JACK OF ALL ACCOLADES : Clark Has Arrived, and the Padres Are Really Glad to See Him

Times Staff Writer

Bob Lutticken, age 22, catcher, looked over at the locker and covered his mouth.

"How can I tell him that I used to sit with his fan club in the right field upper deck at Candlestick Park?" he asked. "Do I just walk up and tell him, 'Hey, I used to be a member of Jack the Rippers?' "

Mark Grant, age 25, pitcher, looked over and shook his head.

"Do you know he used to be my favorite player, even though I was also a player? On the same team?" he asked. "Talk about a little bit of intimidation."

Tony Gwynn, age 28, star, looked over that the locker just a couple of steps from his locker and dropped his voice:

"I've been here seven years, I've seen a lot, and yet when he walked in that door this morning . . . I was whispering, 'There he is, there's Jack Clark, there's the man ."

The reaction at the Kroc Complex clubhouse Wednesday could not have been more opened-mouthed had Jack McKeon walked up in a Liz Claiborne original. It was as if none of the Padres really believed it would happen: Jack Clark has become one of them.

He arrived at the park in a blue-and-black designer sweatsuit early Wednesday morning. He was one of the last two players to depart some 7 hours later. In between, in the first full-squad Padre workout, he didn't do much more than just be Jack Clark. There was the stern expression, the funny batting stance, the heavy trot. But for now, for a team in search of an aura, that was enough.

"His presence," Grant said, "really does do something."

In the clubhouse, it caused many of the team's youngsters to tentatively approach him for a handshake. On the field, it meant four television cameras were constantly hounding him for a closeup, and more early-spring fans than anyone could remember followed him around for a peek.

Afterward, it caused Clark to shrug.

"There's no pressure--all I'm supposed to do here is what I can do," he said. "I'm capable of hitting the ball like nobody else. Not long, but hard. That's not bragging, I've just been blessed.

"I'm a role player, just like all of us are role players. My role is to slug."

As in 25 or more homers five different seasons. As in 100-plus RBIs twice. By comparison, the Padres have had a player hit more than 25 homers just once in the past nine seasons. They have had a player accrue more than 100 RBIs just twice in the club's 20-year history.

These statistics blinked through the Padres' minds when they made the trade last Oct. 24 that brought the four-time All Star here along with pitcher Pat Clements from the New York Yankees for pitchers Jimmy Jones and Lance McCullers and outfielder Stanley Jefferson.

"You've got to have the one guy who, if you're down one run, it ain't nothing, if you're down two runs it ain't nothing," pitcher Ed Whitson said. "You got to have the kind of guy where, if the pitcher makes a mistake, the game is over, you win. We haven't had that guy before, but now we do.

"Take it from me, because I've faced him . . . if the pitcher makes a mistake on Jack Clark, you ain't going to find the ball."

Whitson then made the rather unorthodox announcement that he would rather not pitch to Clark again, not even this spring.

"If they want me to pitch him batting practice, they better let me get behind a screen," Whitson said. "If not, I'm going to throw him a whole lot of strikes in the dirt. He's one of only two hitters who ever made me afraid that the ball is going to come up the middle and take my head off. He swings so hard, you can actually hear the bat going through the strike zone. Sounds like woosh --somebody swinging a wire hanger through the air."

If Clark's first day as a Padre was any indication, Whitson won't need to worry just yet. Clark displayed pudge both around his middle and in his swing and, in general, had the look of a man in need of about 42 days worth of fresh air.

Oddly, when asked about his shape, he smiled. And then he explained that he's trying to stop a trend: When it comes to his regular seasons, auto races have gotten off to cleaner starts.

"I'm sure people looked at me today and said, 'Why did they trade for this guy?" Clark said. "But I used to come to spring training in great shape, all gung ho and everything, and then lose it all in the last week before the season and start out hitting .150. I've had my share of climbing out of the cellar.

"Now I take my time, get ready slowly. I don't need to play every inning of every game down here. A couple of innings here, then a couple of more innings, and then finally, I get it going by the last 10 days of camp. I use spring training for what it is, training."

For Clark, there is also the matter of injuries.

Because of a cracked this or a ruptured that, he has failed to play as many as 100 games twice in the past five years and missed the 1987 World Series when he was with St. Louis because of an Achilles tendon injury. He feels the pains may have been caused by too much work too soon.

"I'll be ready to go hard when it counts," said Clark, 33. "And it doesn't count here. I don't want to get hurt here and miss six weeks. If I'm getting hurt, I'm going to make sure it's when it means something."

The rest of the Padres were convinced that just Clark being there meant something.

"Imagine," John Kruk said from his locker stall as his teammates were dressing to leave. "Me sitting here and watching Jack Clark and Bruce Hurst walking around the same clubhouse. It's enough to . . . "

Whoa, said Clark. If teammates want to make him a leader, he said, they had better understand one thing.

"Leadership is letting everyone know that we are all role players, none of us different, just with different roles," Clark said. "I can't ask anybody else to be me, and I don't want to be anybody else. And we all should feel that way.

"Yeah, I'm making good money ($2 million for each of the next two seasons), but I'm getting that money whether I hit a homer or not. I'm paid the same whether I have great statistics or not. All of us have one job--to do what it takes to win. Anything, everything. All of us are the same, all of us need each other."

Despite the rhetoric, at least on Wednesday, Jack Clark didn't need to say anything.

"Today was a day for just looking at him," Gwynn said.

Padre Notes

Besides Jack Clark, the remaining four Padre position players reported to camp on the requested day Wednesday, bringing the number here to 42, with one notable absentee: pitcher Eric Show. He did not recover from the flu in time for this workout, as most expected, and now apparently won't show up until Friday after having his physical examination in San Diego today. That will be six days late, not too desirable for a man the Padres hope will be their opening day starting pitcher.

The Padres held another one of their typically bizarre press conferences, this to introduce Tal Smith, the club consultant who will be a sort of an acting, acting general manager until a club president is hired following a search by Smith's consulting firm. Smith admitted that, "There isn't any job title, I'll just be filling in, pinch-hitting, as long as necessary." Basically, Smith will be pushing paperwork that can't be handled by Manager Jack McKeon, who will still make all the deals and do the other general manager stuff, per his agreement with Padre owner Joan Kroc last September. Smith was appointed now because McKeon is on the field all day and can't handle everything. Smith will also be working with Dick Freeman, the Padres' "acting president," which should set some kind of record for front office instability. "I think the situation is self-explanatory," said Smith, giving him the early lead for the most debatable quote of the spring. He then explained: "The Padre front office has to be reorganized, there has to be a CEO appointed, and any other determinations will be made by him. I will be here until that CEO is appointed."

Among other national media types here, Sports Illustrated is working on a possible cover piece on the Padres . . . McKeon met with John Kruk early in Wednesday's practice and told him to, "Take it easy on the knee, don't rush anything, don't try to come back too fast," according to Kruk. The right fielder underwent arthroscopic surgery in late January and has not fully recovered. His obvious limp and his difficulty running, along with a gain of several extra pounds, has lessened his trade value with the Atlanta Braves, who would need him if the swap for Dale Murphy could be pulled off . . . McKeon talked with Braves' General Manager Bobby Cox Wednesday morning and reported that Cox told him, "I don't know what to do." According to McKeon, Cox is still holding out hope of trading Murphy to the New York Mets, whose deal with the Seattle Mariners has suddenly taken a turn for the worse. If the Mets and Braves get together, look for the Mariners and Padres to attempt to do something involving pitcher Mark Langston and outfielder Mickey Brantley of the Mariners, and catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. and a starting pitcher for the Padres. The Mariners want Show, but McKeon will offer somebody else.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°