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A conversation with Jack Clark

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 28, 2009 - When Jack Clark talks about his Springfield (Ill.) Sliders he doesn't initially say these are college-age baseball players he's managing.

No, he says: "What we're doing here is trying to manage hope."

As in, he says with a mix of exasperation and gallows humor, "I hope he can put it in play. I hope he catches it."

Clark is a four-time All-Star who hit 340 home runs in 18 seasons, a heroic St. Louis Cardinals figure and a former major league hitting coach. So maybe managing these wood-bat (not aluminum) wielding young men, few of whom have a realistic chance at professional careers, might require him to adjust his expectations.

Not really, he says.

"I am having fun," Clark insists, as he also laments that his Sliders have been known to commit six errors in one game.

"I like them. They are good kids, good people. They stay with host families, and the host families treat them like they are their sons. But I was expecting, at this level, the Prospect League, for them to have been taught better, to have more knowledge of the game. There's always a weak spot here and there. But for everybody to have as many deficiencies as they have, it's really surprising."

It's difficult to not chuckle - even into the face of such a to-the-marrow competitor as "The Ripper" Clark - when he chronicles some of the mishaps.

"When you have somebody on your team and ask them, 'What is your best position?' and they give you six positions ..." he says with incredulity clear in his voice. "No, I mean which one is your best, which one are you really good at?"

"We had one guy, a catcher, who was trying to throw out a runner. And he hit the pitcher in his left arm. And he's one of our best pitchers!"

He is especially fond of a Slider "who loves the game, but he's probably the most overmatched kid on our team. He came to me (after a particularly disastrous episode) and said, 'I disrespected the game because of the way I played.' He said, 'I wouldn't blame you if you didn't ever play me again.' He at least cares."

Even in discussing the limitations of the Prospect League players, "good athletes, but not great athletes" who have been passed over by professional teams, the inherent competitiveness and bluntness of Jack Clark floods to the surface.

"It really looks like the Bad News Bears a lot of the time. We try to teach them that no human alive ever has been able to outrun a baseball. Sometimes it just seems like the losing or playing bad just doesn't bother them. We're back to the Stone Age at what is supposed to have been a higher level."

Just as quickly, Clark adds, "I want them to have fun. This is a Prospect League, a challenge, and they're here to have a good summer and have fun. I want them to think they always can call me. (Baseball) is a game where you make lifelong friends."

One perk has been the chance to manage Anthony Clark, 24. But the father is realistic about his son's baseball future.

"He's never been given a chance anywhere he's been. He wanted him to find out about himself. He's at the same level as everybody else. He's found out that the speed of the game is a little bit more than he thought. I've had to pinch-hit and pinch-run for him. I look at him as another player."

What's really important, though, is that Anthony, who is unlikely to return for his sophomore year at Texas Wesleyan College, "is having the most fun he's ever had. He told someone, not me, that this is the best time, the best summer, he's ever had. Forget that I'm his dad." (Anthony, meanwhile, cheerfully heads down the street from Robin Roberts Stadium to fetch a pre-game Kreckel's Custard cheeseburger, fries and chocolate shake for manager-dad.)

On the Air

When not in Springfield tutoring his Sliders -- assisted by former Cardinals pitcher Danny Cox and Jay Gundy -- Clark works as a post-game Cardinals baseball analyst on Fox Sports Midwest. He's on air approximately 35 games -- Fox has upped his work load -- and he says he's enjoying the job and the freedom to speak his mind.

"Fox Midwest has made it easy and comfortable for me. A lot of ex-players come in and still think they are big leaguers, hot shots. They try to overpower the other personality with their egoes. They are used to being babied and catered to, told how wonderful and how great they are. I've always been a simple, down-to-earth guy. I think I come across as pretty genuine. I'm just Jack."

He still gets a bit nervous right before on-air time.

"You want to make sure you say the right things. I've had to learn I can have fun with it too because Fox Midwest allows you that. I keep no notes; I keep in my head what I saw. I want to come off as talking about whatever they ask me to talk about. I like to be able to shoot from the hip.

"I have no education in doing this. (Fox hosts Jim Hayes and Pat Parris tell me) 'Talk about you saw, we're going to talk about what we saw. We want to know from you what you see as far as the game within the game'."

What would make him a better analyst, he says, is simply more team access and more knowledge.

"(Preparing) is a little difficult for me because let's say I am coaching in Springfield. It would be nice to be more involved with the team organization when they go to spring training. I'd like a deeper knowledge of the team, the individuals. I want to give the fans things I see as an ex-player that go unnoticed. It's getting the details, the names of the umpires."

Fishing and Family

When not managing or broadcasting, Clark says, "I like to go fishing, go to the beach, spend time with my kids and grandkids (a third grandchild, a girl, is imminent). A favorite fishing partner is former Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog (his bass pond), a ritual that comes replete with Whitey's homemade braunschweiger sandwiches with a thick slice of onion, always on white bread. And chased with a Budweiser.

"And that's breakfast, 5:30 in the morning," Clark says.

He's still beaming from his role in the All-Star game celebration in St. Louis on July 14.

"They asked me to present trophy for the home run derby, just one little chore. I had white gloves on, walked it out on the field and brought it up to ESPN where (broadcaster) Joe Morgan and those guys were."

In addition to Anthony, Clark has three daughters: Danika, Rebekah and Erika, a junior scholarship volleyball player at the University of Georgia.

"She is very probably the most athletic and most competitive of all (the Clark children). She is the one who will not take losing. She is the meanest. She is some kind of strong." Erika, he says, is likely to play professional sand volleyball after college.

Back to the Bigs?

Clark, who will be 55 in November, hasn't given up on the goal of becoming a major league hitting coach again or even manager. He managed the Frontier League River City Rascals out of St. Charles in 1999. And he was batting coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers for two years. But in '03 in Phoenix, he riding a motorcycle when he was struck from behind.

"I'm lucky I didn't die from that. The Good Lord feels I'm still here for a reason. I had scrapes, cuts, broken vertebrae, six broken ribs, a concussion, bleeding on the brain ... a few different surgeries." (He displays road rash on his hand (saying it's sometimes painful to shake hands) and scars on his forehead just under his still-thick black hair.)

"When I finally was able to go down (to see) the police report I saw that a car was on top of me. Somehow when I crashed, I slid under a car. I didn't know how badly I was hurt until I tried to move. My head felt like it was going to blow up.

"I was out for half the season but when I came back (as hitting instructor), they fired me after two to three weeks. They had begged me to come back after telling me 'We don't care I if you can't walk'."

Praised by his broadcast colleagues for his generosity, Clark spent a recent day at a St. Louis park working with former Missouri University basketball player and Vashon High graduate Jimmy McKinney on his attempt to pursue a baseball career.

"I think I'm a better teacher now than I ever was as a hitter. I would like to have the opportunity to manage again. But baseball is funny that way. It's a good old boys network. It's a little frustrating because some ex-players don't pay their dues. I am from that era that still remembers the game the way it used to be. Maybe that's why they don't want me. Maybe they're afraid of me. I don't like to lose. I'll stand up for my players and I won't be a chump."

Drive Time

In his heyday, Clark was a connoissieur and collector of expensive automobiles and a drag racing enthusiast. "I was born in '55, so I used to have a (classic) car collection. But when I got into drag racing (a venture that reportedly ended up costing him considerable money), I got rid of my car collection."

He says he tends to not dwell in the past when it comes to baseball achievements but beams at the recollection that in 1995 or '96, "I drove 297 miles an hour in 4.96 seconds lapsed time. I loved that sport. It was very radical, cool technology-wise. All of the guys were engineers, cars with really cool bodies, that big motor, flames coming out, the power, running on nitromethane."

As for life after dragsters and Ferraris, Clark now shuttles back and forth from St. Louis to Springfield in a Ford Fusion. "I drive a hybrid," he says.

When it comes to the occasional five-hour bus ride with the Sliders, he says, "I just suck it up. Sometimes when I get off the bus, I feel like I've been hit by a bus." He says he's learned to simply live with chronic hip pain (from the bursa sac problem that ended his baseball career) that's like the worst toothache 24 hours a day."

Quickly, though, he adds: "It's kind of a fun time in my life, to be honest with you, to be here in Springfield, with my son playing here, an hour and half to get back to St. Louis."

How goes the Springfield/St. Louis commute? "The back and forth wears on you. But like everybody else I listen to sports talk, ESPN One on One. I listen to Bernie Miklasz and Bryan Burwell (Post-Dispatch sports columnists) and Parris (of Fox).

"Sometimes I'm driving along and I'm listening to myself."

So how does he think he sounds talking baseball on the radio?

"Pretty good," says Jack Clark, confidently, sounding genuine and not much like a man bragging.

Paul Povse is a freelance writer based in Springfield, Ill.