Getting to first base

Everyone's a contender during spring training, but can Will Clark and the Texas Rangers come back from last season's disappointments?

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla.--A man sits in the bleachers of Charlotte County Stadium. Judging by the white hair sprouting from beneath his Panama hat and the wrinkles covering his enormous pink face, he is about 70. Judging by the high nasal twang in his voice, evident whether he is whispering to his wife or yelling at players strolling on the field below, he's from somewhere up north. They're all over the place--Yankees whose Bah-ston accents collide in the bleachers of the Texas Rangers' spring-training facility every February and March.

His wife sits next to him, a graying, prim woman in a floral-patterned dress and white silk stockings. She squints at the field; nothing quite blocks the sunshine pouring down, baking those who sit in the bleachers. She is uncomfortable and wants to leave. But her husband does not. He begs his wife to stay for one more batter.

"I wanna see this guy get out," he tells his wife. "It won't take long. He's an easy out."

He says this loud enough for the whole stadium to hear. It's early in spring training, and the Rangers are playing the Rangers in an intersquad game, working out the kinks the day before the Minnesota Twins come to Port Charlotte to begin the Grapefruit League exhibition season. There are only a couple of hundred people present on this late February day, the bored locals and die-hard tourists who will watch baseball even when it's meaningless.

"C'mon, honey," the woman tells her husband. She stands and pulls on his arm.

"Wait a second," he whines, his voice booming through the rafters. "This'll only take a second."

Will Clark steps up to the plate about 50 feet away. The Rangers' first baseman stands with his bat cocked, his arms loaded. He waits for the first pitch from Rangers right-hander Jose Guzman, one of the aging minor-league veterans hoping for one last shot with the big club.

Guzman, who did not pitch at all last year, throws toward home plate. Clark swings at the curve ball and connects solidly, deliberately--it's a regal WHACK!--but the ball is hit directly to Mike Simms, standing near first base.

Simms shuffles toward the sack, and Clark is out.
"See," the man tells his wife with gleeful smugness. "Hell, for him that was a home run. Man, he sure did hit it hard."

He says this loud enough for Clark to hear every dribble of sarcasm. "They pay Will Clark to stink. C'mon, honey. Let's go."

Scenes like this one play themselves out almost every day during spring training. Fans come to the ballpark to softly cheer their Rangers--and jeer Will Clark. They come to boo his every at-bat, to taunt him from the cheap seats, to remind the former superstar of his recent failures and injuries.

Most of the time, their words don't bother Clark; they roll off him like softball pitches. He is used to such bleacher criticism, especially after sitting out much of the 1997 season with an injured heel, the most recent of many "freak injuries" that have plagued him since arriving in Arlington.

"If you've got an opinion of me, that's fine," Clark says, sitting at his locker. "You can boo me, whatever you want, that's fine with me. But you know what? When that baseball's up in the air, I'm still gonna hit it."

It's hours after an exhibition game with the Twins, and he still wears greasepaint under his eyes. He has been outside, in the area between the clubhouse and the field, playing with his 2-year-old son William III, and he hasn't had time to change out of his uniform.

Clark, resting now with a gun magazine rolled in his hands, speaks with a sort of detached passion, like a man defeated even in victory. The man once nicknamed "The Thrill" has heard the whispers of his demise turn into deafening roars. He has read the newspaper stories with their tombstone headlines--"The Thrill is Gone," says The Sporting News. Two weeks ago, The Dallas Morning News reported that Clark would begin the season on the disabled list and that Lee Stevens would take his place at first base and behind the plate.

Clark has come to spring training to prove he's still the same player he was 13 years ago, when he came out of Mississippi State University and was drafted by San Francisco. He arrived in Port Charlotte days before the regular players were scheduled to show up; he's desperate to overcome the injuries that kept him on the bench at the end of last season, working harder and harder every day to get in better shape.

"I don't want to go on the DL," Clark says. "That's a pain in the butt. So I started earlier--not only being here in spring training, but my workouts and just getting ready out on the field. A lot of it's going to be stamina. A lot of it's gonna be strictly mental, coming to the ballpark and being ready to play every day."

But most of all, he's spending this spring, whether he admits it or not, trying to overcome five years' worth of bad press, bad feelings, and, lately, bad play.

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