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Tony Clark Looking to the Future : Recovery: Tiger minor leaguer and SDSU basketball player trying to get back into the games.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The big room is cold and sterile, with brown carpeting and cream-colored walls. Tables and weights and people don’t fill it up much. And the only thing softer than the music is the voices.

There may not be a joint in town that can serve up a quicker dose of reality.

Injury rehabilitation centers have a way of doing that.

It is 7:30 a.m. and Tony Clark is in a place he didn’t plan on being, in a city he should have left and in a world dangerously close to throwing a called third strike past his dreams.

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He purchased a maroon BMW with some of the estimated $500,000 signing bonus he got from the Detroit Tigers as the No. 2 pick in the nation last June in the major league baseball draft. It is sitting outside.

Inside, Clark lays face down on a table, and the therapist is careful not to jar his aching back.

This is all wrong, Clark knows. He should be with the Tigers’ single-A team in Niagara Falls this summer, roaming the outfield and hitting home runs, working his way toward Tiger Stadium.

And he should be tuning up his basketball game. After transferring to San Diego State from the University of Arizona last winter, Clark, a graduate of Christian High School, will be eligible to play for the Aztecs the day after the fall semester ends.

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But what can he do? It seems like his back has hurt forever. He twisted it while coming down on a teammate’s foot in basketball practice about a month before he left Arizona. When was the last time it was right, early November? That’s eight months ago.

He has seen more doctors this summer than he cares to recall. At least four in San Diego and two in Los Angeles. One of them was Dr. Robert Watkins, who the Tigers think is the best back specialist in the United States.

What the doctors have told him is that he has herniated disc four-five in his lower back. And what they have also told him, he said, is that his generating disk, also in his lower back, is similar to that of somebody twice his age.

Tony Clark, one of the greatest athletes produced in San Diego, is 19.

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His summer is shot. There will be no baseball. And the thing that is most difficult to handle, the thing that drives him absolutely nuts while he lies around his East County condominium, is that, for now, his athletic achievements are spoken of in past tense.

“Any time I haven’t shot a basketball in 2 1/2 months, I’m bored out of my mind,” he said.

Sometime within the next couple of weeks, he and his doctors will decide if surgery is necessary. Clark is 75% sure he will need it.

Rehabilitation? He is not currently on what you would call a heavy schedule. For now, his rehabilitation consists of getting a massage and then being hooked up to a machine that is supposed to loosen his back muscles. Electrical stimulation. The machine takes about 15 minutes.

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There is no weightlifting. No running. No swimming.

No physical activity other than a little stretching.

Period.

He cannot lean against a wall on his left shoulder for long because it puts pressure on his left leg, which causes pain in his back.

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He has to be careful getting out of bed, or out of a chair, too quickly. He walks gingerly. He went to Sea World a couple of weeks ago but left after 10 minutes. Too painful.

And sneezing?

“I hate sneezing,” he said. “Sneezing hurts.”

Pause.

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“And coughing hurts my back.”

He never thought twice about putting on his underwear, but when the injury occurred, he had to put his underwear on the floor and then lie down flat on his back. He would kick his toes inside, stop, and take a bat to open the underwear enough to where he could shove his legs in. Then he would maneuver the underwear up his leg far enough so he could reach it with his hands.

“It would take 10 or 15 minutes,” he said. “It was unbelieveable.”

And socks?

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“I would either not wear them or get help,” Clark said.

When he was injured, he said, Arizona trainers diagnosed him as having muscle spasms. He said they referred to it as a “freshman injury,” as if he wasn’t hurt as badly as he claimed. He kept playing.

“But day after day, I could not understand why I couldn’t do half the things I used to,” Clark said.

He took six cortisone injections in his back. They didn’t help.

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December arrived and his back was still throbbing. He said he was having personal problems at home, something on which he did not want to elaborate. Finally, he decided to transfer to SDSU.

He had an magnetic resonance imaging test and bone scan done in San Diego. Doctors said he had a swollen disk. He rehabilitated through the rest of the winter and the spring. He got ready for the baseball season.

He left for Niagara Falls June 9. There was a week of training before the season opened June 17.

Clark lasted two days.

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“Basically, my back wasn’t ready for it yet,” he said.

Five days after he stopped playing, Tiger President Bo Schembechler and Joe McDonald, Tiger acting general manager, traveled to Niagara Falls for a meeting. They took one look at him and sent him home.

“There was no doubt what we were going to do,” McDonald said.

Said Clark: “We had a closed-door meeting for about 20 minutes. Bo asked me how I felt and what I thought I should do, then he told me what I was going to do.”

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Clark’s plan was to go to Detroit and see a doctor. Schembechler’s was for Clark to go home and see doctors with whom he was comfortable.

Now it is late July in San Diego and Clark is in his living room. A cordless telephone sits nearby. It was purchased after the injury, so he wouldn’t have to move every time the telephone rings.

And his television remote control helps as well, since a big day now consists of watching his soap opera, playing computer games and maybe renting a movie.

He does his stretching exercises while he watches television, and he waits for his next rehab appointment.

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If nothing else, Clark has plenty of time to think.

“You come to look at future tense after awhile,” he said.

Although the three-year contract he signed with Detroit last summer stipulates that he can play both baseball and basketball for at least the next two years, the Tigers have started to pressure him into picking one sport . . . and guess which.

As Clark said: “They think the constant pounding (on the basketball court) will affect me to the point where the back will re-damage itself.”

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Clark has talked with a couple of Tiger officials on the telephone this summer, and he also feels the pressure through some quotes he has seen in the Detroit papers. His stockbroker in Michigan sends him press clippings whenever his name appears.

It’s no secret. The Tigers admit they would prefer he stick to one sport.

“We agreed to let him play basketball, and we intend to stand by that,” McDonald said. “But I’m going to be very honest with you. We wish he didn’t play basketball.

“He’s a young man with great talent, but until we get him on the field, how are we going to draw out that talent?”

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SDSU basketball Coach Jim Brandenburg would just like to get Clark’s back cleared up in time for basketball season this winter.

“The situation is, he’s in the hands of some pretty damn good doctors,” Brandenburg said. “They’re trying the conservative approach for four weeks and then will reevaluate it.

“I have full confidence in the doctors who are treating him.”

Even though he hasn’t had a pain-free moment in eight months and despite the interruption in his athletic career, Clark still is not ready to drop one of his two sports.

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“I have yet to play a year in college basketball,” he said. “I had a taste of it, and I know what it’s like in the big time. But until I get quality time, I’m not going to make a snap decision, unless, in the first week of (basketball) practice, I blow myself out again.”

There are those who say he cannot excel in either sport until he concentrates on one. He had a difficult time in Bristol, Va., last year playing on a Tiger rookie league team. He batted only .164 with one home run in 25 games. He struck out 28 times in 73 at bats.

And he got minimal playing time in a half-dozen games in his freshman season at Arizona last fall.

Clark doesn’t buy it. His rough debut in professional baseball last summer, he said, occurred largely because he played basketball in the Olympic Festival in Minneapolis before reporting. He hadn’t picked up a bat in two months, he said. When he did, he had to adjust to a wooden bat instead of an aluminum one. Plus, he sprained an ankle while playing basketball.

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But as he said, you learn to look in the future tense. For now, there is nothing he can do. He has places to go, but he can’t get dressed up.

So the Tigers wait.

And SDSU waits.

And Clark waits.

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He figures he is a year behind schedule. And who is to say when--and how effectively--he will play again?

He places his trust in rehabilitation or in surgery and more rehabilitation. But the rehabilitation center is also his prison. He only hopes it isn’t like the hotel in the song.

He knows he can check out any time he likes. He just hopes that, one day soon, he can leave.


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