When Will Clark was a young boy—four years old, as a matter of fact—he had a black Labrador named Flash who was a retrieving fool when it came to ducks and baseball gloves. This was in Hattiesburg, Miss., where Will's father was a zone manager for International Harvester. One day Flash came home with a lefthanded first baseman's mitt in his mouth. Will's parents, Bill and Letty, asked around and even took an ad out in the paper to try to locate the mitt's owner, but no one claimed it, and it became Will's. A few weeks later, Flash wandered home with another first baseman's mitt, this one brand new. The Clarks just knew it had to have come from the same house, and they tried again, taking out an ad and asking the neighbors if they knew of anyone who was missing a glove. But no one stepped forward to claim it, and Will kept that glove, too. Flash, apparently satisfied that his young master was properly equipped, never stole another article of any kind.
Will played with those gloves throughout high school. It was almost as if the dog had been sent on an errand by a higher being, like the one embarked upon by the Kevin Costner character in Field of Dreams, who heard that voice in the cornfield.
Fetch it and he will come.
Who will come?
May 27, 1990
You would think that someone blessed with such serendipity at an early age would proceed contentedly through life, secure in the knowledge that Dame Fortune was watching out for him. (The 26-year-old Clark was, after all, born on a Friday the 13th.) But not Will the Thrill, the San Francisco Giants' prodigiously talented first baseman. His career in baseball has been marked by anything but contentment. Clark plays this gentle game of summer with an intensity that is, in a word, disquieting.
"You will never, ever, do that to me again!" he has been heard to scream at a pitcher who has gotten him out in a pressure situation. Clark treats each game, each at bat, as a personal affront. He curses and scowls at his own teammates as well as opponents, the press, the fans and, especially, himself. There is an aggressive edge to both his play and his manner, a passion that seems out of place on a baseball field, more suitable to the arenas of boxing or football.
"Will comes to the park every day trying to kick your butt," says San Francisco manager Roger Craig. "His intensity to win is probably more important to this club than his statistics."
You can see it in Clark's eyes, accentuated as they are by streaks of eye black on his cheekbones, an expression so intense that the Giants have built a team slogan around it: I'VE GOT A GIANT ATTITUDE. Come across that look outside the ballpark—say, on a dark street, alone—and you would think: I've got a giant problem.
"He motivates me. He's like my battery charger," says Giants leftfielder Kevin Mitchell, who bats in the cleanup spot, behind Clark. "If he isn't being loud, there's something wrong with him. You can hear his squeaky voice all over the park. That's why other teams can't stand him. They think he's cocky, but that's the only way he can play."
Cocky? Clark? That's hardly a strong enough word. The 6'1", 190-pound Clark not only believes he can hit any pitcher alive, he also believes he can hit him on the best day of the pitcher's life. Clark has the temperament of a misunderstood artist. "I'm a masher! Ain't I a masher?" he used to brag in his shrill, insistent way to his teammates on the 1984 Olympic team. They would roll their eyes and wish that he would shut up and hit.
But, of course, he was a masher. You couldn't deny it. He could hit the ball a ton—for average and for power. While with the Olympic team, Clark outshone a group of stars that included Mark McGwire, B.J. Surhoff and Barry Larkin, amassing 16 homers and 43 RBIs in 40 games. He had the sweetest swing that anyone had ever seen, an uppercut with a long, loopy follow-through that made it seem as if he were wielding a buggy whip instead of a 32-ounce bat.
The general manager of the Giants, Al Rosen, who was working for the Houston Astros at the time, remembers seeing the Olympic team play an exhibition in the Astrodome and thinking: "That son of a gun Clark is going to make some G.M. a lucky man for the next 20 years." Little did Rosen know that he would be that lucky G.M.
The remarkable thing is the better the pitcher or the tougher the situation, the better Clark hits. You could look it up. Last season he hit .431, nearly 100 points above his overall batting average, against the 10 pitchers in the National League with the lowest ERAs. Against lefties, the lefthanded-hitting Clark batted an astounding .450 with runners in scoring position.
And that doesn't count Clark's most memorable at bat of the year, the one that put the finishing touch on the best league championship series that any player has ever had, the one that Craig calls "one of the greatest at bats I've ever seen." It occurred in the eighth inning of Game 5 against the Chicago Cubs' fireballing lefthanded closer, Mitch Williams, a.k.a. Wild Thing.
It was a classic matchup, and while Williams warmed up, Clark studied him carefully from the on-deck circle. In Game 1, at Wrigley Field, Clark had picked up a critical piece of information by studying another Cub pitcher from that vantage point. It was the fourth inning and the bases were full. Clark kept his eye on Chicago manager Don Zimmer as he came out to talk to his starting pitcher, Greg Maddux. Most people thought Zimmer was going to yank Maddux and bring in lefthander Paul Assenmacher. Instead, he told Maddux how he wanted him to pitch to Clark.
"I can read Maddux's lips right over the top of Zimmer's head," recalls Clark. "He's facing me and repeats, 'Fastball in.' They'd been pitching me outside. So that's what I'm looking for."
Clark found it, mashing a grand slam to right that effectively put Game 1—in which he had two homers and six RBIs—out of reach. That, of course, was only the beginning. Clark set league records for a five-game series with 13 hits, eight runs, 24 total bases, a .650 average and a 1.200 slugging percentage.
But it was his final at bat of that series, against Williams in Candlestick Park, that people best remember, the one that branded an image of Clark's unique style on the national consciousness. The bases, again, were full, with two outs and the score 1-1. Watching Williams loosen up, Mitchell said to Clark, "You know he won't throw you a hook."
Clark knew that, all right. He keeps videotapes of all his at bats in his home, both the good ones and the bad ones. They are divided by team and by pitcher, so that before each series Clark can study how various staffs like to pitch him. The man leaves nothing to chance. "Pitchers act differently when they get in a bind," he says. "Ninety times out of a hundred, they'll stick with their strengths, and if you know what their strength is, you can look for it."
As Wild Thing finished his warmup tosses, Mitchell said, "We got a job to do, let's do it."
"It's done," Clark replied.
Mitchell, recalling the moment, says, "Then he got that sneer on his face, that Clint Eastwood look of his, and I thought, I've seen that same movie. Once he said it was done, I knew it was done."
Looking for a pitch, and hitting it, of course, are two different matters. Williams quickly got ahead of Clark, 0 and 2. He wasted a ball, then Clark fouled back two high fastballs. "I'm hanging on for dear life," Clark recalls. "On the television broadcast, you can hear Vin Scully say, 'In every important series there's a moment where it becomes difficult to breathe and swallow. This is that moment.' And the camera takes a close-up of me stepping back and trying to take a deep breath. I'm thinking, Right back up the middle. That's the weakest part of the defense."
And that was where Clark lined Williams's next delivery, a 95-mph fastball that Clark nearly embedded in the second base umpire's chest. Two runs came in, and the Giants held on to clinch their first pennant in 27 years.
"Will Clark is the best baseball player I've ever seen," veteran Giants catcher Terry Kennedy said afterward. And it wasn't just when he was at bat that Clark had shone. He had played brilliantly in the field the entire series, too, throwing out three runners at home and initiating three double plays. He had also run the bases aggressively. And when reliever Steve Bedrosian got into a jam in the ninth inning of Game 5, and the Cubs had moved to within a run, it was Clark who walked over to the mound and shouted at the top of his lungs to the pitcher, "It's your game! And you're going to win it!"
It was an all-around performance under pressure that raised Clark a notch, maybe several notches, on the baseball ladder, so that comparisons with Stan Musial and Ted Williams no longer seemed fanciful. "He's the best player in the game," says Rosen, who rewarded Clark in the off-season with a four-year, $15 million contract, though Clark was still two years away from free-agent eligibility. "He produces under any circumstances, and has a flair for producing best when the pressure is on. His numbers are among the best in baseball. But there are other factors—his clubhouse and bench presence, his professionalism, his tenacity—that make him even more valuable. He's a winner. Always has been."
None of this is lost for a moment on Clark. "Are you one proud daddy?" Clark could be heard asking his father during the locker-room celebration after the Giants had beaten the Cubs. And Bill had to admit it—he certainly was.
Bill Clark, too, was a player. Not a baseball player. Pool was his game. Nine-ball. "Will's like me," he says. "If I have to make the 9 ball for two dollars, I'll make it some and miss it some. But if I have to make it for a hundred dollars, I'll make it a hundred times in a row."
Last February, Bill, 50, was holding court in the Po' Boy Bakery in New Orleans with Will and a small group of friends. Bill is a sales representative for a pest-control company, a good business to be in given the surrounding bayous, the seaport and the damp climate.
The Po' Boy is known as a baseball hangout—with players, alums and coaches, many of them from Will's old school, Jesuit High School, gathered around the tables to chew the fat—a hardball oasis in a football town. That's one of the things Clark likes best about spending the off-season at home. He can return every fall and be left more or less in peace while the New Orleans Saints are given the celebrity treatment. It is a far cry from his hero's status in San Francisco, where Clark has been tabbed by TV's Evening Magazine as one of the Bay Area's 10 most eligible bachelors.
The Po' Boy hasn't changed much over the years, except for the signed poster of the Thrill in his Giants uniform on the wall behind the cash register. It's the only decoration in the place. Long tubes of exposed fluorescent lights flicker over the blue linoleum floor. Overhead fans push around the heavy air. A cooler full of Barq's root beer stands opposite the deli-style counter, which features fixings for the poor-boy sandwiches that are the specialties of the house—shrimp, meatballs and catfish. A big picture window faces the street, from which a flea-bitten dog wanders in every afternoon to be fed a plateful of leftovers.
These are Clark's roots. He is third-generation New Orleans—he was born and, except for four years that the family lived in Hattiesburg and Monroe, La., raised there—and he calls off-season at home his "get back to sanity routine." He is just plain Will here, the scrawny kid with the goofy grin who grew up to be one of the best baseball players in the land. But it is Bill who commands the most respect in the room. Will hangs on every word as Bill tells the story of the time that Will's team was beaten 1-0 in a Babe Ruth tournament, even though its pitcher threw a no-hitter. The other pitcher, Bill relates, threw a one-hitter, and the lone run was scored on some sort of an error. Will remembers the game too, and he grins.
"Guess who got the one hit?" Will asks.
His father doesn't miss a beat. "George Herra," he says.
Will's mouth hardens in an incredulous frown. Could his father really believe that?
"That's true," Bill continues. "George Herra. I'll bet you."
"That's bull!" Will protests. "I did!"
Bill winks at the other men as they laugh. "Got him that time, didn't I?"
The men continue to discuss baseball for a while, then Bill is cajoled into talking about the days when he played pool to supplement his income. He didn't pick up the sport until he was 16, and before he struck his first ball, he read a book on the theory of pool. "I got my car, my house and my education because of pool," Bill says dispassionately. "I wasn't a hustler. I used to tell guys, 'I didn't come to hustle you. I came to beat you.' " The apple, as they say, never falls very far from the tree. "One thing about a game of skill, you know how good you are," says Bill. "I don't have to have a derrick fall on my head to know if I'm better than you."
Bill got in his first big-money game at 17. "It was in a pool hall called Buck's," he recalls. "I played from Tuesday at 8 p.m. till Thursday at 10 a.m. without stopping. To give you an idea of what money was like at the time, my daddy was a math professor, and he made $800 all summer teaching summer school. That one game I made $1,800. My daddy came in every five hours to check up on me, and he still thought I'd held someone up when I came home and gave the money to him. That money went into a fund that helped me pay for college."
While his friends were working at the local Dairy Queen for 80 cents an hour, Bill worked the tables for thousands while in college. After graduation he continued to play the occasional high stakes game and just to be on the safe side, he traveled to area pool halls with two friends, one of whom was 6'5" and weighed 270 pounds. Will remembers seeing his father take $2,000 from a guy in one hour at a place called Whitey's Seafood. "Daddy ran 10 straight racks," Will recalls. "The guy'd lost $1,000 and hadn't taken a shot yet. Daddy can read the spin on a cue ball like I can a baseball."
It's difficult to put a finger on such things, but some of the moxie of the professional pool player has surely rubbed off on Clark. There are no prizes for second place in nine ball. No teammates to rely on when the pressure is intense. It is purely a game of skill. That's the way Clark looks at baseball. Other players talk about bad bounces and line drives that go foul by inches. But to Clark, baseball is purely a test of skill, and it doesn't take a derrick falling on his head for him to know whether or not he's better than the man on the mound. And if he is better, well, that's a confrontation he should win, right? A hundred times out of a hundred. Hence, the outrage when he fails: You will never, ever, do that to me again.
The days spent hunting and fishing with his father remain the fondest memories of Clark's childhood. "Baseball was never my first priority," he says. "I didn't think about playing pro ball till I was a junior in high school. I was having too much fun being a kid. My dad and I were gone every weekend, hunting or fishing. He brought me up in the woods."
Clark believes that shooting a shotgun as a boy was one of the main reasons he developed such spectacular hand-eye coordination. Clark is nearly as deadly from a duck blind—Will the Kill—as he is in a batter's box. "Will shoots ducks before anyone else sees them," his father says, a statement that is as much a testament to Will's exceptional eyesight as it is to his aim. Clark has 20/12 vision in both eyes-Ted Williams had 20/10 vision in both eyes—and can distinguish a hen from a drake in the gray light of dawn at 70 yards.
And if there is one thing that Clark sees lots of when he's not playing baseball, it is the gray light of dawn. Last fall and winter he hunted every day of the duck season, from the week before Thanksgiving to the first week in January, on three square miles he leases on a bayou near Spanish Lake. It is about an hour's drive out of New Orleans and a few miles from the land his father used to lease, and on weekends Clark took his 13-year-old brother, Scotty, along, just as Bill used to take Will. They stayed on Will's 35-foot-long houseboat, a permanently docked shrimping barge that can, in a pinch, sleep seven. It is outfitted with a gas stove and lights that run on electricity from a car battery. "You don't want it too neat and pretty," Clark says.
Each morning he and Scotty awakened at 5 a.m. and put Will's black Lab, Psycho, in the bow of their canoe. Then they paddled for five minutes to one of the fiberglass duck blinds planted in the marsh. There are no trees in the bayou, just marsh grass and water, and as the dawn starts to turn the night sky gray, and as the birds start to clack and twirr and feedle—well, as Will puts it, "There's no better time of day to be in a duck blind."
Will and Scotty would set up their 40 decoys and wait. Within 15 minutes, the ducks—widgeon, teal, mallard—would start flying, and Will would call them in. Since there is a three-duck limit, the shoot was usually over by 7:30.
In the afternoons they fished for speckled trout. Then at night, Will cooked dinner: He breasted the ducks, braised them until brown, then removed the meat from the skillet. He put onions, seasonings and bell pepper in the skillet, and fried them in butter. Then he put the duck breasts back in, covered them with water, and simmered the whole thing for an hour and a half. In the last 15 minutes he added red wine, and he served the meal over rice.
It may not be James Beard, but for a baseball player on a shrimp barge, it's pretty good victuals. "I'll tell you," says Giants pitcher Mike LaCoss, who shares Clark's passion for hunting, "if Will ever marries, it'll be to a girl who shoots a shotgun and eats wild game."
She had also better like the taste of boar. Last season LaCoss and Clark must have set some sort of major league record by bagging three wild pigs during a hunt in northern California on an off day in the middle of the pennant race. They also occasionally go out to a ranch near Modesto to shoot squirrels. And to keep his shooting eye sharp, Clark, who estimates he goes through about 25,000 shells a year, shoots skeet twice a week during the season when the Giants are home in San Francisco. He consistently breaks 97 or 98 targets out of 100.
Baseball, hunting and a Type A personality. You don't have to look much further than those three things to get a handle on Will the Thrill.
Work is almost an obsession with me," Clark says. "I can be tough to live with. Maybe that's why nobody lives with me. When you live with somebody else, you have to learn to be flexible, and I'm not too flexible."
When Clark broke into the big leagues, he didn't quietly ease into the show the way a car merges into traffic on a freeway. He came hurtling down the ramp at 80 mph, like a hot-rodder full of juice. Ain't I a masher?
After starring for the Olympic team in 1984, he went back to Mississippi State. The next year, he won the Golden Spikes Award as the top collegiate player in the country while leading the Bulldogs to the College World Series with a .420 average, 25 homers and 77 RBIs in 65 games. In June 1985, when Clark was a junior, the Giants made him the second player drafted in the nation, and they assigned him to their Class A team in Fresno. Clark homered twice in his first professional game and helped Fresno win the California League title.
In 1986 he moved up to the bigs. The Giants had lost 100 games the year before, and Clark was promoted as a rookie who could make an immediate impact. He won the first base job at spring training, then homered in his first big league at bat—off a Nolan Ryan fastball, of all things, in the Astrodome. In his debut at Candlestick Park, Clark homered again.
Fetch it and he will come.
Who will come?
That's what Giants catcher Bob Brenly nicknamed him: Will the Thrill. And Clark took to it right away, inscribing THRILL on the back of his helmet. It was more than some of the team's veterans could bear. Clark wasn't the type to sit quietly and observe how a major leaguer was supposed to act. He was a talker in the locker room, the rah-rah type, just as he had always been.
"When we were growing up, after we'd moved from Hattiesburg to New Orleans, my sister Robin and I were outsiders," Clark recalls. "We had trouble breaking in. Later on, I was the only one from my elementary school who went to Jesuit High School. Then I was the only guy in my high school who went to Mississippi State. I always had to make new friends quick. It made me self-confident. If I get in a situation where I don't know anyone, I just go, 'Hi, I'm Will.' "
"He wasn't shy," remembers LaCoss. "And he wasn't humble. He was just a confident, outgoing young man with a high, screeching voice."
Will the Shrill, his teammates called him, chuckling at the way his voice rose an octave as he called for pop-ups and nearly cracked when he yelled "Goin'!" after a base stealer broke for second.
But some members of the team didn't find Clark amusing. One was Jeffrey Leonard, the big, brooding leftfielder who has a scowl that could peel the skin off an onion. Leonard, now with the Mariners, is an intimidator. He likes to see what his teammates, particularly rookies, are made of. He and other veterans did not cotton to all the attention that Clark, who had practically no minor league experience, was getting, so they tested him every chance they got.
One day Clark bought a brand-new pair of cowboy boots. He returned from practice to find some teammates had spray-painted them orange. It bugged him, but he laughed it off, and eventually the players replaced the boots. When Clark went on the disabled list with a hyperextended elbow in June of '86, he walked into the clubhouse and found that Leonard had stuffed all his bats in a trash can. "You won't be needing those for a while," Leonard told him.
The animosity took an ugly turn in Clark's second season. On a road trip to Philadelphia, he and Leonard got into a scuffle that ended up on the clubhouse floor. Clark won't discuss the incident, but one source who was in a position to know says that Leonard's young nephew had asked Clark for his autograph, and Clark had made a racial slur and told him to get out of his way. When Leonard heard about the episode and confronted Clark the next day, the two men went at it until teammates broke them apart.
Another time, Clark used a racial epithet in an argument with teammate Chris Brown, an incident for which he apologized to the entire team. "The thing with Chris Brown was done without thinking," says Craig. "Chris accepted his apology. Will has a very high level of intensity, and doesn't realize he's doing those things."
Both incidents were recalled during last year's World Series, when Clark had the poor judgment to refer to Leonard, by this time playing for Seattle, as "a tumor." Leonard responded by calling Clark "a prejudiced——."
At the very least, Clark certainly is thoughtless about the use of racially offensive words. But Clark vehemently denies being a bigot. "Some of my best friends are black," he says. "That has nothing to do with it."
"We get along like two brothers," Mitchell says in Clark's defense. "If he's a racist, he's sure putting up a good front. He treats me like family."
The truth of the matter is, Clark often doesn't think before he speaks, and around a ballpark he is wound so tightly that he is apt to say or do almost anything. After the Giants clinched the National League West title in 1987, a live television feed was hooked up in the Giants locker room, and a reporter asked Clark the obligatory question of how the win felt.
What followed was an expletive that was broadcast loud and clear. The damage done, Clark added, with an amusing lack of perspective, "I've been waiting a long time for this."
His mother and father were watching back home in New Orleans. "Letty died," Bill recalls. "She just died. 'Bill, he didn't say that, did he?' she asked. 'Tell me he didn't.' You can only learn from your mistakes, or someone else's. He was young. We talked with him after the season, and asked him to try to do a little better job with the press."
The Giants, too, talked to him. The seats behind the Giants dugout had become R-rated because of the invective that sometimes poured from Clark's lips after an at bat. "Will wears his feelings on his sleeve," says Rosen. "He's a highly competitive person who resents making an out, and sometimes his expletives have been heard in the stands. So we've asked him to wait till he's off the field to get what's bothering him off his chest."
One Giants season-ticket holder remembers an incident, in early 1988, that—among this fan and his friends, anyway—could have earned Clark yet another moniker: Will the Pill. Clark was standing alone in front of the Giants dugout after a game, and an eight-year-old kid asked him for an autograph. Clark didn't answer, and the child made the mistake of tossing Clark a ball to sign. Clark, who had hit into a double play and made an error during the game, let the ball fall at his feet, then kicked it the length of the dugout. Next he walked over, picked the ball up and threw it onto the field. Then he walked into the clubhouse. A television cameraman had to retrieve the ball for the youngster.
To Clark, baseball is serious business. He doesn't think of himself as an entertainer, or of the game as entertainment. It is a test of skill. And since he believes he is better than any pitcher alive, the only thing that can possibly keep Clark from achieving success is a loss of concentration. Says Rosen, "When he's at the plate, the stands could fall down around him and he wouldn't notice."
Sometimes that's true when he's not at the plate. Sometimes it happens when he's around ordinary people. Kids even.
Clark is trying to improve his image. "I've worked on taking my game face off quicker," he says. "I need to come down off that adrenaline rush."
But it is nothing that he or the Giants are particularly concerned about. After all, people used to consider Ted Williams abrasive, and he didn't turn out too badly. The bottom line on Clark is that he is a baseball player, not a candidate for role model of the month.
Clark remembers a strange incident that occurred in September, when the Giants made their last road trip into Atlanta. Walking down the runway between the dugout and the clubhouse shortly before the game, he heard thwump! thwump! thwump! coming from somewhere beneath the stands. When he went to investigate, he found a group of Braves players shooting arrows at a paper target of a deer tacked to a stack of hay bales. Clark watched in amazement, then left. "I couldn't play baseball like that," he says. "On a cellar-dwelling team, I know my production would go down."
He has never played for a team that finished the season with a losing record. This string of successes goes back to 1980, when Clark was the only starting sophomore for Jesuit High when the school won the state title. He also led his team to the American Legion World Series that summer. More recently, he has starred in the Olympics (the '84 team won a silver medal), the College World Series (Mississippi State finished in a tie for third in '85), two National League Championship Series (the Giants lost to the Cards in '87 and beat the Cubs in '89) and the World Series last fall.
This season may be another matter, though. The Giants' patchwork pitching staff has faltered badly, and as of Sunday the team was 15-22, despite winning four of their last six games. Worse still, the Giants are already 11½ games behind the division-leading Cincinnati Reds. But Clark remains un-fazed. He continues to approach the game with the same manic intensity and, so far, his numbers arc respectable: a .291 average, six home runs and a team-high 29 RBIs.
"The game doesn't change," he says. "The pressure stays the same from the Little League to the majors. What does change is the outside elements, all the things that can make you lose focus—the money, the press, the fans. So I tell myself, 'Don't try to impress the people in the stands. Do it for the self-satisfaction.' It sounds greedy, but it relaxes you."
Clark does have a few personal goals. He would like to get 200 hits, which, as far as he's concerned, sets the standard for consistency. He fell four hits short last year. He would like to win a batting title. Tony Gwynn edged him by three points last year—.336 to .333—in a race that came down to the last day of the season. He would like, for that matter, to be the first player since Carl Yastrzemski to win a triple crown. Says Clark, "In '87, I proved I could hit the long ball [35 homers]; in '88, I proved I could drive in runs ; and in '89, I proved I could hit for average. Now I want to put them all together. I'm a perfectionist. I'm a worker. If there's a duck I want to hunt, it ain't nothing for me to paddle a couple of miles to hunt him. Same with baseball."
Same with emotions. Clark's still learning to paddle through that swamp. Now all he has to prove is that he can control his intensity so that it will serve him, instead of possess him.