Life's a Pitch
The back-road drive into Tomball is stereotypical Texas. Cattle graze on long, flat prairies spotted with yellow dandelions. Trees are scarce; rolls of sod and wire fences mark the land. Large state and American flags fly at ranch entrances. A portable sign with black plastic letters, the kind youd find at a gas station (only there isnt one around), sits by the side of the road, imploring motorists to Support Our Troops.
Off a small, two-lane highway, there's a nondescript development of nice, not ostentatious, homes. It's quiet here. David Clyde likes it quiet. That's partly why he's lived in this area about 40 minutes north of Houston for the past 20 years with his third wife, Robin, and their three children. It's a fine home, a picture of small-town comfort. In front, a wraparound driveway is mottled with chestnut-colored leaves. Around back, there's a big yard and a Jacuzzi. It is the life of the middle-class everyman. A life radically different from the one he once knew.
Years ago, 1973 to be exact, Clyde broke into professional baseball amid the kind of pomp generally reserved for returning POWs. But he played only eight seasons before retiring and spent the majority of his post-baseball days in various capacities with McCauley Lumber, whiling away his time at an honest job in the unforgiving Texas sun. Eventually, he became a partner in the business. Nothing grand or spectacular in any of it, until you consider the details. Because Clyde wasn't just another prospect who didn't realize his full potential. He isn't some once-overhyped burnout who has only now found his true station in life.
No, David Clyde was a prodigy--a young pitcher whose blessed left arm was lusted after by every team in the majors. He was the first baseball player ever to go straight from high school to the Bigs.
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"I try not to go back on it, 'cause on the one hand, it was a very glorious time of my life, but on the other hand, it opens up some pretty painful memories," Clyde says. "People seem to have good memories of my career. I don't always have good memories of it. But the one thing, like I was saying, the good thing that's come out of all of this, is that every three or four years, when another young talent comes along, and sometimes every year, they say they're not gonna let happen to him what happened to David Clyde."
There's a lot to be learned from what happened to Clyde and where he ended up, because he had less control over his career than most. From jump, it wasn't what it should have been. After being taken with the first pick in the draft by the Texas Rangers, and just a few weeks removed from the high school state playoffs, Clyde, at the behest of Texas Rangers owner Bob Short, packed a bag and flew to join the team in Minneapolis, nervous with anticipation. He hadn't thrown one pitch in the minors, but there he was at the Leamington Hotel, waiting on his new teammates. Clyde was sitting at the bar smoking a cigarette but not drinking, he says, when the first of the Rangers walked through the door.
"This is my very first day with the ball club," Clyde recalls, staring into the distance but talking with a voice as engaging as his handshake. "Finally I start seeing some guys walking in, and they're dressed pretty wild, you know, '70s and stuff. The big bell-bottoms, platform shoes, a couple of them wearing purses. And I go over and I introduce myself to one of them. And I said, 'My name is such-and-such.' And he says, 'My name is such-and-such, but don't think I'm gonna be your friend 'cause you're after my job.' I won't tell you who that was, sorry, no, I won't.
"As it turns out, the fellow they had to send to the minor leagues to make room for me on the roster was his best friend on the team. So, I understand a little bit. But at the same time, it was very shocking to me. I think the very first day is when it started downhill."
That's about the way it went for him; never fully accepted into the fold, never as much a baseball player as he was Short's sideshow. Over his career, he was exploited by the owner in an attempt to save a struggling franchise, ostracized by some of his teammates because of his age, mishandled by his managers and finally kicked to the curb when his arm blew out and his talent was drained. In between, he went through two wives and drank heavily, though he maintains he never had a drinking problem. By 26, he was out of baseball entirely.
Thirty years after his debut, the memories, and pain, are fresh. He went from a sure thing and a fan favorite, a guy who was a national name, to a living admonition of how not to handle young talent. His is the cautionary tale everyone invokes when someone like workhorse Chicago Cubs phenom Kerry Wood needs arm surgery, or St. Louis Cardinals prospect Rick Ankiel craters because it seems he was brought to the pro level too quickly.
Recently, Clyde, now 48, resolved to get back into baseball, partly because he'd like to have his pension, mostly because he misses the game. He's circulated his résumé to a few teams, the Rangers among them. Meanwhile, two brothers from L.A. are trying to get a movie made about him.
How ironic, then, that years after a career that never really was, years after his curly locks have given way to horseshoe baldness, Clyde enjoys a small part of the fame he was promised so long ago--not by reliving past glory but by talking about how dreadfully things unfolded. It's the sad truth, lamentable, a tale Sophocles could have scripted, had he worked for SportsDay.
"I really feel, and I've always said this, that David Clyde was wronged by almost everyone who handled his career," says former Rangers GM Tom Grieve, who was a teammate of Clyde's when he broke in with the Rangers and who now does TV color commentary for the club. "Had he gone through the minors, if he had been given a chance to breathe on his own, away from the cameras and the sportswriters and the pressure of having to save what was a bad organization, I think he would have had a terrific career. Ten or 15 years of good, quality starts. He would have been something. If that had happened, if they had brought him along slowly, everything would have turned out differently."
Before you can fully appreciate the fall, you have to relive the rise. It was fast and brilliant and, by all forecasts, destined to last forever. Clyde grew up in Kansas and then lived for a short while in New Jersey and St. Louis. His family settled, before his freshman year at Westchester High School, in the Houston area in a small town called Spring Branch. He was admired by his classmates and cooed over by the girls. He was good at most things he tried, particularly sports. He played soccer and basketball and was a place kicker on the football team; he kicked a 47-yarder during his senior year. But he was most comfortable and skilled on a baseball diamond. There was just something about standing atop the mound, toe against the rubber, ball gripped in his left hand, that felt right. It was empowering. There couldn't have been any other course for Clyde. He was meant to be a pitcher as surely as the sun is meant to rise. And set.
Bob French was his high school coach. The first year Clyde came out for the team, French had all but selected his club. Some of the players urged French to give Clyde a look anyway, or so the tale goes. He wandered over to where Clyde was throwing to see for himself.
"We had a tunnel that led to the field, and there was a cover on it--that's where he was throwing," French, 59, remembers vividly. His face and nose are ruddy from a long day of golf in the sun, and his black-gray hair is matted and sweaty. In between bites of peppered cheese and crackers, and sips of his margarita, he leans forward against the arm of his living room recliner, warming to the yarn. "So I'm walking down to the tunnel, and I could hear David throwing from pretty far away because it echoed loudly when the ball hit the glove. It sounded like an explosion. That was about all I needed to know. You know, there were so few radar guns then, I couldn't tell you how hard he threw, but the ball had a tail on it."
His senior season, Clyde won 18 games, lost none, with 14 shutouts and five no-hitters. In one game, Clyde developed a large blister on the index finger of his pitching hand, so he enlisted French to gnaw it off. "That was David," French says, smiling.
Naturally, Major League scouts, along with every college in the nation, were enamored. Mike Shropshire, a Dallas author who covered the team for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, recalled a Phillies scout as having said: "I watched Clyde pitch three innings and left. Why waste time? We're picking second."
Texas had the first pick in the draft that year. The Rangers had languished in last place for most of their embarrassing existence after the franchise moved to Arlington from Washington, D.C., in 1971. The team drew a crowd only when Short dreamed up another absurd promotion. The best, or most infamous, was "Hot Pants Night," which wasn't a giveaway, but rather a sort of soft-core porn pageant in which the best female ass in North Texas was encouraged to come to the ballpark and put itself on public display. That kind of publicity stunt became standard for the Rangers because the players weren't going to bring fans in, and neither was Arlington Stadium, a decrepit, glorified high school park with obstructed views and endless rows of hot metal bleachers.
In Clyde--6-foot-1 and 190 pounds with a goofy grin and a wild crop of curly brown hair; he looked like a mop with feet--Short saw something more than a prospect. He saw an immediate savior, a charismatic, humble homegrown talent who would cram fans into Arlington Stadium like cigarettes in an unopened pack. And if he won a game or two, so much the better. The consensus was that Clyde was a can't-miss project, but it was also assumed that he'd work his way through the minors before having a long, successful career in pro ball. Veggies before dessert--that's the way it was always done in baseball.
After selecting Clyde with the first overall pick, Short, who died in 1987, wanted to option Clyde directly to the big club despite the objections of then-manager Whitey Herzog. There was no precedence for moving him straight to the majors, a tactic Herzog believed would create a smothering amount of pressure and attention. That's what Short was counting on. With the franchise having serious fiduciary troubles, he overruled Herzog and brought Clyde to the majors.
"There's no doubt about that; he had dollar signs in his eyes," says Shropshire, who chronicled the pitiful 1973-'75 Rangers in his hilarious book Seasons in Hell. "But I don't think that Bob...there was nothing draconian about it. I don't think he ever said to himself, 'Well, this will ruin the kid, but fuck him.' He was a nice guy, but he was short-sighted. All he had to do was convince the [Clyde] family."
That didn't take long. Clyde passed "Go" and collected a handsome sum (it was widely reported that the Rangers inked him for $125,000; Clyde maintains that he received $62,500 in a signing bonus and $22,000 in base salary). Shortly thereafter, the second-guessing began. People wondered aloud if he should have gone to school or, barring that, if the Clydes should have insisted that David start his career more traditionally, with a layover in the minors.
"There was no way we could tell Mr. Short, Bob Short, here's what you do with David," Gene Clyde says. "Do you say no to a number-one draft choice and take a scholarship? Because, as I look back, there was risk in that, too. He could have gotten hurt. When it came down to it, we asked what he thought, and when he said what he wanted to do, how do I as a father tell him no?"
"When you're 17 or 18 years old, and somebody comes to you and says here's a nice chunk of change to play a sport, who would pass up the opportunity to live their dream, given those conditions?" David Clyde asks. "They could've drafted me number 101; I still would have signed."
There couldn't have been a team more ill-suited for the guardianship of an 18-year-old than the Texas Rangers. Despite the stewardship of Herzog (who did not return phone calls for this story), they were rabble. Not much changed away from the park; they were a hard-drinking, profligate bunch, fond of late nights and loose women. Think Major League--only more depraved.
"The off-the-field aspects, particularly back in those days, it was pretty hefty nightlife," Shropshire says. "You can't really appreciate the scale of the partying unless you were there...One waitress who we used to see at a certain restaurant, after we had been going there for a while, she asked me, 'What's with this team? They sleep late, they order the heaviest thing on the menu, they smoke and drink more than any of the other teams.' It was sort of like, not only going from high school to the big leagues but also getting cast in a Marx brothers movie."
Despite the environment, Clyde's debut was the stuff of legend. The Minnesota Twins had come to Arlington to find the Dallas-Fort Worth area reborn. Everyone was talking about Clyde. He had even supplanted the Cowboys at the top of the local sports page. The fans started pouring into the stadium hours before game time. Reportedly, 10,000 were turned away at the gate. The game started late to make sure those who did have tickets found their seats before the momentous first pitch. Unusual for a Rangers game, to say the least. "You could have gone to funeral parlors and gotten more action than at a Rangers game," Shropshire says. "There might have been that much excitement at some promotional night where they were giving blow jobs at the bar or something, but never for baseball."
Inside, an anxious Clyde waited to take the mound. A little earlier, he was given his jersey: No. 32, same as his idol, fellow lefty and Dodgers Cy Young winner Sandy Koufax. Just before heading out to the field, Clyde received a telegram. It read, simply: "Good luck number 32." It was signed Sandy Koufax. "It couldn't have gotten any better," Clyde says.
Yet it did. After walking the first two batters (one of whom was Hall of Famer Rod Carew), Clyde struck out the next three Twins to end the inning. As he walked off the field and down the dugout steps, the crowd cheered mightily, rising to its feet with the noise and motion of a large wave about to break.
Clyde pitched five innings that day, allowing just one hit and two earned runs. He struck out eight and got the win. It couldn't have been better crafted. But in retrospect, it was just as much requiem as dream. It left Clyde with nowhere to go but down.
"I saw David perform, and I thought he had great talent," says Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, who made his mark with the Cubs but also played with the Rangers. "Unfortunately, it didn't last long. I hate to say he was a flash in the pan, because he might not have been a flash in the pan if he had had the counseling or somebody, as they say, watching his back."
Strangely, it probably didn't help Clyde's career any that he did well in his first few starts. Herzog's intention was to option him to the minors after a couple of games, allow him to work on his mechanics and grow up some, and then bring him back to the majors. Clyde's success kept that from happening. Short was so smitten with his ability and box-office appeal, the owner wasn't yet ready to slaughter his fatted calf. He once again vetoed Herzog, and Clyde stayed in Arlington.
"The circumstance, the atmosphere surrounding David, was obviously the hardest part," Grieve says. "He had a perfect delivery, a great arm, total command of his pitches. He was well beyond the curve of a teen-ager. But that was a lot to deal with. No--well, I shouldn't say no--but few 18-year-olds are capable of handling that kind of pressure on their psyche. There was just so much that he had to deal with and absorb. Bottom line: The Texas Rangers, Bob Short, Whitey Herzog, they never should have put him in the majors. It wasn't fair. It might have been in the best interests of the club to do so, or the best interests of the team as far as money was concerned, but putting him in the majors was definitely not in the best interests of David Clyde or his career in the long term."
Even though he disagreed with rushing his young pitcher, Herzog was still one of Clyde's chief proponents. But before the '73 season ended, Herzog was fired. In came Billy Martin, a subversive personality best known for his many managerial stints with the New York Yankees. Martin was the antithesis of Herzog in temperament and baseball philosophy. Where Herzog got on well with Clyde and valued his potential, Martin was derisive toward most pitchers. Particularly Clyde. Almost immediately, Clyde went from a starter to an extra, shunted off into the ballpark shadows. Despite starting the '74 season 3-0, Martin all but forgot about Clyde and rarely pitched him thereafter. It makes little sense, and to this day, few people know why, though Clyde has a theory.
"If you look at Billy's career, not only playing but managing, you can see where I wasn't his kind of guy," Clyde says. "Number one, Billy's always wanted to be the center of attention. I didn't ask to be the center of attention in Dallas. But I was. So I think there was some jealousy on that part that affected our relationship. Number two, Billy, throughout his managerial career, did not like young players. Number three, Billy hated pitchers. So, if you look at all those things...three strikes, you're out."
Wanting to keep fresh, Clyde would ask to throw before games or during batting practice. Martin almost always refused. Clyde became a pitcher who didn't pitch. The down time slowly eroded his confidence and his curveball. His once-mighty hook started bouncing to the plate, which did little to smooth things over with Martin. At the end of the miserable '74 season, Martin's rancor boiled over and Shropshire quoted the manager as saying, "You know who cost us the pennant? That fucking little David Clyde."
"I faced Vida Blue, [and] he had a fastball that would come over the top and whooom...just like that," says one-time Ranger Dave Nelson. "Well, David was the same way. It had that little giddy-up at the end. And he had some movement on it, too, that was just unbelievable. Man, that guy was a great, great pitcher. You feel sorry...I say this, I blame the organization. When you have a talent that special, you have to nurture that along. They just threw him out there and said, 'You're either going to be successful or you're going to sink.' There was no guidance."
Having saved the franchise a year before, Clyde now found himself in a situation where no one bothered to save him from himself. Shortly after signing with the Rangers, Clyde had married his high school sweetheart, Cheryl Crawford. Less than a year later, they were divorced. (His second marriage, to Patti McKenna, lasted only slightly longer--two years--leaving him twice divorced by 24.) With a rocky personal life, and his career under Martin souring, Clyde tried to blend in with his teammates. It was hard, considering the age difference. The team was mostly composed of veterans in their 30s; the youngest guys on the club, Grieve and Jeff Burroughs, were in their mid-20s--still a good six to eight years older than Clyde. He started drinking more and partying later. The players would take him out, some because they figured why not, others for their own twisted amusement.
"Some of them wanted to take him drinking, and they meant well, and others just thought it was funny," Grieve says. "They didn't care. And David was a good kid. He wanted to please everyone, so he went along."
Clyde swears he was never an alcoholic and that it wasn't an every-night thing. He didn't wake up searching for liquor, he says. But neither does he deny the slide or some of its contributing factors. Some days he would show up to the ballpark with a raging, noticeable hangover. Others he'd appear dressed in the clothes he'd worn the night before. On one occasion, he almost didn't show up at all, catching a flight out of Boston moments before it, and the team, nearly left without him. He developed an ulcer and went from a nonsmoker to a two-pack-a-day habit.
"In '74, when I didn't get to pitch a lot, I probably partied a little bit too much," says Clyde, who, post-career, has had little communication with former teammates. He's tried contacting a few to go hunting or fishing, but the calls were seldom returned. "Well, you're 7-foot-tall and bulletproof. You're kind of like a rock star. Mine was part of the maturity process. But, like I said, I didn't have anybody there really trying to steer me in the right direction. But I'm the one who has to ultimately take responsibility for everything."
The Rangers thought so. After bouncing him back and forth from the minors, Clyde blew out his left shoulder. The Rangers, ever benevolent and thankful for his resurrection of their moribund franchise, bought out his contract for about $35,000 and then released him (an indignity teams aren't allowed to bestow upon the injured these days). Clyde used $30,000 of that to pay the doctors. At 26, he had played for the Rangers, and briefly for the Indians, before trying a "comeback" with the Astros. During a stint in the Instructional League, the gravity of it all collapsed his will and he simply walked out, quit, retired, however you want to spin it. He left the game with the clothes on his back and little-to-no money saved. Had he stayed 27 more days, he would have qualified for a pension that would pay him as much as $40,000 a year.
"If I ever get a chance to get you those 27 days," Herzog told Clyde on The Jim Rome Show, "I'm gonna get 'em for you. The other thing is, if I were you...I think the Texas Rangers owe you those 27 days."
"Nobody told me to leave," Clyde says evenly. "I left because I looked around and it wasn't me anymore. It was too much; I'd had enough of it. I decided, you know, I had met my current wife, and I wanted to settle down and be a normal person with a normal family."
David Clyde is giving a tour of his home. After checking the pH and chlorine levels in the Jacuzzi, and adjusting them accordingly, he walks slowly back inside, passes through a glass door that leads into the living room and heads into the recreation room. On the walls surrounding the pool table are just a few reminders of his playing days. A picture of him with preposterously large hair jutting from beneath a Rangers cap. A jersey. The Koufax telegram. Not much else.
"For the longest time, I sealed it off, my playing days, I mean," Clyde says. He looks comfortable; a T-shirt hides a bit of a belly and hangs loosely over shorts. Through glasses, he looks his guest in the eye. "I tried not to dwell on it, because, yeah, some of it hurts because maybe I wasn't as successful as some people thought I should be. But then I realized, after a while, that it's nice to be remembered, and maybe somehow my story will help someone out along the way."
Or touch someone. In summer 1998, the L.A. Times ran a story by Bill Plaschke titled "All Grown Up." Mike and Rick Julian--two brothers who had years before abandoned the dreary East Coast existence of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, for the therapeutic Los Angeles weather--read the piece and fell all over themselves with sympathy. And ideas.
Both were sports fans. Both were in L.A. to--you guessed it--get a play or movie of theirs made. It seemed like a perfect fit. Clyde had a terrific, albeit sorrowful, tale to tell, one to which the Julians felt "connected." They'd contact him, befriend him and make a movie--in their minds, it was that straightforward. Rick, the writer, would pen the script. Mike, the producer/money man/contact guy/happy-go-lucky hustler, would take care of the rest. There was only one hitch: David Clyde.
"It took him almost a year to open up," Rick says. "He was very guarded at first. The emotional scars...David didn't trust anyone. It was about a year into us talking before I could convince him to let me come down to see him. He was exploited a lot, and I guess that's what he expected, more of that."
A normal reaction. For nearly all of his career, Clyde met precious few who were genuine--he was baseball's Diogenes, ever in search of an honest man. Then two brothers come from nowhere, all smiles and good intentions, offering to help champion his cause by trying to make a movie out of his life story. Oh, and maybe help him get back into baseball, too. They may as well have shown up at his door saying, "Hey there, Mr. Texas Man, want to buy a bridge?"
"Yeah, well, I didn't know the Julian brothers from Adam," Clyde says. "Just out of the clear blue one day, I get a call from these fellas. Or from this fella about the interest in maybe, maybe making a movie about me. We sat down; we talked about it. Eventually...I mean, I'm just totally freaked out about how really, an entire family, it's not just Mike and Rick, there's another brother and their dad, too, the whole family's involved in this thing. They're all just terrific. I mean, it's just...I can't thank them enough for the interest they've shown and the interest they've been able to, uh, generate in this thing. It's just, it's just awesome to have some people that believe in you that way. I guess they could have me fooled, but I don't think so."
It's been five years since Clyde met the Julians. Since then they've done a good deal of work on his behalf, acting as his pro-bono publicists. Thanks mostly to the Julians, Clyde has been interviewed by various national publications. He's been mentioned in Rick Reilly's Sports Illustrated column and appeared on Fox Sports' The Jim Rome Show and The Best Damn Sports Show Period. Then there's the movie, written by Rick and pushed by Mike, aptly titled Squeeze Play, a 118-page dramatization of Clyde's passage from child to star to castoff workingman. It reads like something on the order of the Disney success The Rookie, only without the happy-happy ending--or beginning or middle. And, given the history, it's a little racier, more drinking and such. "It was pretty accurate, I thought," Clyde endorses. "Except for one thing: We didn't go to any titty bars."
Either way, you'd think they wouldn't need to doctor it much, that this story sells itself. Trust and betrayal, women and drinking, money, success and loss--what more does a studio need? For the love of God, these are the people who green-lighted Death to Smoochy without batting a plastic surgery-tucked eye. Hollywood has to be beating down the Julians' door, right?
"Uh," Mike Julian says, hesitating, "no. We haven't gotten anyone from the big production houses to pay much attention yet, but we're starting to talk to Mark Ciardi, who produced The Rookie. Everybody always says, 'Ah...sports movies.' But they keep making them. We want this one to get made." His voice picks up speed; he's getting excited. This is the way Mike usually talks, quick and harried--very L.A. "Here's Field of Dreams, right? That took eight years to make. Why? Because it was a sports movie. That's bull. But that's what we have to deal with. I mean, if you have an antagonist like Billy Martin in there, how can it go wrong? This is something...this is real emotion. But I guess people want Armageddon instead."
It's been a struggle, one that may never resolve itself. Could be the Julians never get Squeeze Play made, a possibility they've mulled. It would be nice, of course, but there are other ways of reinstalling David Clyde into the public consciousness. ESPN's acclaimed Outside the Lines is set to do a piece in June, and the Rangers plan on honoring him with "David Clyde Night" around the same time. All thanks in part to the Julians' persistence.
Then there's the matter of getting back into baseball. Clyde has expressed interest to several teams, and Mike Julian has contacted Rangers CEO Mike Cramer on Clyde's behalf. Cramer says little other than acknowledging that they soon will plan what David Clyde Night will entail. He refers questions about Clyde's pension to "the baseball people"--who then referred us to Cramer. Nice.
Clyde remains resolute. A coaching job, or any job in baseball, is what he wants now. "And wouldn't that make for a great ending for our movie?" Mike Julian asks.
Maybe you're thinking all this is too little, too late? A slap at Clyde's pride, perhaps; an OK-but-not-great consolation prize after having been shown the door 30 years ago. But that would assume that he considers his life part trial, part conviction, or that he harbors deep-rooted ill will and regret. Somehow, there's none of that in Clyde.
"What do we accomplish by 'poor me?'" asks Clyde, who is a major reason why nearly every pro sports franchise now has someone to mentor its youngsters in some capacity. "Yeah, I'm 27 days short of my pension; OK, I walked away. They didn't tell me to leave, but no one told me what might happen if I did, either. But we don't accomplish anything by feeling bad for ourselves. I have no room for it in my life...I look back on it and see it for what it was, you know. It's what it was."