3 Nights in June

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

Jul 27, 2005 at 4:00 am
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).

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.

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.

"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."

As Herzog sees it, had Clark played in the current era, his star would have burned even brighter. For one thing, in the 1980s Busch Memorial Stadium was hardly a haven for power hitters. "If he had played when they were using the rocket of a baseball they're using now, there's no telling how many home runs he'd hit," says Clark's former manager. "He played in the toughest home-run stadium in baseball."

Seconds Cox: "Once we got the rabbits [Vince Coleman, Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee] on, he just made everyone better. There were a lot of other things he did besides that homer [in 1985]. Jack just took over and became a leader."

Following the 1987 season, Clark left St. Louis, opting for Yankee pinstripes amid the black era of free-agency collusion. At the time, the Cardinals were owned by August A. "Gussie" Busch, and while Herzog was the club's manager and general manager, his boss was becoming increasingly, and notoriously, stingy.

"We let him get away for $1.8 million," Herzog laments. "Not only was it a terrible mistake for the Cardinals, it was a terrible mistake for Jack. St. Louis was his place. He was idolized here. I said, 'Whatever you do, call me and we'll go to Mr. Busch and get it done.' I think his agent, Tom Rich, wanted to deliver a player to [Yankees owner George] Steinbrenner. I wish that somebody would have let me get in on it, because had we talked to Gussie, we would have gotten it done. And I think Jack would have stayed in baseball a lot longer."

Clark's memories remain bittersweet. "I hated that time in baseball -- collusion, and having to put up with all the political bullshit," he says. "My time with the Cardinals was the best time baseball-wise, but I never wanted to be anything besides a Giant."

This is actually Jack Clark's second stint with the River City Rascals. In 1999, six years after Clark retired as an active player, Tom Spitzer hired the Ripper to manage his team in its inaugural season. Spitzer's move was hailed as something of a coup in Frontier League circles, but it was Clark who sought out the Rascals, in the humblest of manners.

"I get a lot of credit for hiring Jack, but he sent us his résumé," Spitzer recalls. "I'm very surprised someone in the office didn't throw it away, thinking it was a joke. He fell in our lap."

The Ripper is lunching at Damon's restaurant in Rockford, awaiting a dessert of sweet potato crisp after devouring a full rack of ribs. When Spitzer strolls off to peruse a series of framed sports photos on a rear wall, Clark grabs a fistful of ice cubes out of his water glass and hurls them across the dining room.

Bull's-eye, repeat.

"Don't go over there," Spitzer warns Clark upon returning to the table, mistaking the cube assault for a leaky roof. "The ceiling's falling."

Without cracking a smile, Clark picks up the conversation: "A bunch of people -- Willie McGee, people like that -- said I should get back into baseball. I'd never really wanted to, but they said they were building a stadium near St. Louis, that St. Louis loved me and that maybe it was a way to see if I liked it again."

He did like it. The team finished near the cellar, posting a record of 39-45, but the Rascals, who play their home games at T.R. Hughes Ballpark in O'Fallon, led the league in attendance and were named the Frontier League's 1999 organization of the year. What's more, Clark's chops as an instructor impressed the Dodgers organization, which hired him as a hitting coach for the 2000 season. After a year with one of the franchise's Class A affiliates, in 2001 Clark was promoted straight to LA.

The irony of going to work for his hated rival wasn't lost on Clark. "I never took my jacket off," says the longtime Giant, summing up a tenure that ended in August 2003, when he was canned after publicly suggesting that the Dodgers had clubhouse problems.

It wasn't the first time candor landed Clark in hot water. While playing for the San Diego Padres in 1990, he told a newspaper reporter that future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn was more interested in chasing batting titles than pennants. The ruckus split the Padre clubhouse into conflicting camps and earned Clark a one-way ticket to Boston the following season.

"Jack didn't like the way I played, and I really didn't give a damn," Gwynn, who now coaches the baseball team at his alma mater, San Diego State University, said in a 2001 career retrospective published in the San Diego Union-Tribune. "Once Clark brought that 'selfish' stuff to the surface, it became a very difficult year."

In 1992, amid a turbulent divorce, Clark filed for personal bankruptcy. The four-time All-Star who'd pulled down million-dollar salaries was broke. The press descended, zeroing in on some of Clark's more lavish expenditures -- his collection of vintage roadsters, his sponsorship of his own drag-racing team -- as the key nails in his financial coffin.

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.

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.)

At 26, Wes Hutchison is the oldest Rascal. A redheaded, right-handed reliever who relies on a prodigious arsenal of off-speed pitches, Hutchison made it all the way to AAA ball (one level below the major leagues) with the San Francisco Giants a few years back before being unceremoniously released. In the off-season he runs a baseball school for kids in his hometown of Lewiston, Idaho. But for six months out of the year, Hutchison continues to chase his dream, the current version of which entails pulling down a stenographer's salary of $600 to $1,200 per month (augmented by a princely per diem of $16 when the team's on the road) and living with a host family in St. Charles County. Without a car.

"Guys are always wanting me to go out to bars or wherever," Hutchison says. "And I'm like, 'Sure, but you'll have to come pick me up first.'"

Most of Hutchison's teammates haven't had so much as a sniff at the big leagues, much less a big-league organization. Almost all of them went undrafted after college ball. For these guys, entities like the Frontier League serve as life rafts that keep their professional aspirations afloat. Generally considered to be the equivalent of low-A ball, the Frontier League has nonetheless sold more than 400 players to major-league organizations since its inception in 1993. Ten have made it all the way to the Show, including former Cardinals pitcher Jason Simontacchi, for whom the league's Rookie of the Year award is named. The lone Frontier League alums in the majors at this writing are Kansas City pitcher D.J. Carrasco and Angels reliever Brendan Donnelly, he of the recent pine-tar-on-the-mitt tussle.

The Rascals consistently rank at or near the league lead in attendance (typically right behind Danny Cox's Sauget-based Grizzlies), averaging around 3,000 fans per game. Back when the team was born, the Rascals' ownership group paid the league $350,000 for franchise rights. Nowadays, according to league commissioner Bill Lee (no relation to the former Boston Red Sox "Spaceman"), those rights cost $900,000. Lee says Rascals revenue has held steady at a robust $2.3 million per year, a figure owner Spitzer says allows the team to bank a small annual profit.

"We never thought it'd be a huge moneymaker," Spitzer says, adding, "I'd rather have a bad season at the concession stand and win a championship than vice versa."

Typically, the Rascals will lose up to a half-dozen players each season to big-league organizations. On July 20, the team sold its first of the year, burly Indiana-bred southpaw Joe Thatcher, to the Milwaukee Brewers organization -- one of two pitchers (the other being undefeated staff ace Aaron Ledbetter) Clark pegged as most likely to leave for greener pastures by summer's end.

"What he's got going for him is he's a lefty closer, which is a rarity," says Clark of the Hoosier. "But the problem is that while he's really good for us, where he's going, he's just filler."

And therein lies the paradox faced by minor-league squads from Boulder to Birmingham. "If you have a really good team at the beginning of the year," says Clark, "you won't have one at the end of the year. And that's what we want."

Oddly, it's not always what the player wants in his heart of hearts: In a handful of instances, players become so attached to their teammates and coaches that they've considered forgoing the opportunity to move up.

"[Ex-Rascal] Mike Robertson didn't want to go to the Red Sox organization," says Spitzer. "I said, 'Fine, Mike, you're fired. You can always come back, but I hope we never see you again.'"

Hutchison, whom the Giants kicked off the big club's doorstep, says he understands the counterintuitive inclination.

"There's actually a team concept here," he says. "In organized ball, you get some snobs."

Fresh out of high school and briskly working his way up through the San Francisco farm system, Jack Clark affixed a plastic Willie Mays figurine to the back window of his Buick Riviera.

"Willie always told me he'd try and get a base hit up the middle in his first at-bat," recalls Clark, one of a handful of young Giants who got yoked with the unattainable "Second Coming of Mays" mantle. "That way, he said, 'Usually, I'd hit a home run my second time up.'"

The '70s were the twilight of baseball's good old days, and Clark got enough of a taste to pine for them still. In his ethical sphere, respect for the game's heritage is perhaps the most important characteristic a professional baseball player can possess -- an attribute he finds sorely lacking today. He singles out baseball commissioner Bud Selig for spinelessness and as Exhibit A points to substance-aided Yankee slugger Jason Giambi, who since being implicated in the BALCO steroid scandal and failing to come clean with fans has come nowhere near his previously freakish power numbers.

"Jason Giambi can't even hit anymore," Clark scoffs. "What pisses you off is they don't ever say, 'I'm gonna give some of my money back,' or, 'I'm gonna rescind the last year of my contract.' But I blame baseball as much as I blame the players. Because people were coming to see these big numbers, they let it get out of control. Bud Selig has just screwed the game up. He talks about the integrity of the game, but he has none."

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."

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."

Nor is Clark giving up in his quest to get back to the majors. Shortly after the Cardinals were swept out of the World Series last fall, the former Redbird made it known via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he was available for the job, vacated when Mitchell Page was fired for boozing before work. Clark's proactive approach yielded a phone call from manager Tony La Russa, who Clark says promised to follow up. That call never came, and the Cards wound up hiring onetime Kansas City nemesis Hal McRae. The chain of events left a bad taste in Clark's mouth.

"Tony called me the night before Thanksgiving," Clark says. "We must have talked for an hour and a half. He said they were going to call me back Friday. Ten days went by and I never got a call. I feel like I deserved a call back."

Still, he says he remains on good terms with the Cardinals organization. (Witness the shipment of spare bats he recently secured from the team's equipment manager to replace the Rascals' subpar lumber.) And he says he has since discussed hitting-coach possibilities with two other major-league clubs. Recently, a former Dodger who now plays for a team east of the Mississippi flew Clark to an undisclosed location to diagnose the cause of a nagging slump. After watching batting practice from the stands, Clark would impart tips to the wayward slugger at his abode after the game. Clark won't allow the name of the player or his team to find their way into print, but he says the slugger snapped out of his lumber slumber with multiple home runs in the course of a weekend.

"One thing I'm really good at is recognizing the individual," Clark says. "Every hitter's teachable, but guys in the big leagues already know how to hit. They have more talent -- all they're trying to do is hold on to it."

Says Whitey Herzog: "He's a very astute student of the game. I just hope he gets another opportunity. He could be a hell of a minor-league coordinator. But basically, when you talk about baseball, there's no place like the big leagues."

Getting back would be great, acknowledges Clark. But if he's frustrated about opportunity eluding him, any bitterness is buried under a Zen-like commitment to the modest here-and-now.

"When someone in your family dies, it puts things in perspective," he observes. "I had all the cars and all that stuff, and I never got fulfilled. I came into this world with not too much and I'm just happy that way. I've been a middle-class guy all my life, and I promised my [deceased] mother and father I'd stay the same. And I have. I'm just Jack. "