By J. H. Dama
A man to look up to
He strides out onto the field of Tiger Stadium from the tunnel of the Detroit Tigers' dugout, his bat dangling at his side. Glancing around the field with a stern look of determination on his face he heads toward the batting cage.
Now his turn to bat, he steps into the batter's box, extends his arms and takes a few practice swings. His focus is on the coach throwing batting practice. Swinging at the first pitch, he effortlessly makes contact.
His teammates watch as the ball is deposited in the outfield stands, a ball that some lucky fan will find, but never know that Tony Clark was the one who hit it there.
Opportunity knocked for Clark in 1996 when, "somebody was injured early on in the year and it gave me an opportunity." On a two-week trial, his performance would determine his remaining with the club.
Clark admits he was "fortunate enough to do well for those two weeks," and he has been with the Tigers ever since. According to him, playing "helped people feel comfortable about making a trade of that magnitude."
"Skip (manager Buddy Bell) has me in the heart of the lineup. Somebody that the guys are counting on for key hits in key situations, to get guys across the plate. That's been my job since I stepped out here and that will be my job until I take off the uniform."
Clark views himself as just another piece to the puzzle on a team where the Number 1 guy is no more important than the Number 25 guy.
Bell stresses that Clark is "a kid we've put a lot of responsibility on, somewhat of a leader in the clubhouse," and adds "Tony has accepted that role."
In between Clark's turns at batting practice he chats with those around the cage, and joins teammate Phil Nevin, on one occasion to observe the others. Nevin says something that causes Clark to break into a huge grin and burst into laughter.
It's a disarming laughter that comes from one of the tallest switch hitters to ever play in the majors and reveals his natural charm. He finds his height can be an advantage in terms of the leverage it provides.
"A lot of balls I can hit a little bit further possibly than most, because of the leverage that I have but in that same light I have a lot of opportunities where I create some holes because of that size."
His stature makes one timid to approach the Tigers' first baseman. At 6'7" Clark towers over most, with dark penetrating eyes, cropped hair, and a jaw that is framed with a neatly trimmed goatee. Putting on an incredibly threatening game face he appears menacing, but with his smile Clark makes one feel as if she is 15 feet tall -- as if he himself shrinks and simultaneously raises one to his level, at once putting a person at ease.
At his height Clark appears to be a natural for basketball and not surprisingly that was his original career choice. He played collegiate basketball at the University of Arizona and San Diego State University but then he injured his back and missed the 1991 season. That summer Clark underwent surgery on his back, which forced him to give up basketball. He explains, that "the running and jumping on the hard wood was causing a lot of trauma to my lower half."
"Lord willing, everything has turned out okay," since he made the decision to try baseball.
Now 25, Clark easily took what was dealt him and changed directions, making the best out of a bad situation. People still see the agility and grace of the basketball player in Clark in some of his spectacular moves at first base reveal.
One recent example had Clark scrambling to gather the ball as it skipped towards the coaches box and then flipping it back to the pitcher without even looking back at him, a play that made all the highlight reels.
Clark admired basketball great Julius Irving (Dr. J) and baseball icon, Hank Aaron, because "they stuck out. I respected what they were able to do with the ability they were blessed with."
As a father of two, Clark realizes that his behavior off the field is just as important as on the field. "Wearing a Major League uniform puts us in a position where kids will listen to what we have to say," and he accepts the challenge of being a role model for kids.
The first baseman is a firm believer in repetition. "You get out of it what you put into it," is the way he justifies coming to the ballpark early and getting a lot of extra swings, watching game films or watching a particular pitcher.
"It all comes together when once you step into the batters box or step onto the field."
Clark argues that he needs to be prepared because "there are a lot of things that come into account once you step out onto the field. There are always games going on inside the game that's on the field."
Defensively he needs to be aware of different signals, places that he needs to be for certain batters.
It's "very easy to stay focused and concentrate with the task at hand. You have a lot to think about."
Clark explains that offensively at the plate you must be aware of who's pitching and how well, who's on base, how many outs, what inning it is, and how you have been hitting.
"Whenever you hit a slide it's more of a mental adjustment you have to make as opposed to one necessarily with your swing. A lot of times it's a little quirk in your stance maybe that will throw you off whack just enough.
Faced with adversity he aims at balance. "Try not to get to down, and of course when things are going well, try not to get too high."
Bell admits "too many let one bad performance get to them," but not Clark, although he "still has a long way to go to being the player he wants to be."
Clark has accomplished many things in his first full season in the majors. He was presented with the Ironman Award and sees it as an honor.
"Any time you receive an award that bears the name of Lou Gehrig and the things he represents and represented throughout the course of his career you can definitely appreciate it."
He joined the elite group of players who have cleared the roof of Tiger Stadium with a home run. A huge smile radiates from Clark's face as he chuckles and humbly looks to the ground, admitting he "didn't see it go out. I'm not one to watch and stare, so I didn't even enjoy it as much as I could have."
He accepts it as "an interesting fact to put on a resume but it's nice to join the company that's done it," a group that includes Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson, and Lou Whitaker.
Looking towards the outfield with the sun setting behind the home dugout, Clark proudly states, "I love it; Detroit is all I know. I'm a Tiger through and through, hopefully now that I've started here I'll finish here. I don't want to go anywhere else."
©Published in the St. Clair College Journal on February 19, 1998 and dedicated to Tony Clark.