3 Nights in June

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

Clark says he's never lifted a weight in his life and believes power hitting to be as much a function of muscle memory and flexibility as brute strength. His case in point: wiry slugger Shawn Green, who prefers yoga to pumping iron. Little surprise, then, that Clark considers former Cardinals star Mark McGwire's favored method of synthetic performance enhancement (androstenedione, since banned in baseball) to be a crass debasement of the game, never mind suspicions regarding Big Mac and the needle.

"Not only was McGwire one-dimensional, he was a cheater," says Clark. "Cheating's cheating -- and it's not good for your body. What if Hank Aaron cheated? What if any of us had cheated? At Candlestick [Park in San Francisco], I'd hit a ball that'd be a home run anywhere else and it'd end up in the shortstop's glove. Willie Mays probably lost 100 home runs there, easy.

"Even when I was playing, they were breaking every at-bat down for dollar value," Clark goes on. "There's no way you can live up to that. The money doesn't throw the ball and the money doesn't hit the ball, so just go play. But it's hard."

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.

So hard, Clark reasons, that some players feel compelled to put individual milestones ahead of what he feels should be their primary objective on the field.

"Guys like Jeff Kent and Mike Piazza should change positions, but they don't," he argues. "They tried to put Piazza at first base, but he wants to be the all-time leading home run hitter as a catcher. When it comes to the Hall of Fame, that's what they need. Is it right? No. It takes the focus away from winning.

"That's why I love a guy like [Florida Marlins catcher Paul] Lo Duca," says Clark, who tutored Lo Duca during the All-Star backstop's early years with the Dodgers. "He spent [several] years in the minors and will do anything you ask him. It's like a Jose Oquendo: Those guys have value. But any time anything happens, an agent gets involved. Agents are pretty much ruining the game, which is a shame."

Fittingly, Rascals coach Brian Lewis' pregame speech to his squad before the pivotal Game Three of the Rockford series is three words long.

"Leave Fucko alone," orders Lewis as the team bus prepares to vacate the Sleep Inn parking lot.

The mercury has hovered in the mid-nineties for most of the day, compelling Clark and Spitzer to beat the heat with a matinee of Mr. & Mrs. Smith at one of Rockford's multi-screen cinemas (located in a strip mall, naturally). Clark also found time to swing by a Dick's Sporting Goods outpost to purchase a new pair of spikes for outfielder David Arnold, having noticed that Arnold's shoes were looking more than a little shabby.

Prior to tonight's first pitch, Frontier League commissioner Bill Lee presents the RiverHawks with championship rings for their exploits the previous year.

"I'd like to get me one of those," says Rascal Anthony Slagle, set to get his first start of the series in center field.

At the end of the ring ceremony, the public-address announcer introduces Rocko the mascot, who, per custom, taunts the visiting team from in front of its dugout. The Rascals heed Lewis' pregame admonition. But with his chest thrust forward, owner/first base coach Spitzer approaches the costumed bird.

"Are you the same guy from last night?" he asks, peering into Fucko's feather-rimmed eyes.

Having received no reply, Spitzer commences slapping the birdman on its beak, then wrestles the mascot to the ground in a textbook full nelson. Believing the antics are playing out according to a prearranged script, the crowd erupts in laughter.

But the Rascals know the truth: Tom Spitzer isn't kidding around. He wasn't on the bus.

Spitzer relinquishes his hold and pats Fucko on the back of the head. Greeting their boss with high-fives when he hits the dugout steps, the Rascals commemorate the inspirational interlude by scoring two runs in the top of the first.

It will be their only lead of the night, as the game will turn into a 13-4 laugher, with the Rascals committing a whopping seven errors. It might have been worse, had not the baseball gods showered Marinelli Field and its gnat army with an unrelenting thunderstorm going into the bottom of the eighth, putting an end to the evening's carnage.

As their teammates line up to grub down stale-looking beef patties in the stark visitor's clubhouse, Hutchison and Arnold strip to their skivvies and perform a series of tarp slides, prompting camera flashes from a handful of outgoing fans. This sets the tone for a raucous midnight bus ride into Chicago, awash in cheap malt liquor, a screening of Napoleon Dynamite (a film that bitterly divides the Rascals) and the chafing lyrics of moonlighting rapper Mike Madrid's soon-to-be hit single, "Treat 'Em How They Act."

"We've got a great bunch of guys," says Clark, whose Rascals had surged to a half-game lead in the Frontier League's Western Division by the mid-July all-star break. "Maybe they're not the best players, but the chemistry's there. Some of them have dreams, and you just never know. God bless them for not giving up."

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