Jerald Clark, age 25, having spent four years in college and four more in professional baseball, has already decided what he’s going to do if he opens this season as an outfielder with the Padres.
He’s going to buy a car: his first.
“I don’t care what kind of car,” Clark said softly, the only way he says anything. “Just as long as I can look on the salesman’s contract and see my name on it and know that it’s mine.”
First thing he will do in that car is go find Isiah and Phillip. Those are his two brothers who also play pro baseball. They both have cars. They were both first-round June draft picks in recent years and signed for bonuses of more than $100,000 each.
When Jerald signed with the Padres as a 12th-round pick in 1985 out of tiny Crockett, Tex., he was given just over $1,000. He immediately spent the money on college tuition in case he wouldn’t be good enough to make the minor leagues.
“My brothers have nice cars, an Audi, a Mazda,” Clark said. “You know how you sometimes dream of something? I’ve always dreamed of just having my own car like that.”
Next thing he might do is drive to the Mervyn’s department store in Las Vegas. That was his most recent place of employment. He worked there this winter, in home fashions, selling linens and housewares. At 6-feet-4, 190 pounds of tight muscle, he was perhaps the biggest Afghan salesman in retail history.
“You get no bonus, and try to live just on minor league money; you have to get a job,” Clark said. “But it wasn’t so bad. I bet you didn’t know that 200 thread sheets are a little better than the 180 thread sheets.”
Finally, while in Las Vegas, he will probably pull that car in front of the Scandia Fun Center. There, amid the miniature golf course, video machines and mini-car track, is where he worked on the batting swing that could change his life.
“They have some batting cages there, 25 balls for $1.25, that’s where I spent my winter,” Clark explained. “The pitching machines are old, so you never know where the ball is going, so you have to be quick with the bat. We’d go down, hit a few rounds, play a little golf, drive them fast cars and hit some more.”
And today the “hit” is him. The unassuming man with the huge swing has become the darling of this camp, playing and acting his way into the hearts of coaches and teammates, most of whom before now had barely heard of him.
Let’s see, who are the candidates for the final outfield spot? Shawn Abner and Shane Mack, right? Oh yeah, and maybe Thomas Howard.
That was before. Now, when talking about the fifth outfielder, there is only one name mentioned, and it is triple-A star Clark, who thus far has gone six for 11 with four RBIs in a combination of three “A” and “B” games.
He isn’t a great fielder. He doesn’t always run smart. But the Padres say they can fix those things. What Clark does, besides hit, is work and listen and work some more until he’s now got the Padre bosses believing one of their easiest job this spring will be turning him into a big league outfielder.
“I go home at night after working with Jerald and think, ‘Gee, if I could just have 24 of him,” coach Greg Riddoch said. “So many young people can learn from him.”
Clark’s emergence and the demise of the trade talks with Atlanta for slugger Dale Murphy have combined to make the Padre bosses even consider giving him special attention. Look for Amos Otis, the Padre hitting coach and three-time Gold Glove outfielder, to begin tutoring Clark on playing the outfield, an area that still seems uncomfortable to the former Lamar (Tex.) University first baseman.
“I’d much rather teach fielding to a guy who can hit than the other way around,” Otis said. “Jerald just needs to learn how to be quicker after the ball, and we can teach that. He has good work habits, which makes it easier. He’s the kind of guy coaches love.”
And the kind that teammates see and appreciate. While Clark was conducting his first extended interview recently, he was approached by shortstop and captain Garry Templeton.
“You get asked any funny questions now, you come tell me, and I’ll take care of it,” Templeton said with a laugh.
“Thanks for your concern, Garry,” Clark replied seriously.
He’s serious, and low-key, about most things. This despite hitting better than .300 in each of his four minor-league seasons, including .301 with nine homers and 67 RBIs at Las Vegas.
“I’ve seen what baseball can do to you, I’ve realized what a blessing it is just to be here,” Clark said. “I know I’m no better than anybody else, probably worse, because for the Padres to let me go, it wouldn’t be any big deal. They haven’t invested any money in me anyway. This humbles you.”
So does having two baseball-playing brothers. While infielder Isiah, 22, and catcher Phillip, 20, are both younger, Clark has learned much from them.
Isiah was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the first round in 1984. But he never panned out. He was traded to Oakland, released by Oakland, and recently picked up by the Padres’ minor-league operation, which will evaluate his chances this spring.
Ironically, the year Isiah was drafted out of high school, Jerald was picked out of college in the 27th round by the Dodgers and offered around $3,500. Isiah felt so bad because of the differences in their bonus offers, “He told me he would negotiate for more money and give me some,” Jerald recalled sadly. “I told him to keep it. Now, I’m the one taking him to dinner, giving him equipment, doing things for him.”
Phillip was drafted in the first round by Detroit in 1986, and has gone the other direction. He was the Tigers’ minor league Player of the Year while catching for Class-A Lakeland last summer, and could advance as far as triple A this season.
Along with oldest brother, John, the four Clarks used to do everything together in their small Texas town, where their father, Jesse, is still one of the local plumbers. They slept in the same room, crammed into the family’s only bathroom at the same time in the mornings and together learned to play baseball with old milk cartons.
Jerald Clark didn’t appear in the Padres’ first spring defeat Tuesday, a 3-1 loss to Milwaukee, which dropped the team to 4-1. Another young Padre outfielder, Randell Byers, blew a fourth-inning fly ball by LaVel Freeman that first became a triple, then an instant later became the game’s final run when second baseman Joey Cora threw wildly on the relay to third base. None of the young Padre outfielders have been impressive in the field this spring, which led Manager Jack McKeon to observe, “It seems all anyone cares about these days is hitting, hitting. To make this team, our backup outfielders are going to have to be good fielders. We may need to do a little review on this.” . . . The loss, absorbed by Bruce Hurst who allowed three earned runs in four innings, was harder to swallow because the Brewers’ team had only one big-league starter, designated-hitter Glenn Braggs. . . . The Padres also didn’t look so swell in the morning “B” game against the California Angels, as reliever Dave Leiper allowed four consecutive hits with two out in the eighth to give the Angels a 5-4 victory. Starter Greg Booker, vying for the right-handed stopper role, looked good, allowing just two unearned runs in four innings.