Lucky Stiff Retired big league pitcher Mark Clark was no star, but he got paid like one. And now he's living the good life--with all the toys to prove it

May 16, 2004

Bath is a farm town in the middle of Illinois with four bars and
350 people and no stoplights. There are a few haves in Bath,
mostly men who drive their mammoth trucks over their
ever-expanding farms, but there are many have-nots, people
struggling to get by and clinging to a way of life seldom seen
on reality TV shows. And then, in a category all his own,
there's Willard Clark, known to every Bather as Pot, for the
bowling ball of a belly that holds his nightly beer. ¶ Pot
Clark has one of the best-looking trucks in all of Bath, a
blue-and-taupe Ford pickup, a gift from his boy, Mark, the
retired big league righthander. But it's not the truck that
sets Pot apart. The thing about Pot is this: He never had any
money, but he's always led the life of a rich man. Hell, he had
it all over the well-to-do farmers, slaves to their crops. Pot
shot deer in deer season, ducks in duck season, knew when the
buffalo fish and the blue gill were running on the Illinois
River, knew the swamps and levees and woods of his rural
backyard as well as anybody, probably better than the man who
surveyed Bath in 1836--Abe Lincoln. Many evenings the Clark
family supper was something Pot himself had killed or caught.
Mark Clark, maybe the wealthiest man in all of Bath, has a
question: How do you put a price tag on a life like that?

Evidently it was good eating, the goose and duck and buffalo fish
Pot brought home, because Mark was a big, strong boy who grew up
to be a big, strong man. Pot and Marjorie Clark, once the mayor
of Bath, had four girls and then, seven years after they thought
they were done having children, along came Mark, born on May 12,
1968, it says on the back of his baseball card.

Maybe you've never heard of Mark Clark. Don't feel bad; he
understands. He played for five teams over 10 major league
seasons and appeared in only one playoff game and no All-Star
games. But he did all right for himself. He won more games than
he lost, and he earned close to $20 million. The tax man took his
share, and the agent got his piece too, but Clark has never gone
too crazy with spending--land and trucks, land and trucks--and
still has half the money he ever earned, and it's growing. Since
his retirement in the middle of the 2000 season, he's been
leading his father's life, except that Mark has money in the
bank. He's leading the good life.

Clark is not all that rare: the less-than-star athlete, faintly
famous at best, who timed his career so exquisitely that he
earned millions of dollars despite his limited accomplishments.
He and hundreds of other lucky stiffs--fifth starters and role
players and reliable journeymen--made fortunes in the 1980s and
1990s playing football or hockey or tennis or (far more commonly)
basketball or (most frequently of all) baseball. As grateful
pensioners, even more anonymous than they were in their working
lives, they live in gated communities or on a beach or ... they
live wherever the heck they want.

Mark and his wife, Amy, and their two children live in a big
brick house in a clearing in the woods in another tiny farm town,
Kilbourne, just down the road from Bath. Amy's parents live next
door, and they watch little Allyson and Brandon on those
occasions when Amy and Mark make the hourlong drive to
Springfield, home of the nearest shopping mall and the place
where Mark can find Levis in his size: 40-inch waist, 36-inch
inseam. In Kilbourne and Bath you can buy fishing bait and fruit
and vegetables at roadside stands, and that's about it. A few
miles up the road, in Havana, there's a McDonald's, two motels
and a few sit-down restaurants. When Mark returned home to Bath
in the summer of 2000, a deep peace washed over him. He remains
contented. "Do I get bored?" he asks rhetorically. "Heck, no.
Never."

In his retirement Clark has become the owner and operator of a
hunting club in Bath called Club 54, after the jersey number he
used to wear. The club's 10 dues-paying members are particularly
devoted to shooting ducks, which they do on 1,000 acres owned by
Clark, most of it swamp and marshland and accessible only by
shallow-bottom boat. Duck season in Illinois is two months long,
starting in late October. "But getting ready for those two
months, I'm telling you, there's not hardly enough time," Clark
says. You know, building new duck blinds, repairing the members'
camouflage waders and oiling the shotguns and rifles, which are
secured in a locked vault in the back of the Club 54
headquarters, an enormous shed on the outskirts of Bath. Getting
a backhoe on a barge and to Clark's hunting property can take up
a whole day. Fortunately Clark has a full-time employee, a
resourceful man named Wesley Phelps.

One morning last summer, just as the first heat wave was settling
into Bath, Phelps was smoking freshly caught blue gill over an
open fire at the club. You've never tasted better fish at 8 a.m.
A couple of hours later, Clark was sitting in his own Ford
truck--an enormous and manly vee-HICK-ul, as they say locally--in
the Club 54 driveway, in no rush to go anywhere, when Phelps
handed him a portable telephone. On the other end was Jim Thome,
the Philadelphia Phillies slugger and a close friend of Clark's
since 1993, when they were teammates on the Cleveland Indians.
Thome and Clark have a mutual friend in Rheal Cormier, also known
as Frenchy, a Philadelphia reliever.

"Talked to Frenchy just yesterday," Clark shouted into the phone.
Clark is 6'5", 270 pounds, 30 pounds over his last playing
weight. His booming voice matches his XXL body. "I'm telling you,
he might have been struggling early, but he's dealing now."

Before long, Clark and Thome were talking about their great
shared loves, hunting and fishing. Thome had an upcoming road
trip to Atlanta. He wanted to send a private jet to collect Clark
and bring him to the city. The stated purpose of the excursion
was to visit the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World near Atlanta. The
unstated purpose was for Thome and Clark to hang out together and
talk about fishing lures and deer stands and life in the country
and, indirectly of course, life itself. (The trip never came off,
but it was the invitation that mattered.) "It's a long season,"
Clark said after hanging up. Clark loves baseball. But he doesn't
miss it.

He's always had another life. Since high school, during duck
season, Clark has worked as a pusher, the old Bath name for the
guide who leads well-to-do duck hunters to their blinds by
pushing a small boat through shallow waters with a long pole or
oar. In the Illinois River there's a private 5,000-acre hunting
preserve called Grand Island, accessible from Bath only by boat.
Grand Island is owned by a dozen or so wealthy hunters from
across the U.S. For nearly 40 years Pot Clark pushed a Grand
Island member, Thorne Barnes (Barney) Donnelley of Palm Beach,
Fla., great-grandson of the founder of the Donnelley printing
empire. In 1995 Mark Clark, already a big leaguer, took over for
his father, pushing the printing heir. Mark wouldn't give up the
job now, even though his own hunting club needs him during the
weeks when Donnelley is around. "It's our family tradition, to
help Barney get his ducks," Clark says. "When times were lean for
us, Mr. Donnelley always helped the Clarks out."

In quiet moments, waiting in a duck blind, Donnelley and the
pitcher sometimes discuss money. "How are the markets treating
you?" Donnelley will ask Clark.

Clark has his money invested in a broad portfolio of land, bonds
and stocks. Most of the stocks are blue-chippers paying reliable
dividends. For years Donnelley thought Clark's escalating wealth
was their little secret. One day Clark was pushing Donnelley and
others when a member of their hunting party pulled out a history
of Clark's annual salaries, which he had found on a baseball
website. Donnelley was aghast--not at the amounts, which he knew,
but at the realization that others knew them too. "You don't want
just anyone seeing those numbers," Donnelley told Clark quietly.

But Clark is comfortable talking about the money he earned, and
the charm of the man is that he tells the story of getting his
initial $12,000 signing bonus from the team he rooted for as a
kid, the St. Louis Cardinals, with the same boyish glee with
which he tells of signing his final contract, with the Texas
Rangers, for $9.3 million over two years. The first deal meant
that he could keep playing the game of his childhood. The last
meant that he was set for life.

By the time Mark was six, in 1974, Pot was catching the budding
pitcher most every day. Bath is about four hours south of Chicago
by car and three hours north of St. Louis. Several times a year
Pot and Marjorie would take their son to Busch Stadium to see the
Cardinals. They would catch all of batting practice and many
baseballs. One day Mark collected nine. He wanted the balls not
as souvenirs but for use in his sandlot games, played on a baked
and dusty field just off Bath's main street, near the Clarks'
small, cramped house, which was heated in winter by a
wood-burning stove.

Mark went to high school in Bath--Amy Beams, his future wife, was
two grades behind him--and excelled in basketball as well as
baseball. The school had 125 pupils, and the baseball team had 14
players. Mark overwhelmed opposing batters in the small-school
division in which Bath played. "Teams hated facing me," he says
playfully. But nobody came to look at him: not pro scouts, not
college coaches.

So after high school Clark enrolled at MacMurray College, a small
private school a half hour from Bath in the town of Jacksonville.
The MacMurray baseball coach, Randy Martz, had pitched for the
Chicago Cubs for a couple of seasons and taught Clark the
two-seam fastball and the forkball, a natural pitch for him
because of his enormous hands. Martz saw that Clark had fantastic
potential as a pitcher and less as a student. He got Clark
through his freshman year. He got him through the fall semester
of his sophomore year, but barely. For the spring semester Martz
urged Clark to transfer to Lincoln Land Community College, a
two-year school in Springfield with a noted baseball program.

In the spring of 1988, while Clark was playing for Lincoln Land,
the pro scouts really took notice of him, and the Bath boy was
drafted that June in the ninth round by the Cardinals. The
signing bonus negotiations--no lawyer, no agent--took only a half
hour, and still the Cardinals overpaid. "I would have signed for
free," Clark says.

He rose through the minor leagues quickly, and in September 1991
he was called up to the major league team. He remembers Jack
Buck, the legendary Cardinals broadcaster, shaking his hand and
welcoming him to the club. He remembers striking out the first
guy he faced and being touched for a home run by the next batter.
Still, Clark was in heaven. That month the St. Louis
Post-Dispatch ran a feature on him that ended with a quote from
his mother: "We know he could be traded.... I think it would
break Mark's heart. He loves being a Cardinal."

In 1992 Clark started 20 games for his beloved Cardinals and
figured he'd be the fourth or fifth starter in the '93 season.
The team liked him because he had a big, durable body, worked
quickly and threw strikes. The bosses knew they could get innings
out of him, and that suited Clark fine. He didn't expect ever to
become the staff ace--his stuff just wasn't that special--but he
figured he'd have a long career. That off-season, in a church
near Bath, he and Amy were married.

Then, during spring training of '93, a tragic boat accident in
Florida took the lives of two Indians pitchers, Steve Olin and
Tim Crews. The accident had nothing to do with Mark Clark, but it
changed his life. The grieving Indians were suddenly desperate
for pitching. On March 31 Clark was dealt to Cleveland. His
mother's intuition was correct. His heart was broken. On the day
of his first trade, baseball became a business for him.

Each off-season, he went home to the serenity of Bath. In 1993,
'94 and '95 he pitched for the Indians, and in '96 for the New
York Mets. In one stretch of eight starts in '96 he went 6-1 with
a 1.97 ERA. He began the '97 season with the Mets and finished
with the Cubs. As a Cub in '97 he started nine games and had a
6-1 record with a 2.86 ERA. That, coupled with the torrid stretch
in '96 with the Mets, stimulated the kind of wishful thinking
that shapes baseball economics. The Cubs, seeking to avoid salary
arbitration, signed Clark for the '98 season for $5 million, more
than he had earned in his previous decade in professional
baseball. It didn't work out. Clark went 9-14 with a 4.84 ERA. He
became a free agent after the '98 season and signed on with the
highest bidder, the Rangers, for $9.3 million, guaranteed, over
two years.

Clark didn't pitch much in 1999 because of a ligament tear in his
pitching elbow, and in 2000 the Rangers didn't use him much. In
June, Tom Hicks, the team's owner, called Clark's signing a
mistake, and the pitcher became testy. He told the beat writers,
"Since I'm a mistake, I don't see any reason to be here." Soon
after, Texas released him. The Rangers paid him off for the '00
season, as they were required to do, and Clark was done with
baseball.

"I would have loved to play longer, but I always told Amy I
wouldn't overstay my welcome," Clark says, sitting at his kitchen
table, tugging at his camouflage cap as if he were still pitching
out of a jam. "The fact is, I wasn't getting guys out." Also, he
had that other life: a family to raise and hunting land to manage
and the money to do both, money enough to do as he pleased. He
returned to Bath for good. His final numbers were just fine: 74
wins, 71 losses, 4.61 ERA, $19.8 million earned.

He was in Bath when Brandon was born in December 2000, and when
Allyson, who is seven, began playing T-ball last year. He was on
his way to the hospital in March '03 when his mother, a breast
cancer survivor, died of kidney failure at age 73. He was in town
three months later when Pot, who is now 82, needed to go to the
hospital, despondent over his wife's death and, the doctor said,
dehydrated from lack of fluids.

This summer, like last summer, Clark will play in an afternoon
golf league, on the nine-hole golf course in Bath. Last summer he
went down to Springfield occasionally to meet with Donnie
Beechler, a Silver Crown Series dirt-car racer he was backing. He
and Beechler are still associated, and Clark and his buddies also
go to NASCAR races in a large RV he recently bought.

Some days Clark climbs into his big truck and drives to
fund-raisers in central Illinois, and occasionally he writes
checks to the charities that are important to him, particularly
the Children's Hospital of Illinois, in Peoria, and Ducks
Unlimited. He's on the board of the Illinois Conservation
Foundation. Somehow the days get filled up--the long summer days,
the short winter days, the hunting days, all of them.

He follows his old teams and teammates in the Springfield paper
and on TV. He's aware that they are working and he is not, and
that does not bother him one bit.

On one ordinary working day in baseball, the Cardinals beat
another of Clark's former teams, the Cubs. The wounds have
healed, and Clark is a Cardinals fan again; last year he bought a
tiny St. Louis uniform for his son. That same day, the Indians
lost to the Minnesota Twins, and the Mets beat the Cincinnati
Reds. The Rangers, a team Clark does not root for, beat the
Seattle Mariners. Thome went hitless as the Phillies lost to the
Florida Marlins. Frenchy did not pitch.

It was a busy day in Bath as people came to town from all over to
launch their boats in the Illinois River and spend the day
fishing or waterskiing or tubing or mucking around. Clark rose
early, as he does most every morning, and went to his hunting
club. Later he and Phelps boarded Clark's 19-foot fishing boat, a
retirement gift from Thome, and cruised up and down the river.
The day was hot, and Mark checked up on Pot, to make sure his
father didn't have any wild notions about doing some adventurous
outdoor activity on a day his doctor wanted him to stay inside.
For dinner the retired pitcher took Amy and the kids up to
Havana, to a restaurant called Rich Desserts, for the
Friday-night seafood buffet. Mark loaded up on the buffalo fish,
caught locally and deep-fried. It was late by the time they got
home, past 10:30 p.m.

Mark helped get the kids into their beds and then, exhausted,
crawled into his. He didn't even check the baseball scores, not
until morning. His money made money while he slept.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFREY LOWE REEL NICE At home in Illinois, Clark bends a rod in the company of his dog Slider and some of the goodies that baseball brought him. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFREY LOWE COUNTRY BOY During Clark's three years in Cleveland, where he went 27-15 with a 4.46 ERA, he always spent the off-season in Bath, near Pot (top left). COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE (INDIANS) COUNTRY BOY During Clark's three years in Cleveland, where he went 27-15 with a 4.46 ERA, he always spent the off-season in Bath, near Pot (top left). COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES (TOP) CAR NUT These days when Clark takes a road trip, it's to indulge his enthusiasm for Silver Crown racing or NASCAR. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFREY LOWE DADDY'S HOME Watching Allyson grow up and spending more time with Amy are two bonuses of Mark's last fat contract. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFREY LOWE BEATS WORKING It never hurts a duck hunter to rest before pushing his boat into the Illinois River.

Clark has never gone too crazy with spending--LAND AND TRUCKS,
LAND AND TRUCKS--and he still has half of the money he earned in
baseball.

Duck season is two months long. "But getting ready for those two
months," Clark says, "THERE'S NOT HARDLY ENOUGH TIME."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)