3 Nights in June

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

Clark, whose attorney had advised him not to speak about the specifics of his financial situation because of the divorce proceedings, now says predatory investment consultants are primarily to blame for the embarrassing debacle. "Basically, they just ripped me off," he says, betraying a lingering reticence on the topic of his personal finances that stops just sort of a zipped lip. "I had plenty of money to go drag racing. And yeah, I had a '50s car collection, but I was born in '55. A bunch of guys got ripped off. At the time I had to let people come to their own conclusions."

It would get worse. On the night before the 2003 season opener, Clark was riding his motorcycle when he collided with an out-of-control car that had just been hit by a minivan near Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix. Clark was admitted to a local hospital with six broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder, a broken finger, broken teeth, a serious concussion and a plethora of bone-deep bruises and abrasions. He wasn't wearing a helmet.

"I almost died," Clark says today.

Middle infielder Rafael Ornelas quietly ponders the wisdom of wearing alt-orange jerseys instead of pinstripes at home.
Jennifer Silverberg
Middle infielder Rafael Ornelas quietly ponders the wisdom of wearing alt-orange jerseys instead of pinstripes at home.

Three days later, he left the hospital. Two weeks after that, he returned to work.

By the All-Star break that season, there were rumblings that Clark and the team would have been better served if he'd taken the year off. The Dodgers were last in the league in hitting and hovering around .500 in the standings, shortcomings Clark publicly put on his own shoulders.

"Some of the guys on this team are too good to be going through this," he told the Orange County Register. "They can do better. Shawn Green knows he can do better. But it's deeper than that. There are different things going on with this club that stay in the clubhouse.

"Those things got disguised before because we stayed competitive," Clark went on. "But maybe you need times like this to shake things up. If a player change or hitting-coach change needs to happen to make this club better, I'm all for it."

One month and several closed-door meetings later, Dodgers general manager Dan Evans took Clark up on his suggestion and pink-slipped the Ripper.

"A lot of times Jack says stuff that comes out wrong in the press," says Herzog, who regularly takes fishing trips with his old friend, during which the two discuss "just bullshit in general," according to Herzog. "I don't think he always means things the way they come out. When Shawn Green went from about 54 to 17 homers, they blamed Jack Clark for a lot of things that weren't Jack Clark's fault. Jack should never have said, 'We're last in the league in offense, so maybe we need a new hitting coach,' and he knows that."

Does he think speaking his mind cost him the job? "Probably," Clark says. "I was and still am grateful for the opportunity, but I'm not a Dodger and I never was a Dodger. Shawn Green was the guy they paid a lot of money to, and I got him on track. I had a lot of success over there, and I enjoyed it."

Green, to whom Clark remains close, concurs.

"He definitely had a big impact on my career," says the outfielder, who now toils for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Green swatted a career-best 49 and 42 homers in 2001 and 2002, the first two years of Clark's LA tenure, before slumping to 19 in 2003. "He'd been through everything in his career: a middle-of-the-lineup kind of guy, driving guys in. He knew how to relate to me in good times and bad times, so he was a guy I would always confide in.

"He's a guy that everyone has immediate respect for," Green adds. "He has an aura about him: When he speaks, everyone listens. He's very emotional, a colorful guy, very intense. There are no hidden agendas with Jack. What you see is what you get, and as a player that's really a breath of fresh air when there are people in every organization who are just out for themselves in everything they do."

Attempting to re-establish his baseball bona fides, last year Clark took the helm of the Mid-Missouri Mavericks, a cellar-dwelling Frontier League franchise based in Columbia. But he quit before midseason in order to care for his terminally ill father.

No hard feelings, says Columbia owner Gary Wendt: "We knew his dad was ill, but we didn't realize his death was quite as imminent as it was. Whatever could go wrong did go wrong last season. I just wish Jack well and consider him a friend."

Sporting a black Olde English 800 T-shirt, Rascals first baseman Mike Madrid circulated a box of "fat pellets" -- Krispy Kreme doughnuts -- around the Rascals' bus as the team prepared to depart the T.R. Hughes parking lot, Rockford bound. Following a flurry of sarcastic pleas from his teammates to not pop Hope Floats into the bus' DVD player, pitcher Wes Hutchison settled on Rounders, followed by Old School, a team favorite that many Rascals appear to have committed to memory.

The preparations served as fortification for a journey into a place that, clichés aside, might actually be America's armpit. Laid out flat about two hours northwest of Chicago near the Wisconsin border, Rockford is Illinois' second-largest city (approximate population 190,000). Conspicuously lacking in sidewalks, the city favors big-box strip malls, along with an aversion to anything resembling aesthetic character or pedestrian-friendliness, with the notable exception of a refurbished half-mile downtown district near the Rock River. Tarnished by unflattering crime, livability and unemployment figures, Rockford has twice been named the worst city in America by Money magazine. (In fairness, Golf Digest named Rockford the best mid-size golf city in the U.S., providing consolation to duffers and duffers only.)

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