3 Nights in June

Strategy, heartbreak, and joy inside the mind of a minor-league hitting coach

On a sweltering June afternoon, Jack Clark quietly emerges from the visitors' dugout at Marinelli Field in Rockford, Illinois, dressed in black. Surveying his minor-league pupils as they go through their pregame motions, the River City Rascals hitting coach offers a terse assessment of the venue:

"Fuckin' brutal."

A night earlier, Clark's Rascals dropped the opener of a three-game series against the defending Frontier League champion Rockford RiverHawks, 4-1, but he missed the tilt owing to gastrointestinal complications. Now he lumbers toward the back of the batting cage to watch Rascals infielder Justin McKinley take his cuts off the ballclub's manager, Randy Martz, a former Cubs hurler who does double duty during batting practice (or "beeps," in Rascal parlance).

Jennifer Silverberg

Where were you when the Ripper went yard on Niedenfuer? Now in his second stint with the River City Rascals, Jack Clark hit a home run in the '85 NLCS that's Cardinal Nation's equivalent to the Kennedy assassination.
Jennifer Silverberg
Where were you when the Ripper went yard on Niedenfuer? Now in his second stint with the River City Rascals, Jack Clark hit a home run in the '85 NLCS that's Cardinal Nation's equivalent to the Kennedy assassination.

McKinley proceeds to foul two of Martz's dirt-stained gopher balls off the lip of the chain-link overhang, providing Clark an alternative use for his pet phrase.

"That's fuckin' brutal."

Then he turns constructive: "More hands, less body, Mac. You gotta drive through it. You gotta master that. If the ball's not there, it ain't there."

"These guys look like they're swinging underwater," Clark offers as an aside. "Old beat-up balls, slow bats -- man! Most of these guys have been taught to hit by their dads, and that's the only person they trust. They might listen to you once, and then you're like, 'OK, do it your way.' Once they prove to themselves it doesn't work, they're ready to come work with you again."

At age 49, showing a touch of gray at the edges of his jet-black coif, Clark gives off an aura reminiscent of Muhammad Ali post-prime, a variation on what might be termed "Tough Guy Zen." Though he now carries a good 50 pounds more than he did during his mid-1980s heyday, when he weighed in at 205, Clark tends to gradually put you at ease despite his intimidating stature. Not so much so, however, that you forget that he and his coiled bat used to treat an oncoming fastball as though it were a blacktop possum.

"He'd hit 'em so damn hard, they'd break the backs of seats every once in a while," says Whitey Herzog, Clark's skipper during the three years he played for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Having worked individually with a handful of Rascals on the side after beeps, Clark shimmies into a green plastic deck chair near the on-deck circle. Pitcher Rick Wood, due to start the following night's contest, admires the throng of buck-a-brew revelers who've assembled in the bullpen beer garden for Marinelli Field's weekly Thirsty Thursday promotion.

"One of the girls who was here last night was my waitress at Damon's today," Wood reveals. "She said her friend was 'sort of dating' one of the RiverHawks. Which means they're just fucking."

With one out in the top of the first, Rascals second baseman Rafael Ornelas doubles, then scores on a bloop single by center fielder David Arnold. When first base coach Tom Spitzer retreats to the dugout at inning's end, Clark can't resist a wisecrack: "You were horseshit that inning, man."

Spitzer, who recently retired from running the Velvet Freeze Ice Cream Company, owns the Rascals. He and Clark are friends -- so close that Clark, who lives in Dallas, is a houseguest at Spitzer's home in Ladue during the baseball season.

Stocky Rascals' southpaw John Troop gives up a single to open the bottom of the first, then walks the next two RiverHawks to load the bases with nobody out -- never a good way to start a game. But he induces a grounder to McKinley at third, who throws home for a force out. A fly ball to deep center would appear to assure a Rockford run, but when the runner on third lollygags toward home, center fielder Arnold -- the lone African-American Rascal and the proud possessor of a cannon for a left arm -- guns down the man attempting to advance from second before the lollygagger crosses the dish. Peril averted.

As catcher Jon Williams returns to the dugout, Clark instructs a preteen bat boy to fetch a cup of water. "You always get the catcher water at the end of the inning," he reinforces, all but glowering at the wispy lad.

Williams declines a swig. Clark takes the small plastic cup and pours it down his own throat, thanking the bat boy and extending a thick, tanned forearm to slap the kid five.

The Rascals go down in sequence in the top of the second, bringing the home team's catcher, all-star Gooby Gerlits, to the plate to lead off the RiverHawks' half of the inning.

"You'll never get out of this league with that fuckin' name!" Clark hollers. "Fuckin' Gooby."

"Did people give you a hard time coming up?" asks Spitzer, sitting nearby.

Clark: "No."

The red Rockford sun begins to set, and the gnats emerge. Not just a smattering of gnats, but a full-on swarm -- gnats thick as a hailstorm, rendering impotent even the most generous dousing of Deep Woods Off. Rascals designated hitter Zack Riera, who spent part of a season playing with the RiverHawks, claims that the gnat concentration at Marinelli Field often gets so dense that the umps have to stop play while small children are carried out of the stadium.

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