A 1990 poll of 65 major league players ranked Will Clark as the best clutch performer in baseball. Had his peers been asked to rank the cockiest or most arrogant player in the game, Clark might well have finished first as well. Clark's abundance of natural talent earned him the nickname "The Natural" and the tall first baseman never lacked for confidence. One of baseball's fiercest competitors, Clark was known for the fearsome glare he would fix on a pitcher while standing in the batter's box. "The big thing people say to me is, 'Why don't you ever smile?'" Clark once remarked. "Well, I'm too interested in trying to beat somebody right now to smile."
An All-American at Mississippi State, Clark played a starring role for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team which yielded such future major leaguers as Barry Larkin and Mark McGwire. During the five-game Olympic tournament, Clark batted .429 with three home runs and eight RBIs. The following year he won the Golden Spikes Award, given annually to the country's top collegiate player.
Selected with the second-overall pick of the June 1985 draft by San Francisco, Clark wasted little time acclimating himself to life as a professional. Just two days after signing with the Giants, Clark homered on his first swing in the minor leagues. Less than ten months later, after just 65 games at Single-A Fresno, Will "The Thrill" opened the season as the Giants' regular first baseman. Clark connected for a round-tripper against future Hall-of-Famer Nolan Ryan in his first major-league at-bat on April 8th, and finished his rookie year with a .287 batting average and eleven home runs despite missing 47 games with an elbow injury resulting from a base-running collision in mid-season.
Over the next six seasons Clark would establish himself as the premier first baseman in the National League. In his first full season, his smooth left-handed swing produced a .308 batting average and a career high 35 home runs as the Giants captured the NL West crown. Inexplicably, the slow-footed Clark attempted 22 steals that year, and was successful just five times. Though overlooked for All-Star status that season, Clark was voted the starting first baseman for the NL All-Star team every season from 1988 through 1992. His finest hour came in 1989, when he batted .333 (narrowly losing the batting title to Tony Gwynn on the final day of the season) with 111 RBIs, finishing second in the NL MVP voting to teammate Kevin Mitchell.
The Giants won their second NL West title in three seasons that year, and during the NLCS Clark took his game to an even higher level, sealing his reputation as one of baseball's best clutch hitters. During San Francisco's five-game triumph over the Cubs, Clark raked the Chicago pitching staff at a .650 clip while driving in eight runs. In Game One at Wrigley Field Clark picked up four hits, launched two circuit blasts (including a grand slam which left the stadium) and drove in an LCS-record six runs.
In the decisive Game Five, Clark faced hard-throwing Cubs reliever Mitch Williams with the bases loaded and the score tied in the bottom of the eighth. Clark smoked Williams' first delivery back through the box to break the tie and propel the Giants into the World Series. But in a Fall Classic remembered more for the devastating earthquake which struck just hours before the scheduled start of Game Three, the Giants were unceremoniously swept by their cross-bay rival Oakland Athletics.
Clark had become quite a durable player since his rookie year injury, setting a San Francisco record with 320 consecutive games played from September of 1987 through August of 1989. However, a string of injuries cut into his playing time in the early '90s and diminished his production. Clark drove in just 73 runs in 1992 and 1993, the lowest total since his rookie year.
Clark's contract ran out after the 1993 season, and although the popular star had become a fixture in San Francisco baseball, the Giants were unwilling to offer a long-term contract to a player saddled with recent injury problems and coming off two straight mediocre seasons. However, the perennially underachieving Texas Rangers were willing to take a shot on a player known as much for his intensity and leadership as for his bat. After contract talks with incumbent first baseman Rafael Palmeiro stalled, the Rangers signed Clark to a five year, $30 million deal to replace his former Mississippi State teammate. In his first season in the Lone Star State, Clark quickly took a fancy to AL pitching, posting a .353 average at 1994 All-Star break. His attitude benefited the Rangers as well. "He's got the will to win, and knows what is involved in getting it done," said manager Kevin Kennedy. "Not just some days, every day. It's the kind of intensity that this organization needed." When the players' strike hit, Clark ranked fifth in the AL with a .431 on base percentage and placed seventh in the league with a .329 batting average.
Over the next four years, Clark maintained a high level of offensive production, finishing below .300 only in 1996. Injuries continued to curtail his playing time, however, limiting him to 123, 117 and 110 games from 1995 through 1997. But Texas fans were far from disappointed. Clark's veteran presence teamed with the booming bat of outfielder Juan Gonzalez to lead Texas to its first two AL West titles in 1996 and 1998. Unfortunately for the Rangers, they faced the World Series bound Yankees in the opening round of the playoffs each time and Clark failed to repeat his earlier post-season heroics, collecting only three hits in 27 at-bats over the two series. The Rangers managed to win just one game in 1996 and were swept by a powerful Yankees squad in 1998.
Despite putting together his most productive season in seven years in 1998 (.305, 23 HRs, 41 2Bs, 102 RBIs) Clark suddenly found himself out of a job. Palmeiro decided to re-sign with Texas after five years in Baltimore, effectively ending Clark's days as a Ranger. Reviving his pas de deux with his old college teammate, Clark responded by signing a two-year deal with the Orioles.
Clark spent a desultory season-and-a-half with a pair of underachieving Orioles teams. Injuries plagued him again in 1999, as a fractured left thumb and a bone spur in his elbow limited him to 77 games and just 29 RBIs despite a .303 batting average, although he did manage to collect his 2,000th career hit on June 15th against Kansas City. The following year a trading deadline deal sent Clark from Baltimore to St. Louis, where he filled in for first baseman Mark McGwire, who was limited to pinch-hitting duties by a case of patellar tendinitis.
Clark's arrival reinvigorated a Cardinals club that led the NL Central but had treaded water since the loss of McGwire. He homered in his first at-bat and in each of his first four starts for St. Louis, and batted a robust .345 with 12 round trippers and 45 RBIs in his two-month Cardinals' cameo. He added a three-run homer off Braves' southpaw Tom Glavine in Game Two of the club's sweep of Atlanta in the Division Series, but decided to retire less than a month after St. Louis fell to the Mets in the League Championship Series.
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, Clark grew up (and remains) an avid hunter and fisher. He has been known to practice his archery in empty stadiums after games and has taped several hunting programs for ESPN. (AGL)
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FROM THE BASEBALL CHRONOLOGY
»June 3, 1985: The Brewers select University of North Carolina catcher B.J. Surhoff with the first pick in what will prove to be an extremely fruitful free-agent draft. Surhoff was the catcher for the U.S. Olympic Team last summer, and fellow Olympians Will Clark (Mississippi State), Bobby Witt (University of Oklahoma), and Barry Larkin (University of Michigan) are drafted 2nd, 3rd, and 4th by the Giants, Rangers, and Reds, respectively. The Cubs get a good one in the 24th round: Mark Grace while the White Sox take Randy Velarde on the 18th round. The Brewers take Phil Clark with the 18th pick of the first round, following his brother Isaiah Clark who was a 1st round pick last year. Neither will play in the ML, but brother Jerald Clark, who goes to the Padres on the 12th round today, will make it. The Tigers pick a winner in the 22nd round with John Smoltz, then trade him in 1987.
»April 8, 1986:
Rookie Will Clark thrills the crowd by hitting a home run in his first at bat, and off no less than Nolan Ryan. The Giants beat the Astros 8–3.
»October 4, 1989: Will Clark goes 4-for-4 with two home runs, including the first NLCS grand slam since 1977, to lead the Giants to a 11–3 win over the Cubs in Game One of the National League playoffs. Clark's six RBI tie Bobby Richardson's single-game post season record set in the 1960 World Series.
»October 9, 1989: The Giants win their first National League pennant since 1962 by defeating the Cubs 3–2 in game five of the NLCS. Will Clark bats .650 in the series with eight RBI to win MVP honors.
»September 28, 1991:
The Giants top the Dodgers, 4–1, as Don Robinson earns his first save in three years by stopping the Dodgers. In the 9th inning, L.A. loads the bases with one out, but does not score. Will Clark hits a 2-run homer to drive in his 109th and 110th runs of the year. With the Braves 5-4 comeback win over the Astros, the Dodgers lead in the West is one game with seven to play.
»April 19, 1996: The host Rangers show no mercy in running up the largest score in the A.L. in 41 years and trouncing the league-leading Orioles, 26–7. Sixteen of the runs come in the 56-minute 8th inning, their last at bat, and the largest 8th inning tally in baseball history. The inning is highlighted by Kevin Elster's grand slam off O's backup IF Manny Alexander. Manny, no Grover Cleveland Alexander, walks four including three with the bases loaded, but does manage to get an out. For O's reliever Jesse Orosco, it's a bad two days as he gives up 12 earned runs in two 1/3 innings: The two outings raise his season ERA from 1.52 to 3.40. Juan Gonzalez hits two homers and has six RBIs, while Dean Palmer (2) and Will Clark also add round-trippers. O's manager Johnson fumes when Mickey Tettleton takes 3B with Texas ahead 20–7: "I've seen it all, but guys tagging up from second with an 18-run lead, it's ridiculous." Texas manager Johnny Oates, who still carries a clipping from a 1983 IL game when Johnson, with a 9-run lead, had his team stealing against Oates' squad, counters, "Davey didn't have to use an infielder to pitch in that inning."
»August 28, 1998:
Juan Gonzalez, Will Clark, and Ivan Rodriguez hit successive home runs in the 4th inning of the Rangers' 6–5 win over the White Sox in the 1st game of a twinbill. Chicago takes the nightcap, 8–7, as the two teams combine to hit 14 home runs in the doubleheader to tie an American League record.
»December 5, 1998: The Orioles sign free agent 1B Will Clark to a 2-year contract.
»June 13, 1999:
The Orioles set a franchise record for runs scored, defeating the Braves, 22-1. 3B Cal Ripken Jr. goes 6-for-6 for Baltimore, hitting two homers, driving home six runs and scoring 5. His six hits in a 9-inning game ties the American League record. 1B Will Clark goes 4-for-4 with five RBIs. Mike Mussina earns the win as he allows one run on five hits in seven innings. He also joins in with two hits and three RBI. John Smoltz takes the loss as he allows seven runs on seven hits in two 1/3 IP. The Baltimore scoring record was 19, set in August 28, 1967, and the franchise record was the Browns 20 runs on August 18, 1950.
»October 5, 2000:
The Cardinals defeat the Braves, 10-4, to take a 2-game-to-1 lead in their series. Will Clark hits a 3-run home run for St. Louis and Jim Edmonds ties a division-series record with three doubles. Darryl Kile gets the win for the Cards, while Tom Glavine takes the loss in his shortest outing in seven years.