, if he was playing now.

And yet as rational-minded as I try to be, I look back and think that it would have been different had he remained in San Francisco after 1993. If he'd gotten the five-year deal he'd wanted, the Giants would have been in first place headed into the 1994 strike, wouldn't have been a doormat in 1995, and they'd have been coming back into contention as his contract came up for renewal again. He'd have still been hugely loved, and instead of grinding it out for paychecks and his own standards, he'd have been more comfortable, hit better, and I think he'd have deflected much of the Bonds-related criticism in the bad years, and uh, dogs and cats would have lived together in peace and harmony.

It's been two seasons since Clark took the field. He turned down inquiries by teams interested in seeing if he'd come out of retirement, and they've stopped calling. It'll be three more years before he'll turn up on Hall of Fame ballots. He's hanging out in Texas, hunting, playing Uno with his family, and probably doesn't mind that he's dropped entirely out of view. But as I sit around in the off-season and think about what's going to happen this year, the players I root for out of admiration, like Alex Rodriguez, or guys I want to see succeed, like David Eckstein ("What's that, coach? Time to run around the stadium three times? Let's go! Let's go now!"), I find myself looking at the plastic-protected rookie card that's sat on my desk for 15 years. And I wonder why they didn't just give him that five-year deal a decade ago, wondering if in a month he'd be reporting for spring training with the Giants.

I miss Will Clark.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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