Baseball '89 : A Preview : He's Bringing His Bat and Code to Padres

Times Staff Writer

Even in Jack Clark's early years, spent in a Southern California to which he has returned this season as a first baseman of the San Diego Padres, there was the code.

From the inside of his graveled roof home in Covina, where his father returned home weary every night from work at the chemical factory, Clark looked at life like there were no superstars. There were no most valuable players. There were only utilitymen. Clark was a utilityman, everyone was a utilityman, all contributing to life just a little differently, but all worthy of the same regard.

At Azusa's Gladstone High, where Clark grew up as a sports star who would later become one of major league baseball's most frightening hitters, he never hung around the jocks. He was never cool. His music was soul and his friends were the guys who drove around with the frames of their sorry cars scraping the ground.

"The low riders," Clark remembered. "My guys were the low riders."

Said Clark's father, Ralph: "His friends were never who you'd think."

When others in Clark's athletic peer group ignored them, Clark befriended them. When other wouldn't let them join in the basketball games, Clark built a goal on his roof and they all played at his house.

"Nobody did anything easy for my friends, so I didn't want them doing anything easy for me," Clark said. "I never went along with the system. I should have, no question I should have. But I couldn't."

It was the code then, and the code again 15 years later, on an October night in 1985, when a nation watched as Clark pressed that code hard to his heart. It was in the National League Championship Series between the Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals. It was the ninth inning of Game 6. Clark's Cardinals were trailing, 5-4, and on the verge of seeing their three-games-to-two series lead vanish.

The Cardinals put runners on second and third. But there were two out. And although Clark stepped up, there was little hope for dramatics. With first base open, the man who had 22 home runs and 87 runs batted in that season would surely be walked intentionally.

Except Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda decided otherwise. He ordered pitcher Tom Niedenfuer to pitch to Clark.

You probably knew that. And you probably know what happened--Clark ripped one of baseball history's most dramatic hits, a three-run homer to give the Cardinals a 7-5 victory and a trip to the World Series.

Jack Clark will not apologize if, until last October, you have not been able to forget it. It's the code. You have to understand the code.

"You know what that home run was all about?" Clark asked recently. "It was getting back at them for showing me up. It was about that statement Lasorda was making. That I wasn't good enough. A few years earlier when I was with the (San Francisco) Giants, Bob Welch had begged to pitch me in that situation, and struck me out on high fastballs, and now Lasorda was rubbing it in. Did I take that personally? Very much.

"That hit wasn't just for me or the Cardinals. It was for the Giants, who had always been dominated by the Dodgers. It was for everybody who had ever been dominated by the Dodgers. Lasorda showed everyone he didn't respect me or what I represented at the plate. That was what that hit was all about."

It was the code then and finally, it is the code now. It is four seasons after that hit, Jack Clark is 33 and he has returned home as a $2-million quality-control expert for the Padres. It's not Covina, but there's gravel roofs and low riders and and he gets to play the Dodgers 18 times a season.

He was acquired, in a winter trade with the New York Yankees, chiefly to ensure the Padres decent first-base play, about 25 homers and 100 RBIs, and a division championship. But what the Padres are really paying him for is something entirely different.

They are paying for Clark to exonerate every Padre who has been the object of laughs and losses. They are paying for indignation at embarrassment, for anger at wrongdoings.

They are paying Clark not just to get hitting awards, but to get even. They are paying for the code.

"'I'll accept the role of a top guy here, but only if I can be the team's 24th guy too, and every guy in between," Clark said. "Don't be good to me if you aren't going to be good to everyone else, too. Don't put me on any different level than anyone else. Treat me better and I've got no use for you. Treat me worse, treat me like a number, and you can go die.

"All I ask if that this team is shown respect, all of us, the same respect. If some people think we have to earn that, fine. This summer, we'll earn it."

In questioning the motivations of a man known by few of his peers and even fewer of his fans, one answer can be found in what he wants to do after his playing days have ended.

Jack Clark wants to be a drag racer.

"I don't know if I could pull it off, but it's something I really want," said Clark, who annually prepares himself for spring training by attending both the Fall Nationals in Phoenix and Winter Nationals in Pomona.

He puts on his T-shirt and jeans and Winston Drag Racing cap covered with souvenir pins and talks his way into the pits to hang on the fences. He may be baseball's only player who knows the different between a McGee Engine and a Keith Black. One of Clark's most prized autographed pictures as a child was not of Sandy Koufax or Don Drysdale, but Big Daddy Don Garlits.

Want to start a conversation with the sometimes intimidating looking Clark? Tell him that you've just seen a great door slammer.

"I need my drag racing fix, I can't play baseball that year unless I've been to the races," Clark said. "Drag racing is like funky, radical, different. The fastest guy wins. There's no bull. I need that."

What's more, after 12 big-league seasons of thrashing through baseball's politics, he figures he's earned it.

"The system goes one way, it seems I go the other," Clark said. "It's nothing planned. It just happened."

Yet in a game that uses more statistics than any other in its frenzied search for order and reason, nobody believes things just happen. People believe everything must be somebody's fault. People believe in giving other people "raps." And in this area, Clark has been saddled with a doozy.

He talks too much about things that don't concern him. He is injured too much with things that shouldn't pain him. He is too different, too aloof, too much alone.

The rap continues: Jack Clark is baseball's closest thing to a superstar who, because he worries too much and hurts too much, will never be a superstar.

"Wait a minute," said Clark, a four-time All-Star. "I'm no superstar, I'm not even a star. What do I want to be remembered as? That's an easy question. When I quit, I want my peers to say, 'It was good to play with Jack Clark.' That's all I want. That's all that matters. Everything else outsiders say about me means nothing."

Clark claims never planned to feel or act this way, this different. Like he said, from the start, it just happened.

It just happened that growing up in Covina, while everyone else was a Dodger fan, he always admired the San Francisco Giants.

"Not that I hated the Dodgers, I didn't, but I just liked the way the Giants looked ," Clark said. "I like the way they stepped into the batters box, or the way they walked to their positions. I liked their colors. "

And it just happened that, after his senior year at Gladstone High in 1973, he was not drafted by pro baseball until the 13th round. The round was too low, the money wasn't good, he planned on taking one of a couple of local college scholarship offers instead. Except it just happened, that team drafting him was the Giants.

"That made it the happiest day of my life," Clark said. "College was out."

He then became one of the best right fielders in San Francisco Giants history, averaging 22 homers and 81 RBIs during each of his six healthy years there. But because there were a couple of other years when he wasn't so healthy, and because of his frequent criticism of his surroundings, he left town for St. Louis in 1985 considered a crybaby.

"Jack has made some mistakes," admitted Gary Lavelle, a retired pitcher who was one of Clark's friends on the Giants. "But he left the Giants as a real misunderstood person. When he saw wrongs, he spoke out, even if they didn't involve him. What involved him was the least of his worries. I find that admirable. But others didn't. Others thought he shouldn't be saying anything."

Said Clark of his attacks on management: "I'm sorry, but I decided, I'd rather see people abuse me than the little guy. If something was wrong with the way anybody was treated, I spoke out about it. I got a bad rap for it. Maybe I was wrong. But I couldn't help it."

In St. Louis, it happened again. All Clark did in three years there was lead the Cardinals to two World Series, including putting up most valuable player type numbers in 1987--.286 average, 35 homers, 106 RBIs. But he will be forever known for tearing ligaments in his right ankle in September of that year and being able to bat just once during a postseason in which the Cardinals might have beaten Minnesota in the World Series--which they lost in seven games--if he was around. It was here that shortstop Ozzie Smith supplied Clark's rap with the word selfish .

Of Clark's inability to help the team in the World Series, Smith wrote the following in his autobiography Wizard : " . . . a lot of people on the club questioned whether or not Jack really wanted to play. . . . I think Jack should have taken a shot to try and kill the pain in his ankle--at least find out if he could play . . . If he had taken the shot and still hadn't been able to play, everybody would have at least known he had tried."

Clark has read that Ozzie Smith quote. Read it more than once. In six of the last nine years, Clark has missed large chunks of games with injuries, he understands that. But to say he didn't care . . . Smith's quotes still have a way of turning the quiet Clark into a quiet rage.

"I don't get bothered by that anymore because I consider the source," Clark said of his former teammate. "Ozzie Smith is in this only to make himself look better, that's all he cares about. He butters up the Cardinal organization so when things go wrong, somebody else can take the fall.

"Guys like Ozzie Smith are a speck, just a speck. You just dust him away."

Clark considers Smith in the worst sort of violation of the code. He said Smith put himself in front of his teammates.

"Ozzie has said that home run hitters aren't important, talks about how what he does is so important. How can he do that to his teammates?" Clark asked. "How can he not build them up, make everybody feel as important as they are? Some of us are sitting there saying everybody is important, and trying to take care of everybody, and all he takes care about is himself. That's the appreciation he gave me and our other teammates. I've got no use for that."

Clark's latest injury was a torn calf tendon last spring, before his first and only summer with the New York Yankees, who he joined as a free agent. He actually tore it running too hard to first base on a ball that an instant later went over the fence for a home run.

For this, as for all his injuries, he offers no explanations. He said he will continue to run hard, especially until he sees a ball clear a fence.

"I'm not going to change my style of play," he said. "I wouldn't be the same person. To be successful, I've got to be myself."

His problems in New York were, as with most of Clark's problems, human. It's not that the former career National Leaguer disliked the American League curveball. He just didn't like the new cities. Didn't like the new hotels. And didn't know anybody. It's hard to be a "Regular Joe," as Clark calls himself, if you don't know any other Regular Joes.

"You know what I missed?" Clark said. "I missed not being able to walk behind the batting cage before games and talk with anybody from the other teams, that's what I missed."

After hitting 27 homers with 93 RBIs last year, he came to San Diego in a trade that seemed like a Padre steal, perhaps because Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was so intent on granting Clark his wish to return to the National League. After all, Clark and pitcher Pat Clements for outfielder Stanley Jefferson and pitchers Jimmy Jones, Lance McCullers? Seriously?

But more important to Clark, he would be working closer to his hometown than he has worked in the last 17 years.

And he's come home, Clark said, for good.

"That's it, I've come the full circle, this is my last stop, period," Clark said. "They release me tomorrow, goodby, I'm gone. I've gone through all the struggles, all the bull, I'm finished with it now. I've learned and I'm content."

So are the Padres. He's been with the team for a month now, and though because of his quiet nature few know him, everyone feels like they know him. He may go three days without engaging in what seems like even a casual conversation. Then each of the next three days he'll be at the ballpark until 6 p.m., sitting around card tables in his underwear, talking hitting with the club's youngsters and reserves, with the "little people." Those people, after all, are the ones with whom he is most comfortable.

"Amazing," said shortstop Gary Green, one of those prospects. "Man, you're Jack Clark, you can get away with anything. But he doesn't try to get away with anything. He'll talk hitting with me for hours if I wanted. All I have to do is ask."

Said backup catcher Mark Parent: "When a superstar walks in the door, first thing you'd expect is for him to big-league it. But Clark is like, one of us."

Players say he's the first in line to shake a guy's hand after he hits a home run. Players say he'll actually ask their advice while in the batting cage.

"I've learned when there are times to speak out, even if it's out there in the outfield while we're stretching," Clark said. "If other guys want to look to me for things, fine, I'm prepared to deal with that. I think they really do see me as an average Joe, which is good, because I am.

"I want them to know that without each other, we're nothing. We work together, we fight together, we're something."

It goes back to the code. Once as a freshman in high school, Clark quit the baseball team because he didn't like the rules. A low-rider buddy talked him into staying. For many years afterward, that buddy would approach Clark at unusual times and places, asking for money, for help.

"He'd come out of the dark in a parking lot in St. Louis and say he needed a loan," Clark said. "What the hell, I had it, I gave it to him. Sometimes it got ridiculous and I still gave it to him."

Today Clark says he has different priorities. He says, "I decided, I can't be giving out money if it's not helping a guy anymore, I've got my own family to support."

Yet today Clark has also lost track of his buddy. He may be overseas. He may be in jail. And if that buddy would just show up again . . . by the suddenly softly look on Clark's hard, dark face, you have to think those priorities might be altered.

"This guy may have left the face of the earth," Clark said quietly, pausing, then brightening. "But what the heck, he comes back, I'm sure he'll know where to find me."

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