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All Grown Up

25 Years Later, David Clyde Has Scars of Accelerated Trip Into the Fast Lane of Manhood

June 27, 1998|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOMBALL, Texas — Twenty-five years later, David Clyde asks if you want to see the scars.

He is shoveling through weeds in a rusty rail yard in southeast Texas. The sun is high, the air is tight, like a wool straitjacket, 100 degrees, an oven-roasted breeze.

Clyde swats at an unseen bug, stares up at a graffiti-covered brown boxcar, hulking and packed with yellow pine. He and his crew have been fighting to move and unload that car for four hours. They will be here four more hours, until 11 p.m., working behind a forklift with lights.

Tomorrow he will get a break, leave the lumberyard, hustle over to watch one of his two boys play baseball. He will crouch behind the home-plate fence for another four hours, working the game as hard as he works the wood.

He lives the furious life of a man making up for lost time, so it's not surprising that he suddenly smiles, puts down the shovel, pulls off his shirt.

There, on his left shoulder, snaking across the white skin, are two red results of operations representing but a cinder in one of the most brilliant burnouts in major league baseball history. So brilliant, sometimes it still hurts to look.

Oh, you say. Those scars.

A Calloused Example

Twenty-five years later, David Clyde goes to a baseball game. The Texas Rangers play in a new park, but they are still the Texas Rangers, and he still gets free tickets, and he drives up to Arlington after a long week of work.

He looks around at the fancy new stands and nice seats and contending team and can't help but think, if he doesn't take the mound on that April 27 evening in 1973, maybe none of this exists.

He was drafted first in the nation out of high school. Fitted for a major league uniform a couple of days later. Took the mound as an 18-year-old with an entire state hollering in his ear. Breathed life into a franchise on the verge of being shipped out of town.

Now he is a fan. They don't know him. He doesn't care. He takes his seat. The game drags on. It has been a long week. In the eighth inning, his family looks at him with amusement.

At probably his only game this season, he falls asleep.

"The sport is not what it used to be," says David Clyde, and neither is he.

Twenty-five years ago, he was the most famous baseball player in the country, attending his senior prom one day, pitching for the Texas Rangers against the Minnesota Twins the next. No minor leagues, no preparation, all fastball and flash and future.

Today, one 18-win career later, he is the calloused example of why the sport should never try anything like that again.

Twenty-five years ago, he was a child king, the first of the media age, before Kobe Bryant, before Kerry Wood, before any of those kids incessantly trotted out as the next something-or-other.

Today, with a boxcar full of hardened memories, he is the living lesson that these gifted children should be careful what they wish, and should never do so with eyes closed.

Once he was known as the Houston high school star who struck out three of every four batters and finished his senior year at 18-0 with a 0.18 earned-run average.

Then he was known as the kid who wowed the nation by winning a major league game a few days after winning a state high school semifinal game.

Today, the resume is different:

Only three full major league seasons. An 18-33 lifetime record. More strikeouts in his senior year of high school (328) than in his big league career (228).

Two failed marriages. A bout with alcoholism. A reputation for high and fast and silly living.

A boy who had to fit in among men and, understandably, failed miserably.

Today, around draft time, baseball development people say "David Clyde" the way a mother says, "Measles."

"He was the nicest kid you'd ever want to meet, but he was like Jack Nicholson in 'The Shining,' " said former Ranger teammate Jeff Burroughs. "He did a slow disintegration."

Today, David Clyde has landed in a small country town north of Houston and beyond all that. He has a happy and stable marriage of 16 years, a tough but good job, three children who fill his expansive brick home with laughter.

But the past never quite leaves him, as he hustles about this town of 6,370 as if determined never to be short-changed again.

He runs a successful lumberyard--of which he is the co-owner--like a baseball manager. He gives motivational talks, hands out bonuses, spends eight hours with a boxcar as a manager pitches batting practice.

He works his two teenage boys as if he was their pitching coach. The other day, he was hassling a youth league umpire so much that the ump flashed him an obscene gesture behind his back.

"You can't change what happened yesterday," he says. "But you sure can sure as hell learn from it."

He wasn't the only one who learned.

Because of Clyde, every pro team sport is careful to offer mentoring and support to the ones who arrive young.

He entered the game as a pioneer. He left it as a sacrifice.

Twenty-five years later, he has grudgingly accepted that one man can be both.

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