This is the first story in a three-part series about Western Massachusetts Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Doug Clark. Read the first part here.
All the players who get to the minor leagues have been great somewhere.
Best in their town. Best in their school. Best in their state. It’s not just an American competition, either. Baseball is followed with a religious fervor in many Latin American countries. (Last year, 28.5 percent of Major Leaguers were Hispanic or Latino. The percentage is higher in the minors.) The game is also immensely popular in Japan and South Korea, and parts of Canada and Australia.
Ninety percent of those ultra-elite minor leaguers will never spend one day in the big leagues.
It is a ruthless competition, and at times an unhealthy culture. The success of a teammate who plays your position is bad for you. His injury improves your chances.
It is a hard life. You are constantly on the road, long bus rides leading to a slew of Days Inns and late-night runs to Taco Bell. Again and again, you see friends getting “released” — the cruel baseball term for “fired.” For years, you make paltry wages.
Offseason jobs are a must, meaning for Doug Clark years of substitute teaching at Central High School.
Yes, there are the transcendent moments: the sun going down on a perfect summer day, the fans singing along to John Fogarty’s “Put Me In, Coach,” the earnest Little Leaguer asking for an autograph, that amazing feeling when the bat hits the ball perfectly, on the sweet spot, launching a drive deep into the night.
As the competition stiffened in the higher levels of the minors, Clark did his best to keep going, up against the best of the best. It was a steep climb. The guy who played his left field position at the big-league level was named Bonds. Barry Bonds. The man who ultimately won seven MVP awards, hit more home runs than anyone else, wrapped his career in controversy because of performance-enhancing drug use.
Sometimes at spring training in Arizona, Clark watched Bonds in the batting cage: the short, ferocious swing, the ball soaring into the desert sky. “He has so much power up there,” Clark once said, “that you can’t even fathom it.”
Doug Clark’s six siblings stayed close to home, working as teachers and coaches and counselors. His journey was different. Bill and Peggy Clark followed the best they could, logging in to late night games to hear the webcasts, reveling in the good nights, swallowing hard at the bad ones.
Clark was not a superstar, but he was good enough to keep going, moving up and up, hoping that one day he might break through.
By 2005, he was in his eighth year, heading for 30 on his next birthday — getting to be baseball old. He had the year of his life at Triple-A with the Fresno Grizzlies. Hit well over .300. Thirteen homers, 30 doubles, 29 stolen bases. He felt confident that on Labor Day when the minor league season ended and the big-league rosters expanded, he would finally get the call.
It didn’t happen. He trudged home. Moved back into the basement at Piedmont Street.
Early on a steamy morning, Tuesday, Sept. 13, he and his sister Molly (a special education teacher) drove into Central in a gray Ford Escort. He shut off his phone and got to work. In the afternoon, while teaching an American history class, he heard a rap on the door, looked through the rectangular window, and saw his father. He figured this could not be good news.
He awkwardly introduced his father to the class. Then his dad whispered insistently, “You have to call the Giants!”
There had been a couple of injuries the night before. The Giants needed a left-handed bat off the bench. His plane was leaving in two hours.
Bill drove Doug to the airport. They shook hands. He flew first class for the first time in his life.
The next day, in the family room on Piedmont Street, the Clarks exploded when, leading off the bottom of the ninth inning in a 4-4 game, a certain No. 40 stepped to the plate as a pinch hitter. He wound up walking on four pitches.
There were precious few chances that September. As a pinch runner, he slid home one night with the winning run — a quick moment of fame on ESPN SportsCenter — but he went just 0-5 at the plate. Still, at long last, he had made it.
He had had the tiniest taste of the nectar. He yearned for more. He wanted to get back to the big leagues, to get himself that first Major League hit.
In 2006, he signed as a free agent with the Oakland A’s. It proved to be another productive season, but mostly more of the minor league grind, not quite good enough. In late June, though, opportunity knocked ever so briefly once again. Veteran Frank Thomas was injured. The A’s summoned Clark back to the big leagues.
He knew it would be for a short time. Thomas’s injury was minor. Clark came off the bench and went 0 for his first 4, dropping him to 0 for 9 in his big-league career. The clock was ticking.
On the night of June 28 in San Diego, the A’s fell behind the Padres early, and Clark was told he would be pinch-hitting for the pitcher in the fourth inning against Clay Hensley. He stepped into the box, looked down at Padres catcher and future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, offering a “What’s up, Mike?” that received no reply.
He swung at the first two pitches, managing only a feeble foul tip. The next delivery came in, a sinker that hung up just a bit. Clark hit it on a line to left center, saw center fielder Mike Cameron closing fast, but then pulling away as the ball plunked, beautifully, onto the green. The ball was tossed into the A’s dugout, and from his perch on first base, he saw a teammate feign heaving it into the crowd.
After the season, Doug took that ball out of a sock, put it in a case and presented it to his parents. It’s been residing at Piedmont Street ever since.