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Baseball '89 : A Preview : He's Bringing His Bat and Code to Padres

April 02, 1989|BILL PLASCHKE | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Even in Jack Clark's early years, spent in a Southern California to which he has returned this season as a first baseman of the San Diego Padres, there was the code.

From the inside of his graveled roof home in Covina, where his father returned home weary every night from work at the chemical factory, Clark looked at life like there were no superstars. There were no most valuable players. There were only utilitymen. Clark was a utilityman, everyone was a utilityman, all contributing to life just a little differently, but all worthy of the same regard.

At Azusa's Gladstone High, where Clark grew up as a sports star who would later become one of major league baseball's most frightening hitters, he never hung around the jocks. He was never cool. His music was soul and his friends were the guys who drove around with the frames of their sorry cars scraping the ground.

"The low riders," Clark remembered. "My guys were the low riders."

Said Clark's father, Ralph: "His friends were never who you'd think."

When others in Clark's athletic peer group ignored them, Clark befriended them. When other wouldn't let them join in the basketball games, Clark built a goal on his roof and they all played at his house.

"Nobody did anything easy for my friends, so I didn't want them doing anything easy for me," Clark said. "I never went along with the system. I should have, no question I should have. But I couldn't."

It was the code then, and the code again 15 years later, on an October night in 1985, when a nation watched as Clark pressed that code hard to his heart. It was in the National League Championship Series between the Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals. It was the ninth inning of Game 6. Clark's Cardinals were trailing, 5-4, and on the verge of seeing their three-games-to-two series lead vanish.

The Cardinals put runners on second and third. But there were two out. And although Clark stepped up, there was little hope for dramatics. With first base open, the man who had 22 home runs and 87 runs batted in that season would surely be walked intentionally.

Except Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda decided otherwise. He ordered pitcher Tom Niedenfuer to pitch to Clark.

You probably knew that. And you probably know what happened--Clark ripped one of baseball history's most dramatic hits, a three-run homer to give the Cardinals a 7-5 victory and a trip to the World Series.

Jack Clark will not apologize if, until last October, you have not been able to forget it. It's the code. You have to understand the code.

"You know what that home run was all about?" Clark asked recently. "It was getting back at them for showing me up. It was about that statement Lasorda was making. That I wasn't good enough. A few years earlier when I was with the (San Francisco) Giants, Bob Welch had begged to pitch me in that situation, and struck me out on high fastballs, and now Lasorda was rubbing it in. Did I take that personally? Very much.

"That hit wasn't just for me or the Cardinals. It was for the Giants, who had always been dominated by the Dodgers. It was for everybody who had ever been dominated by the Dodgers. Lasorda showed everyone he didn't respect me or what I represented at the plate. That was what that hit was all about."

It was the code then and finally, it is the code now. It is four seasons after that hit, Jack Clark is 33 and he has returned home as a $2-million quality-control expert for the Padres. It's not Covina, but there's gravel roofs and low riders and and he gets to play the Dodgers 18 times a season.

He was acquired, in a winter trade with the New York Yankees, chiefly to ensure the Padres decent first-base play, about 25 homers and 100 RBIs, and a division championship. But what the Padres are really paying him for is something entirely different.

They are paying for Clark to exonerate every Padre who has been the object of laughs and losses. They are paying for indignation at embarrassment, for anger at wrongdoings.

They are paying Clark not just to get hitting awards, but to get even. They are paying for the code.

"'I'll accept the role of a top guy here, but only if I can be the team's 24th guy too, and every guy in between," Clark said. "Don't be good to me if you aren't going to be good to everyone else, too. Don't put me on any different level than anyone else. Treat me better and I've got no use for you. Treat me worse, treat me like a number, and you can go die.

"All I ask if that this team is shown respect, all of us, the same respect. If some people think we have to earn that, fine. This summer, we'll earn it."

In questioning the motivations of a man known by few of his peers and even fewer of his fans, one answer can be found in what he wants to do after his playing days have ended.

Jack Clark wants to be a drag racer.

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