3 Nights in June

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

Fuckin' brutal.

The middle innings pass uneventfully, aside from an incident involving Rocko, the RiverHawk mascot, who dumps a cupful of water on an unsuspecting Riera from his fenced-in perch above the dugout.

"Are you fucking kidding me, Fucko?" says Riera, coining a nickname for the blue-feathered birdman.

Uncoiling from his hallmark closed stance, Clark used to crush baseballs so hard they'd break the backs of outfield seats, says legendary Redbird skipper Whitey Herzog.
Uncoiling from his hallmark closed stance, Clark used to crush baseballs so hard they'd break the backs of outfield seats, says legendary Redbird skipper Whitey Herzog.
Rascal manager Randy Martz (to the right of the umpire) once gave up a broken-bat homer to Clark while pitching for the Cubs -- and looks as though he could have been separated at birth from the Ripper.
Jennifer Silverberg
Rascal manager Randy Martz (to the right of the umpire) once gave up a broken-bat homer to Clark while pitching for the Cubs -- and looks as though he could have been separated at birth from the Ripper.

"I'm gonna find out who's in that mask, and I'm gonna fuck him up," adds the DH.

By the top of the eighth, the defending champs have hung a pair of runs on Troop to take the lead 2-1. Clark proposes to Martz that lefty Mikela Olsen -- marred in a silver-lining slump in which he's hitting lasers right at fielders -- should pinch-hit for first baseman Logan Hughes. Martz, who once gave up a broken-bat homer to Clark in the bigs, was born within a year of the Ripper in the same state, Pennsylvania -- and the pair looks as though they could have been separated at birth.

Olsen promptly doubles to the wall in right-center and advances to third on a single by Williams. Clark and Martz conspire to have injured slugger Mike Madrid pinch-hit for right fielder Jake Manning, who's starting his first game with the Rascals after graduating from Southwest Missouri State. A wild pitch on ball four plates Olsen, knotting the score at two.

After reliever Wes Hutchison sets the RiverHawks down in order in the bottom of the eighth, David Arnold leads off the top of the ninth with a single, moving to third on a single by Riera and scoring the go-ahead run on a base hit by shortstop Tony Calderon.

Hutchison strikes out a RiverHawk to begin the final frame, then yields a single to center. With this, Martz brings on big Joe Thatcher, an overpowering closer who sports an earned run average inversely related to his size. Thatcher coaxes groundouts from the RiverHawks' two best hitters and the Rascals notch a hard-fought W against the league's toughest team.

The win is cause for celebration, albeit on a minor-league budget: On the way back to the Sleep Inn, the team bus detours into a Super Wal-Mart off Highway 20 where most of the players debark for subpremium half-racks and day-old hoagies. Calderon, however, passes up the foodstuffs in favor of a full case of Bud longnecks.

"I wasn't hungry," he explains, lugging his twelve-ounce dumbbells to the rear of the bus.


Where were you when the Ripper went yard on Niedenfuer?

It's a question any honest-to-God Redbirds fan can answer in an instant.

With his team down three games to two, clinging to a 5-4 lead with runners on second and third in the top of the ninth inning of Game Six of the 1985 National League Championship Series, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda could have had his closer, Tom Niedenfuer, intentionally walk Jack Clark, the Cardinals' cleanup hitter, with two out to set up a potential game-ending force out. Instead Lasorda had Niedenfuer pitch to Clark, who pulled the fireballer's first offering into the bleachers at Chavez Ravine. Left fielder Pedro Guerrero flung his glove in disgust, the Dodgers went down in order in the bottom of the ninth, and the Cardinals headed to the Fall Classic.

Danny Cox remembers it well.

"When Jack hit it, he flipped his bat," says Cox, who still sports his hallmark moustache and helms the Rascals' bi-state Frontier League rival, the Gateway Grizzlies. "You have to remember that Jack came up with the Giants. So he yells, 'Take that, bitches!'"

"That hit was as much for the fans in San Francisco as it was for the fans in St. Louis," seconds Clark, who was raised in California and spent his first ten seasons with the Giants, whose long and bitter rivalry with the downstate Dodgers goes all the way back to their former New York City roots.

The Cardinals, of course, went on to lose the 1985 title to cross-state rival Kansas City in a World Series remembered for another indelible Game Six moment: a botched ninth-inning call at first base by dildo-for-a-day umpire Don Denkinger. Clark would reach the apex of his career in 1987, when he batted .311 with 28 home runs and 86 RBI -- at the All-Star break. The gaudy stat line prompted the great San Francisco sportswriter Art Spander to proclaim, "Jack Clark of the St. Louis Cardinals is at this moment the most productive athlete in the major leagues."

But around Labor Day of that year, Clark suffered a season-ending ankle injury, effectively dashing the Cardinals' title hopes. (They came close without him, losing the '87 Series in seven games to the Minnesota Twins.)

"We didn't have any power at all without Jack," Whitey Herzog recalls. "He came over, and we won the pennant. The next year he got hurt in May, and we finished 26 games out of first place. So then he signed a one-year extension and we won again. He got hurt September 3, but Jack had a helluva year.

"If he hadn't gotten hurt at that particular time, I think he would have been the first baseball player to walk or strike out a combined 300 times," Herzog goes on. (His season cut short, Clark got to 275.) "He was our most important player. He was the only guy on our team who hit a baseball who didn't sound like he was hitting underwater."

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