It’s a gloomy feeling around the breakfast table this last day of July. Yesterday the San Francisco Giants retired number 22, which was worn by Will Clark for eight years while he was one of the best first basemen and one of the best left handed batters in the National League. He was 22 years old as a rookie in 1986, a year that will forever be known as one during which the once proud but then lowly Giants began winning games again. The next season Clark’s career high 35 home runs led San francisco to the Western Division title, and his most memorable season came in 1989, when he and National league Most Valuable Player Kevin Mitchell tore up the league together. Clark’s National league Championship Series was one for the ages as he batted .650 and the Giants beat the Chicago Cubs in five games for the honor of being annihilated by the awesome Oakland Athletics in the World Series that was interrupted by the tremendous and scary earthquake that delayed game three for twelve days.
It was a delightful, festive occasion highlighted by a fiery but thoughtful and gracious speech by Will Clark himself and messages in person or by video from Roger Craig, Barry Bonds, Mike Krukow, Kevin Mitchell, Dave Dravecky, Orlando Cepeda, Willie Mays and others. The best was a video from Clark’s former coach and manager, Dusty Baker, who said, “I knew he was cool because when I called him on the telephone one time he didn’t answer but the machine played B.B. King singing The Thrill Is Gone…”
To describe the career of Will Clark with a recitation of a bunch of statistics would be a mistake. That is probably true for any player, of course, but Will the Thrill was truly and essentially a forceful personality. He was and is a winner. It was no fluke that the Giants transformed from a sixth place team with a record of 60 wins and 100 losses in 1985 to 83-79 in his rookie season although another rookie, Robby Thompson, helped considerably. He was the kind of player who made everyone else on his team better, partly because he demanded maximum effort from everyone concerned. When your first at bat in the majors results in a home run off Nolan Ryan you immediately gain attention and respect. Anyone anywhere who ever was the object of his game face, called The Nuschler (his middle name) felt the glare of a person who would not back down from any challenge. With the pregame ceremony including video highlights of Clark’s time with the Giants and then Clark’s speech, I found myself talking to the television, imploring the now 58 year old former star to show the current San Francisco team how to get mad in a good way. Stop thinking so much and take your frustrations out on your opponent. Their most effective pitcher, lefty Carlos Rodon, recently got mad at himself during a game he was pitching and kicked a bat that was loose in the dugout and the bat bounced off his teammate, Thairo Estrada. He apologized for the idiotic tantrum but the better action, as Will Clark would agree, would be pitch like we all know you can.
On this day of the passing of basketball legend Bill Russell one wishes for some lessons in Correct Anger Management. The current Giants are floundering. The fear as August begins is that the busload of executives and coaches employed by the team will feel the urge to join the party that the rest of the sheep are starting and be driven to buy Or sell. Rodon could be gone before the ink is dry on this piece. I don’t think they will trade half the bullpen and Coit Tower and all the espresso in North Beach for Juan Soto but they might. Someone very dear to me says she will quit on them if they trade Wilmer Flores and I would be tempted to join her if that happens.
The travails of a team that won 107 games last season and is now fighting to win as many as they lose is not really that interesting, but this whole loony business of baseball does interest me as an example of everything currently ugly and messy about the state of our system.
Why do so many of us have sports teams that we root for, or like, or in some cases obsess about? It seems a bit childish and sentimental, doesn’t it? It does, but there are basic animal instincts at work here. For all of our history, humans have survived and sometimes thrived by placing value on family and home. So, even though we may not enjoy school, if our school has a soccer team or a debate team or whatever, we tend to want that team to succeed. We tend to favor our neighborhood, our town , our state, et cetera. We feel good when they, including us, are recognized. That’s how I grew up favoring teams from Pittsburgh or Cleveland.
The weirdness begins when all that stuff becomes a business. If you live in Cleveland, do the owners of the Guardians or the Browns or the Cavaliers care about you the way you care about those teams? Maybe, to the extent that you can buy tickets, but are they worried about how you’re doing? Beyond that, do they even live in the same community themselves? That’s how we end up with athletes being bought and sold (like sheep) not because they grew up and played in the community but rather because they might induce people to buy tickets or at least watch the team on television. So loyalty, that thing that everyone talks about but few practice, stems from wins, losses, dollars, and cents.
Do the people of the San Francisco Bay area love Will Clark? Actually, yes, because over an eight year period they got to know him and because he is a winner. There was another Clark. He also wore number22. For eight years he played for the Giants as number 22, outfielder Jack Clark Then he went to St. Louis, New York, San Diego, and Boston. He was pretty good, but they didn’t retire his number. The Giants had a couple of good seasons with him on the team, but no championships.Will Clark also left the Giants. He spent five years with the Texas Rangers, a year and a half with Baltimore, and then 51 games with St. Louis before retiring. The Giants brought him back and retired his number after a while. It was good for business on the day before ESPN televised a game between San Francisco and Chicago and the announcers spent so much time talking about who was playing their last game for each team that I had to turn the audio off. Who will play for “my” team tomorrow? I’ll be watching. Old habits die hard.