The days of Jack Clark in pinstripes

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Once upon a time, before the Internet, before Twitter, before beat writers with blogs and fans with blogs, before MLB Trade Rumors and even Mike and The Mad Dog, Jack Clark was a member of the Yankees. Now, I personally don’t remember much about Clark’s one-year tenure in the Bronx because I was five and baseball was a thing I watched during the summer and not a 365-day obsession. But Clark holds a special place in my heart because his Starting Lineup figurine was one of the first of my collection.

In a way, Jack Clark is the poster child for strange Yankee moves in the late 1980s. Clark made his debut in 1975 as a 19-year-old rookie for the Giants, and he was supposed to be the Next Big Thing. He spent 13 years in the NL and hit .276/.372/.487 with 229 home runs and seemed to hit free agency at both the right and the wrong time.

For Clark, the winter of 1987/1988 was the right time because of his production. While ankle ligament injuries limited his playing time toward the end of 1987, he finished the season third in the NL MVP race and hit .286 with a league-leading .459 on-base percentage and .597 slugging. He belted 35 home runs and drove in 106 runs in just 131 games. It was though the wrong time because of collision. Owners were colluded to keep prices down, and only the Yankees, with a popular incumbent first baseman, offered Clark a multi-year deal.

The NL Champion Cardinals tried to keep Clark, but the Yankees, who careened from player to player in the late 1980s, moved quickly. He a two-year, $3-million with up to $1 million in performance bonuses and vowed to stay healthy. Notably, the deal came together quickly and with few rumors. No mystery teams were involved, and the Yanks had their hitter.

With Clark on board, the Yankees had certainly spent their riches. The team, with its average salary of $718,670, had the highest payroll in the game, but the fans were skeptical. In reactions to the signing, one wondered if Clark could pitch and another said the Yanks signed the wrong Jack. They needed Morris’ arm and got Clark’s bat.

From the start, it was an odd fit. Yankee Stadium was ill-suited to a right-handed power hitter, and even though the Yanks claimed Clark’s arrival had nothing to do with it, the team moved in the left field fences in 1988. Those dimensions, whether thanks to Jack Clark or not, are still with us today at the new Yankee Stadium. Still, he struggled in the Bronx. Clark hit .242/.381/.433 with 27 home runs in 150 games and struck out 141 while drawing 113 walks.

Yet, more importantly, Clark was unhappy. He didn’t like being the DH, and when the Yanks ill-advisedly traded Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps, Clark didn’t like getting shuffled around in the outfield. He wanted his set role, and he wanted to return to the National League. So he quietly requested a trade, and the Boss seemed happy to oblige.

After obtaining first place as late as July 27, the Yanks slipped to fifth before the season was over, and before October was out, Clark found himself en route to the Padres. The Yanks received Lance McCullers, Jimmy Jones and Stanley Jefferson from San Diego, and the three of them amounted to not much else.

After leaving New York, Clark played two years in San Diego and two in Boston before calling it quits. He posted a .396 OBP over his final four seasons and could still get on base even as his power and health diminished. He ran into financial troubles after his career ended and has bounced around organized baseball since then. His Starting Lineup figure still rests in a shoe box in a closet at my parents’ place, and his time in New York, embedded in the outfield dimensions or not, still stands as a testament to a time when the Yankees had no plan.

Open Thread: Ace
Options for the final bench spot
  • mbonzo

    In 1987 Andre Dawson won the MVP with a 2.7 WAR.
    Jack Clark had a 6.5 WAR and a 1.055 OPS.
    I should mention Ozzie Smith had a 7.1 WAR with a .775 OPS, which just tells how unbelievable his fielding was.

    • Brooklyn Ed

      Smith was like Merlin of Defenses.

    • JGS

      Eh. 1.4 of that was defense, which is awesome but far from unheard of.

      More importantly, that .775 OPS was good for a 105 OPS+, which is pretty darn good for a shortstop. Consider that in 1987, National League shortstops OPSed a collective .656 (even worse than catchers, who clocked in at .690).

      Smith’s offensive WAR was 7th in the NL, behind only Strawberry, Tony Gwynn, Eric Davis, Jack Clark, Dale Murphy, and Tim Raines. He was ahead of (37 year old) Mike Schmidt (12th in the league), Barry Bonds (22 years old and playing in his first full season, 32nd), and MVP Andre Dawson (34th).

  • Carlosologist

    Clark’s numbers were the shit as a DH. He may have not liked the role but he produced nonetheless.

    Sounds like a good ballplayer IMO

    • Pat D

      Clark’s one of those guys that is easy to dismiss until you actually look at his numbers. Then you realize he was a pretty good hitter. The trouble with him is that he wasn’t much defensively, as I can recall, and his best role really would have been DH.

      • steve s

        If you saw him play as a Yankee he was very easy to dismiss. No fan tears were shed when the Yanks got rid of him.

        • Billion$Bullpen

          I disagree. I think Jack Clark on the Yankees was just like Big Unit on the Yanks. Too high a fan expectation, not enough appreciation for what you actually got. People expected way too much. Clark was never a great all around player and always stuck out too much, but he did get on base, and drive in runs which is all I expected out of him so I was happy with him on the team.

          Just like Unit was not the same Big Unit that beat us in the WS and in the 95 playoffs, he was a broken down version of that but still went out and pitched every five days except the few times where Torre would not let him. Might have been hard to watch if you expected an ace with him, but I never did.

          • steve s

            All the fans expected was a similar season to what he did in St. Louis in 1987. Instead what they got was a guy who dropped 78 pts in OBP, 240 pts in OPS, 44 points in BA (hitting a whopping .242) and struck out over 28% of his official at bats. If he had come close to his 1987 numbers the Yanks would not have gotten rid of him. I think you remember him more fondly than he deserves.

            • Billion$Bullpen

              So you expected him to duplicate his career year on what was the best team in baseball when he changed leagues? I think many Yankees fans did expect that, I did not.

  • Pat D

    Ah, 1988. What a year. A year I’ll always remember for the Sporting News year in review guide that I’ll never discard.

    Billy’s last ride as manager. Ron Guidry’s last season trying to pitch through injuries. Tommy John’s second to last year. The best pitcher on the team was John Candelaria. But, hey, Al Leiter and Dave Eiland both pitched.

    It was also the year that Dave Winfield basically had to carry the team on his back. Rickey Henderson still got on and stole bases, but hit for no power. Mike Pagliarulo, Rafael Santana and Willie Randolph (in his last year in pinstripes) were all pretty terrible. Don Mattingly had an off year.

    Clark and Claudell Washington did OK, the catching platoon of Don Slaught and Joel Skinner was meh, and they had basically no bench as Gary Ward stopped hitting and Bobby Meacham and Luis Aguayo were…well, themselves. Hey, there’s Randy Velarde and Roberto Kelly and even Hal Morris and Bob Geren.

    You know who their best bench player was that year? That’s right, Ken Phelps! 147 OPS+ in 127 plate appearances, including 10 home runs. Not his fault the Yankees made such a terrible trade for a guy who could only DH.

  • BigBlueAL

    I remember reading the 1988 Yankees yearbook where it compared the lineup of the 1927 Yankees “Murderer’s Row” to the apparently new “Murderer’s Row” 1988 Yankees lineup.

    The Yankees did get off to a great start that season and as mentioned by Ben were in 1st place as late as July 27th after being in 1st place all by themselves for all of May and most of June.

  • Anchen

    Just looked up his stats again. He got either really selective or got a really good batting eye later in his career heh. He started off in the 40-50 walk range per year but later on he was in frank thomas territory with 100+ walks a year. The guy could hit and get on base that’s for sure.

  • Billion$Bullpen

    Jack Clark was a very good hitter and would get a lot more respect today when people do not worry about a guy striking out as much as he did. Clark also hit some of the longest home runs and foul balls I have ever seen.

    If I recall correctly Jack Clark got a HUGE (at the time might not seem huge compared to #s guys get paid now) settlement when the owners were penalized for collusion. Which again if I recall was all blown on drag racing.

    Clark was perfect for the DH role and the Yanks should have not traded him, and found a way to make sure he was happen and finished out his career as our DH.

    • Billion$Bullpen

      i meant HAPPY not happen

  • Professor Longnose

    One of the things I remember about the Clark trade was that there was some controversy with his agent. Apparently the agent had engineered the deal, or perhaps had engineered another proposed deal, and Gene Michael had been offended. I can’t remember the details.

  • mark

    but i think the question still remains, is he better than sergio mitre?

  • Yankee2123

    In the 80’s the Yankees could not put together a solid rotation to win the division. George tried to bring in guys like Rick Rhoden, John Candelaria, Britt Burns, Steve Trout, Dave Lapoint, Andy Hawkins, Phil & Joe Niekro, Dennis Rasmussen, Doyle Alexander, and the infamous Ed Whitson, but it was never enough to put them over. It also hurt that Ron Guidry was basically done after a superb 1985 season. Maybe they should have given Righetti a shot to stay in the rotation, but he did fine as a closer. It also hurt trading a guy like Doug Drabek, who went on to have a decent career, and even win the Cy Young in 1990. That’s where the Jack Clark’s, Steve Balboni’s, Steve Kemp’s, Ken Griffey’s, Don Baylor’s, Ken Phelp’s, Gary Ward’s, Gary Roenicke’s, Mike Easler’s, and Oscar Gamble’s come from. George trying to over compensate, in his Monumental way, for the team’s lack of pitching.

    • Benjamin Kabak

      There’s absolutely no doubt Righetti should have stayed in the rotation. What’s the point of a closer if your starting pitching can’t win you much more than half of your games? In fact, I recently wrote about the Yanks’ misguided decision to stick Rags in the pen.

      • Billion$Bullpen

        the Rags debate was the father of the Joba debate minus the internet and not as many hours of local sports radio talk, but Rags was a much smarter pitcher that would have in my opinion been a #2 on a good team. On the Yanks most years he would have been a 1.

    • Big Apple

      I vividly remember when the yanks signed griffey and dave collins and there were going to tear up the basepaths

  • Big Apple

    The first sentence in this post made me think…even though its not that long ago (in the grand scheme of things) it is difficult to imagine baseball without the internet, twitter, fantasy leagues, etc…

    I remember growing up in the 80s and having to wait until the next morning to find out if the yanks won. There was no pitch by pitch, instant update functionality.

    Sometimes I wish it were that way. But now I can’t go to sleep until I know the results of the game!

    • NZ Samuel

      Go back? Nooooo thanks. We are enlightened!

  • Jorge

    These were very difficult teams for even someone who was a wide-eyed teenage fan, like I was back then, to get behind. It’s why it’s disheartening to see comment section on every site, including this one, recommending a return to similar practices by the team whenever something doesn’t go the team’s way.

    I remember guys like Candelaria and John “The Count” Montefusco on the team, but my memory always seems to place them as injured and never pitching. Thanks to Yankee2123 for reminding me that Candelaria did actually pitch.

    • Pat D

      Yea, I mentioned earlier that Candelaria was their best starter in 1988, but he was shelved by mid-August or so. When he came back the next year, he was terrible.

      I’m still a bit too young to remember Montefusco. I should probably consider myself lucky.

      • Jorge

        There was a constant belief on Steinbrenner’s part that he could throw money at a .500 pitcher and turn him into a superstar. When guys like Andy Hawkins ended up pitching like Andy Hawkins, no one, other than the team, was surprised. Really, it’s almost modern-day Met-like.

        Of course, the team overcompensated by bringing in guys like Clark and Ken Phelps who had no real purpose. This is the path that eventually lead to Chuck Cary and Clay Parker, which is actually an era I like a lot more than the one that preceded it, W/L record be damned. :)

  • Russ

    This was when all the hype was about the kids coming up to save us. Future guaranteed all-stars named Jay Buhner, Roberto Kelly, Kevin Maas & Hensley “Bam Bam” Muelens. Muelens was supposed to be the best of the bunch. Shall we call this one a 50/50 split?