There will be more than a few cringes from Tiger fans come July 26.
That is the date of this year’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown. Among the honored will be Detroit native John Smoltz, the one-time Tiger farmhand whom the club traded away.
But our story isn’t about Smoltz.
It is about a former Tiger by the name of Tony Clark.
Like Smoltz, Clark was on a Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 2015. Clark, however, did not receive even one solitary vote. According to the rules, any player who receives less than 5% of the vote is no longer eligible for future balloting.
At one time, Clark was the cornerstone of the Detroit Tigers franchise.
As a youngster at Christian High in El Cajon, California, just outside San Diego, he was more highly-regarded as a basketball prospect. He averaged 43.7 points in his senior year. He’d even signed a letter of intent to attend the University of Arizona.
But the Tigers had been tracking him for some time. After he hit .500 as a high school senior, with 11 home runs in 44 bats, the organization decided he was their man. With the number two selection in the 1990 June amateur draft, the Tigers selected Clark (The first pick went to the Atlanta Braves, who chose Chipper Jones, who will likely have a plaque in Cooperstown one day.).
At 6’8” and 205 pounds, Clark was an impressive physical specimen.
Dick Wiencek was the Tigers’ director of Western States scouting at the time. Back in 1976, he’d scouted and signed six players (still a major league record): Steve Kemp, Alan Trammell, Dan Petry, Jack Morris, Dave Stegman, and Steve Baker. Wiencek was awed by Clark’s power at the plate. “The best I’ve seen in my 42 years in the game,” he gushed. “If he does make it, he’s an impact player who can drive in runs and put people in the park.”
Clark reminded Wiencek of another player of similar build, who at the time was one of the best athletes in the game: “If Tony progresses, we hope to have someone like Darryl Strawberry.”
But Wiencek tempered his enthusiasm with caution. “Our percentage of first-rounders is pathetic.”
The Tigers allowed Clark to play basketball at Arizona. Only two weeks into practice in his freshman year, however, he blew out a disk in his back. Surgery was followed by a long layoff and a transfer to San Diego State University, where he played for a couple of years.
“But it was never the same,” Clark said later.
He decided to give up basketball for good. “It was divine intervention,” Clark said. “Despite all kind of meds and injections, I just couldn’t do it. I finally decided I needed to see what the baseball thing had for me, so I gave it a full shake for a few years, and a couple years after that I was in the big leagues.”
Clark’s minor league stops included towns like Bristol, Niagara Falls, Lakeland, Trenton, and Toledo. He finally debuted for the Tigers on September 3, 1995, a Sunday afternoon at Tiger Stadium. Against the Indians, the 23-year-old had two singles in five at-bats, with a run scored.
He put up some fine numbers during his stay in Motown, including multiple 30-homer, 100 RBI campaigns. And while the team struggled on the field, Clark was mentored by the older veterans.
“I tell anybody who’s willing to listen how fortunate I was,” he says. “Just being in the same locker room with Kirk Gibson and Alan Trammel and Lou Whitaker and Cecil Fielder and Travis Freeman, Lance Parrish. You name it — Mike Henneman — I was surrounded by guys who had been there and done that. I had an opportunity to just sit and listen from some of the best that ever played.”
Indeed, “fortunate” is a word that Clark often uses to describe his journey. He likes to point to a trip he made to the Hall of Fame back in 1992, when he was playing for Niagara Falls in the New York-Pennsylvania League. “I realized what I could be a part of as a major-league player. And that resonated. I realized I had a responsibility as a player, not just to myself and my career, but a responsibility because of those who paved the way before me, and a responsibility for those who came after me to leave it better than I had it.
“It was a four- to five-hour visit that brought that all into perspective.”
Clark has always been a humble man, a trait deeply rooted in his Christian beliefs. As a player, he would often sign autographs for fans with the notation: Philippians 4:13: “I can do everything for him who gives me strength.”
Following his final year in Detroit in 2001, Clark bounced around between the Red Sox, Mets, Yankees, Diamondbacks, and Padres. He hit 251 home runs with 824 RBIs in 15 seasons. Not bad, when all was said and done.
“No regrets,” he insists. “I enjoyed my career.”
But for Clark, it was a beginning, not an ending.
He landed a gig with the MLB network, as a studio analyst. He didn’t consider it challenging enough, however, and kept his eyes open for another opportunity.
Back in his playing days, Clark had regularly attended executive meetings of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association. He’d even represented the players at the bargaining table in 2002 and 2006. That experience looked good on his resume, and when the players’ association began their search for a new director of player relations, working directly under then-union chief Michael Weiner, Clark jumped at the chance.
He was ultimately hired for the job.
Clark and Weiner had worked successfully in the Union in the past, and Clark continued to learn much from his mentor. But after Weiner was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 2012, Clark was named deputy executive director. Following the death of Weiner in November of 2013, Clark was chosen the new union chief by a vote of the players.
It was a humbling moment for Clark, and a historic one for baseball: Never before had a former player headed the MLBPA.
Clark has been a busy man since taking on his new job. He estimates he’ll log 100,000 frequent flyer miles every year, just travelling around to various teams in the spring and summer, doing the task of heading the most powerful union in the world.
Among the topics on Clark’s plate is the possibility of the National League adopting the DH. The players’ union, of course, would have to approve such a change. “I am guessing come 2016 (in the next round of collective bargaining) that conversation will come up again.”
Regarding Major League Baseball’s increasing international presence, he has said, “It is conceivable somewhere down the road that there may be a spring training game in Cuba, but it is hard to tell at this point in time.”
As to baseball’s new measures to speed up the game, “These rules are guidelines. This isn’t a situation where we’re trying to reinvent the wheel.”
And no matter where he goes, Clark will inevitably get asked his views on Pete Rose. His answer is unequivocal: “I would love to see Pete reinstated.”