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Getting to first base

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.

He says the criticism does not sting, but anyone who watches him for a moment knows better. Once, during an early exhibition game, Clark seemed frustrated by the incessant catcalls coming from one annoying fan, a Boston bully who has made the trip to Florida for the past seven years. Clark lined out, and a man stood over the dugout hurling thick, Yankee invective at the Southerner.

"Good thing they got real players!" the man yelled, vicious and unrelenting. He wanted Clark to take it personally, to drive nails into Clark's thick skin. He wanted Clark to know his hatred, to feel it.

"Wadda waste of money! Give it up!"
Clark didn't look up as he jogged off the field, but he slowed a little bit before retreating into the dugout. He glanced up quickly, almost imperceptibly, and seemed ready to thrust his index finger into the air.

Instead, Clark holstered the gesture and ducked under cover, not saying a word. Spring training had only just begun.

Here in the Florida sunshine, in a town where the average age of the residents is between retirement and death, veterans on last legs and young men with fresh faces converge to find out who will spend a summer in the air-conditioned big leagues and who will sweat it out on minor-league buses. The rookies and second-chance veterans play late in meaningless exhibition games, while the rostered players are in the batting cages, in the trainer's room, or doing crossword puzzles over catered lunches. They perform for manager Johnny Oates and his staff of coaches, auditioning for slots that aren't even open.

There are players like Scott Cooper, a 30-year-old infielder drafted by Boston in 1986 who found himself playing for the Seibu Lions of the Japanese Pacific League a decade later. Or injury-plagued pitcher Todd Van Poppel, the 26-year-old Arlington Martin High School superstar who went 25-7 during three high-school seasons, only to wind up with a 20-33 major-league record with Oakland and Detroit before getting lost in the minors. Or 29-year-old pitcher Alan Levine, who was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in 1991 and has won only two games in the majors since then.

One day, one of these guys might make it to the big leagues, but probably not this year. Maybe not the next. Maybe never.

Yet, for a little while this spring, they stow their gear in the same locker room as 1996 World Series MVP John Wetteland, 1996 American League MVP Juan Gonzalez, six-time AL Gold Glove winner Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, 1996 Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year Kevin Elster, and Will Clark, whose five straight All-Star Game appearances with San Francisco tied a Giants record held by none other than Willie Mays.

They will be cut, traded, sent down to Oklahoma City or Tulsa or Charlotte. They will make impressions, some good (Todd Van Poppel throwing two scoreless innings while striking out four during an exhibition game) and some bad (21-year-old outfielder Scott Podsednik seems to think his glove is for dropping balls, not catching them--but "he's got speed," Oates says, which is a compliment, sort of). Mostly, they are here in Port Charlotte as cannon fodder.

There's actually little drama this year, as the Rangers already have a good idea who will start the season on March 31. It's a familiar enough roster to anyone who has paid any attention over the past 12 months--and apparently plenty of people have, given that almost three million paid to go to The Ballpark in Arlington last year to watch the home team finish a pitiful third behind the Seattle Mariners and the Anaheim Angels.

"Generally, if it's hard to make the ball club, you've got a pretty good ball club," says team president Tom Schieffer.

Oh, the optimism of spring. But Schieffer's confidence is not entirely unwarranted. It's not unreasonable to expect the Rangers to finish better than last year's woeful 77-85 finish, 13 games out of first place.

Ivan Rodriguez will start as catcher, but of course: The man's being paid almost $8 million a year. Clark will play first, and Mark McLemore--who played in only 89 games last year because of bad knees, on which he had surgery last September--will handle second-base duties. Kevin Elster, the out-of-nowhere hero of 1996's American League West title, has come back to replace the nonexistent Benji Gil at shortstop, and rookie Fernando Tatis will continue at third base, where he played at the end of last season after Dean Palmer was traded to the Kansas City Royals.  

In the outfield, the dependable Rusty Greer will play left field, home-run fetishist Juan Gonzalez will sit in right, and Tom Goodwin will play center--making Goodwin, who came over in the Palmer trade, the fifth Rangers' starting center fielder in five years. Sitting on the bench will be catcher Bill Haselman, outfielder Roberto Kelly, and infielder Luis Alicea--three men who started in the majors last year for, respectively, Boston, Seattle, and Anaheim. Lee Stevens, who drove in 74 runs and hit 21 home runs in just 426 at-bats last year, will act as Johnny Oates' regular designated hitter--and first baseman, should Clark prove he is not up to the task.

Pitching, as always, remains the Rangers' biggest concern. Right now, the opening-day lineup of starters reads like a who's-who of who was. Shortly before spring training, Bobby Witt was rewarded with a one-year, $3.5 million contract for winning 12 games and losing 12 last year; mediocrity makes many a man a millionaire in professional sports these days. Roger Pavlik, who won 15 games in 1996, had elbow surgery last May and went 3-5; only now is Pavlik beginning to talk to the media again, after ignoring reporters for most of last season, so deep were his physical and psychological wounds.

John Burkett, who went 5-2 during a 10-game stint with Texas in 1996, won only nine games and lost 12 after starting in 30 games for the Rangers in '97. Aaron Sele, who came over from Boston in November after the Rangers dealt outfielder Damon Buford and catcher Jim Leyritz, went 3-6 in his last 15 starts as a Red Sox last year, throwing up a whopping 5.70 earned-run average.

Which leaves Darren Oliver--who finished the season with 10 wins and three losses, after starting with three wins and nine defeats--as the staff, uh, "ace." Also contending for spots on the starting rotation and in the bullpen are Rick Helling, Matt Whiteside, and Julio Santana, the last of whom owned the highest ERA per 100 innings in the American League last year.

It's rather startling that pitching coach Dick Bosman thinks he's got "at least three guys" on this staff who can win 15 games. But what is spring-training March if not a time to dream of World Series October, a time to predict greatness before reality sets in?

"They're all quality major-league starters," Schieffer insists. As Oates is fond of saying, "Without expectations, there's no hope."

If nothing else, this has been a very long winter for the Texas Rangers. Schieffer, like everyone else on this club, couldn't wait for spring training to begin: They needed a purpose, a way to wash from their mouths the bitter aftertaste that was 1997.

Last year, with expectations high after the Rangers' first-ever appearance in the post-season, it became agonizingly clear that Schieffer and general manager Doug Melvin had put together a $57 million team and ended up overspending on a bunch of underachievers.

Fourteen different players went on the disabled list in 1997, including Clark, McLemore, Pavlik, pitchers Xavier Hernandez and Danny Patterson, and outfielder Warren Newson. Then there was Schieffer and Melvin's decision to let Elster go to Pittsburgh and keep Benji Gil at shortstop. Gil committed 19 errors and got a hit once every four times at the plate; he would lose his job four times in 1997 alone, eventually getting traded to the Chicago White Sox for prospects.

"It was so frustrating to put that team together and never see the team get to the point where they could reach their potential," Schieffer says. "You have big payrolls so you can have big wins at the end, but it was a long season. A very, very long season."

Johnny Oates has a sign over his office door in Port Charlotte that reads, "Baseball Spoken Here," but right now, Oates is talking about tongue-piercing. Apparently, one of the younger players has a stud in his tongue, and a Fort Worth Star-Telegram writer, one of the handful of local reporters sitting around a small table in Oates' office, wants to know the skipper's policy on tongue-piercing.

"I don't have a tongue-piercing policy," Oates says. "I've never seen one. But yesterday, I did fill up with some gas at the Texaco station down here, and when the guy said, 'Thank you,' I saw the earring come out. Wouldn't be an earring there. Guess it'd be a tongue ring."  

"Was it a ring or a stud?" asks Star-Telegram beat writer Johnny Paul.
"I don't know what it was," Oates says. "I don't know how you can get that many pieces pierced. How do you get used to it?"

And the discussion goes on like this for five more minutes. Later, during the same bull session, Oates and the reporters will spend several minutes discussing the size of third baseman Fernando Tatis' rather large, protruding ears.

"The players call him Dumbo," Oates says. "They tell him to take one in the ear for the club. They say, 'You'll have plenty left.'" Oates cracks himself up, a one-man Deaf Comedy Jam. "This'll never wind up in the paper, anyway." (Not so fast: Star-Telegram columnist Jim Reeves gets a whole column out of it a day later, which goes to show you how exciting spring training can really be.)

A couple of days later, Oates will spend even more time talking about the days--in 1959--when he spent summers milking cows in his home state of North Carolina.

"How did we get on that?" a Morning News writer wonders.
Easy: There's not a lot of baseball to talk about during spring training, especially when you already know who you're going to field come Opening Day.

Now, players arrive at the Port Charlotte facility--with its indoor weight room, its enclosed batting cages, its catered hot lunches, and other major-league amenities--at seven in the morning, and most stick around till well past four in the afternoon or later, depending upon when games are scheduled. During the early days of training, before the exhibition games begin, they spend all afternoon fielding routine balls, taking batting practice, and going through enough motions to shake off winter's rust.

"I didn't realize how hard these guys worked," says Tom Hicks, the owner of the Dallas Stars and the man who will soon sign the Rangers' paychecks, pending his approval by Major League Baseball. Hicks met the players for only the first time during spring training and was impressed with what he saw. "They're a lot like my hockey players--down-to-earth, serious about what they do."

Meanwhile, Oates and his coaches meet every morning at 6 a.m. at the same restaurant for the same breakfast to discuss players' performances.

To make it through the tedium, many of the veterans bring their families down for part of spring training, renting condos near the ballpark; some of the younger guys stay at the nearby Days Inn, the team's base of operations during camp.

Only one time during the second week of camp could you find a player out on the town, at one of Port Charlotte's few, er, hot spots. That night, Fernando Tatis stood alone in the dank, miserable disco called the Crazy Moon, sipping his free plastic cup of beer while waiting for a date.

Long gone are the early '70s spring-training days of Pompano Beach and Whitey Herzog and Billy Martin, when the Baseball Team Formerly Known as the Washington Senators began each season with a team full of out-of-shape rejects and assorted other has-beens who were forgotten before they even got off the field. Back then, players would show up for camp not having thrown, caught, or hit a single ball during the winter.

Back then, players and coaches and sportswriters would spend their days getting tans and their nights getting loaded. Back then, the Rangers knew from the start they'd be out of pennant contention by the second game of the season.

"It's not as wacky as it was in the 1970s and '80s," says KRLD's Eric Nadel, who has been broadcasting Rangers games for 20 years. "Now, it's more businesslike. All the guys come to camp in shape. They're ready to play. Johnny's organized and professional. Spring training doesn't have that same wacky flavor."

Yes, things are very different around here now, very professional.
"Everything will be fine," Oates assures, "if we don't have any injuries. That's the key to everything."

Injuries. That's the last thing in the world Will Clark wants to hear about. He's suffered enough in the past five years to last two careers. In 1993, during his last year with the Giants, he was bothered by both of his knees and played in only a handful of games toward the end of the season; the Giants figured he was so banged up, they let him go to Texas without much of a fight.

Then, in 1995, Clark missed 21 games because of injuries--first he busted his left elbow on a railing while diving after a foul ball, then he strained his groin. The following year, he went on the DL three times with a strained quadriceps, a bruise on his rib cage, and a strained calf muscle; by October, he had to have surgery to remove bone spurs and relocate a nerve in his elbow.  

But, by far, last year was his most frustrating in the majors. He began 1997 on the disabled list after a freak injury incurred during an exhibition game against the Oklahoma City 89'ers, the Rangers' Triple-A farm club, when he tripped over the pitcher's mound; he missed the first 13 games of the season with a sprained left wrist. When he returned, Clark showed flashes of greatness: He batted .394 in May--the highest batting average ever for a Ranger during May--and, by June 3, posted a league-best average of .392. Yet during that time, Clark wasn't driving in runs; his hits were all coming without men on base, and they were going to waste.

By the time Clark went to the disabled list for good on August 25, with torn tissue in his right heel, he had driven in a meager 51 runs--a far cry from the 116 he had with San Francisco in 1991.

Fans who lamented the departure of Rafael Palmeiro for Baltimore, where he has posted monster numbers during his four years there, began spewing their vitriol all over Clark. (As a comparison, during his four-year tenure with the Orioles, Palmeiro has played in 114 more games than Clark, hit 139 homers to Clark's 54, and driven in 137 more runs.) Sportswriters called for Clark's head. Just two weeks ago, as spring training was getting under way, the Star-Telegram's T.R. Sullivan interviewed Palmeiro about his interest in returning to Texas to play once more for the Rangers. After all, Palmeiro still lives in Arlington, a town where he is still beloved even in his absence.

When Clark saw the article, he gave Sullivan a little grief, sticking his finger in the writer's chest in front of a small crowd of players and journalists. Clark would later say he was joking, but the piece was just one more example of writers shoving Clark's face in it, one more poke in his own always-inflated chest.

"People are entitled to their opinions," Clark says. "They can believe what they want to believe. My abilities haven't changed, not from when I was a rookie. I can still walk out there and hit a baseball. What ends up happening is certain people only look at you as a number. They don't look at you from the standpoint of, well, you're good in the clubhouse, you're good in the community, you're good with your family."

Shortly before the 1994 season, Clark came to Texas with a $30 million contract in his back pocket. He was an arrogant, brusque 29-year-old Louisiana boy who was among the most popular San Francisco Giants of the past decade--a man who finished in the top five in the National League's MVP voting four times from 1987 to 1991, during the period when he averaged 104 runs batted in and 27 home runs per season. Among active players in the major leagues, even now he has more top-five MVP finishes than Cal Ripken Jr.

Yet somewhere between knocking in the winning run during Game 5 of the NL Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs in 1989, sending the Giants to the World Series (which they ultimately lost to Oakland), and today, the savior has become the pariah. He was in a no-win situation from the beginning, replacing a popular, productive player after Palmeiro's agent played team management for chumps. While Palmeiro let his mouthpiece negotiate the big-money deal that never came, Clark slipped in and became the Rangers' first baseman.

There are plenty of Rangers who have something to prove during spring training--Pavlik, who must find out whether he's the 15-game winner he was in 1996 or the three-game washout he was last year; McLemore, who fights every day to win a battle with his knees; Tatis, who struggles every day to prove he can hit in the big leagues; even Gonzalez, who will try to stay healthy and prove himself a worthy contender to Roger Maris' 61-home run crown. Then there are the players somewhere in the middle, who can't tell if they're headed up or down just yet.

But Clark perhaps has the most at stake here, though he would never admit it aloud. He enters 1998 in the final year of his contract with the Rangers, and if he wants to remain here or find bigger money elsewhere, he will have to prove he can play a full season and drive in more than 51 runs.

"I think Will is a big part of this team, and I think he'll be on the field opening day," Schieffer says. "Obviously, he's been playing here in the early workouts, and he's been doing great. I still don't think there's anybody better in baseball when you just gotta have the hit. Will Clark has the ability to focus and concentrate in a way that only the real superstars can do. I think it's gonna be a big year for Will, and if he has a big year, then we'll have a big year."  

By being among the first to show up for camp and by being the most vocal player on the field--when he or someone makes a good play, he will often yell, "You can't teach that!"--he's out to show he's nowhere near the end of his career. Even now, just when people are counting him out, Clark still struts around the locker room with his chest sticking out, a proud man not about ready to admit defeat.

"If [the injuries and criticism] affected my desire and my love for the game, I'd hang it up," Clark says. "I'd give you my jersey. But since I do love the game and am having a lot of fun, you're gonna have to rip the jersey off my back to get me to stop playing. I think I respect the game in that it's failure-oriented.

"You can do everything right in the game of baseball and still have bad results. You can go up there, look for a curve ball, get a curve ball, hit it right on the button--and hit it right at somebody. You sit there in your mind and wonder, What did I do wrong? Well, nothing. That's just the way the game's made. I enjoy playing it. But I don't have anything to prove to myself. For my teammates, I want to win a [World Series] ring. As far as to myself, I know exactly what I can do and what I can't do."

It's perhaps that elusive championship ring that keeps Clark in the game at all. Clark, who went to college on a baseball scholarship but always planned on becoming an engineer after graduation, says he now prefers to spend his moments away from the field forgetting about the game entirely; he would rather spend time with his wife and son, to be a father instead of only a baseball player. He says that when he leaves home to head for the ballpark, it's no different than any husband and father driving off to work.

In the end, perhaps it's that perspective that will make Will Clark a better player on the field: He knows he must refocus his energies lest his career end on the bench. A decade ago, Will Clark was headed to Cooperstown, a man whose swing was graceful and deliberate and absolutely perfect. Do not tell him anything has changed, even if he knows better.

"Baseball is just the first part of my life," he says. "The second part of my life is going to be Daddy. When I'm home, I'm Daddy--not Daddy the Ballplayer. It's not an easy transition to make. If you strike out to end the ball game, you're gonna want to think about that when you go home. Now, you just don't. You think about your son, you think about your wife, what they had for lunch that day, stuff like that.

"When I walk away from this game, there's nothing financial I'm gonna need," he says, grinning. "I've got a ton of great memories. The only thing I need's a ring, and I'm working on that right now. In baseball you can be a goat one day and a hero the next or vice-versa. From a baseball perspective, you have got to stay on an even keel."

He then stands and walks toward the showers, where he will wash away the day's sweat. Then, he will meet his family in the parking lot and go home.


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