In the wake of the Giants (finally) winning the World Series, this post will talk a bit about Will Clark, the core of the pre-Barry Bonds Giants teams who nearly led the team to a pennant in 1987, and then led it to a pennant in 1989, then, with Bonds, came up just short against the Braves in 1993. First, his first blow in the majors, the first at-bat homer off Nolan Ryan on April 8, 1986, that announced him as “the Thrill,” as it was seen by the Houston Chronicle:
Sprinting to first base and bounding toward second, Will Clark hardly looked like a rookie. Tall and lean, equipped with a vicious swing and a mean eye for a ripe pitch, Clark could have passed for Roy Hobbs, that wily veteran of home-run trots and hotel lobbies.
Until Clark rounded second. The grin gave him away.
The smile, ear to ear, all but told the story of how a 22-year-old professional novice deposited a pitch from baseball’s all-time strikeout king into the center-field seats in his first major-league at bat.
“As I was going to second, I just said to myself, `Good. It’s 1-0,’ ” Clark said.
“Then I realized I had hit it off Nolan Ryan and that it was my first big-league at bat. You have to smile about something like that.”
Clark’s first-inning blast foretold a rough opening-night performance for Ryan, the 39-year-old foundation of the Astros’ pitching staff. Clark’s San Francisco teammates followed with two more homers in an 8-3 victory at the Astrodome.
Among a crowd of 22,935 were roughly three dozen of Clark’s relatives and friends who had made the trip from his hometown of New Orleans to witness the big-league debut of college baseball’s player of the year in 1985.
Not one to leave anyone in suspense, the former Mississippi State star jotted his name into the record book by becoming the 53rd player to homer his first time up in the major leagues.
He became the third player in San Francisco Giant history to turn the trick. Pitcher John Montefusco did it in 1974 and shortstop Johnnie LeMaster repeated a year later.
Despite less than a year of professional service, Clark has already developed a knack for smash debuts.
His first swing as a professional resulted in a homer. That was last June 21. Clark was wearing the uniform of the Fresno Giants of the Class A California League. The College World Series was only two weeks behind him and the ink on his pro contract only two-days dry.
Clark also homered in his first spring game in a Giants uniform.
Clark tried to treat his 420-foot clout against the Astros as just another contribution to a successful team effort.
“I’m just taking it in stride,” he said. “It was special to me. But at the same time, I’ve got another job to do tomorrow.”
His teammates, however, weren’t so casual about the deed.
“He tries to act like he’s not happy,” said catcher Bob Brenly. “But he was ready to do cartwheels from home plate to the dugout, I can tell you that.” . . .
It was a moment Ryan would like to forget.
“It was a high changeup and he hadn’t seen enough of me to throw a changeup. It was a bad pitch and bad pitch selection.”
Said Clark: “He started me out with a curve and I turned around and looked at the catcher, (Mark) Bailey. I said, ‘What’s he doing throwing me a curve ball?’ The next one was right down the chute. I guess he was testing the rookies. He threw Rob Thompson a curve on the first pitch, too.”
In the 1987 NLCS, Jeffrey Leonard was the Giants’ main show, along with Dave Dravecky, but Clark hit the winning homer in game 2, hit 9-25 overall; and yet the Giants let their 3-2 lead slip away. Of course, in ’89 Clark demolished the Cubs (with help from Kevin Mitchell, Matt Williams, Robby Thompson, et al) to put SF in the Series, especially with his two-homer, six-RBI game at Wrigley in game 1 of the NLCS, and you probably already knew that, but here’s a snippet from the S.F. Chronicle outlining what he did:
Once again, it was Giants first baseman Will Clark who put the heavy hurt on the Cubs in the National League Championship Series. Clark went 3-for-4, including a game-winning, two-run single off Cub relief ace Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams in the bottom of the eighth, giving the Giants a 3-2 win at Candlestick Park and sending them to the World Series against the A’s.
Clark wound up the NLCS with a .650 average (13-20), two homers (grand slam in Game 1), eight RBIs and the MVP award. His 24 total bases in this series is an NLCS record.
That Clark, who batted .333 during the regular season, has cranked it up in the postseason shouldn’t be a surprise. His career NLCS average is .489 (22 for 45). Meet the second coming of Mr. October.
“You’ve heard it before,” said Clark. “You get into a situation where the ball looks real big. I’ve got a lot of confidence – I feel like I’m going to get a hit every time.
“My concentration level is extremely high – I’m locked up. My concentration is so high that no matter what is going on, everything else is blocked out. There were 62,000 fans yelling and screaming, and the only thing I was worried about was the baseball. I couldn’t even tell you what Williams’ eyes looked like, or if he had a beard. I’m just (thinking) about that ball, that’s all.”