It was the Little League World Series and his team had just lost the game. Instead of leaving the field with pride, because he was the only kid on his team to get a hit, he walked off uncertain of what he was capable of accomplishing. He had every right to be confident and cocky; he’d had a hit when no one else did, but his team had lost. That was all that mattered to him.
Years later, it was 1985. Like a lion waiting to pounce on his prey, he slowly walked to the on-deck circle. He was ready. This was the moment he loved. Again, this was his chance to rise to the occasion for his team. Now, he was paid for this. He took a deep breath and anticipated the strikes. He was powered by dreams and visions of coming through when the game was on the line. He knew what he was capable of doing and he was certain he could do it.
This major league ballplayer was Jack Clark. Many years after walking off the Little League field confused about how confident he should be, Clark found himself standing in Dodger Stadium with Game Six of the National League Championship Series on the line. It wasn’t nerves that drove him, but a “deep level of excitement” in a clutch situation.
As he stood in the batter’s box, his plan was to make the Dodgers work to get him. What Clark wanted as he faced Tom Niedenfuer was a base hit. What he got was a miss. He missed on the underneath side of the ball and it flew out of the park. The ninth inning home run propelled the Cardinals to the World Series.
Just like Jack Clark’s in 1985, many clutch hits throughout baseball history have defined players, teams, franchises and cities. They change more than the player—they transform a team, and they’re often the missing piece that pulls that team together down the stretch when nothing else will.
We know it’s hard to define a clutch hitter. We know statistically that a player hits close to the same in a clutch situation as he would in a normal situation. But even with all the unknowns that revolve around clutch hitting, we know for certain that we love clutch hits. As the world of baseball looks forward to this season’s hits that will turn wins into division leads, players into stars and teams into champions, we can learn from the past. We can see a glimpse of the unknown by learning from Jack Clark.
When Clark talks about the ninth inning at-bat that became one of the biggest hits in Cardinals history, he says simply, “it was just another home run.”
“When they decided to pitch to me, they were saying, ‘I don’t think you’re going to come through.’ It was all in my mind: I knew I only needed one hit; it didn’t matter if it was a house or a castle. It was in my mind to get a base hit. In the playoffs it was just another opportunity I had. I wasn’t a kid, I was a grown player. I wanted to be up there. You have to take away the have to and say ‘I’m going to.’”
Well before 1985, Clark had had years of preparation and hard work he knew he could trust to come through for him in clutch situations. He played the game using valuable lessons others taught him. Lessons about, “not letting the failures get you down,” but learning from them. He always asked himself, “Did he get me out or did I get myself out?”
He was taught early on in his career not just the value of putting his team first, but the obligation to play day in and day out for others.
One of those lessons came when he was playing for San Francisco and Willie McCovey hit a walk-off home run. “He came around home plate and I picked him up. He said, ‘Now, don’t ever do that again.’ He wasn’t dissing me, he was just saying, ‘Hey, you know what, this is not Little League. This is what I do. Get excited, but we didn’t win anything yet. We didn’t win the World Series, we just won one game.’ Now, if it’s the seventh game of the World Series, I’m picking him up and he can be mad at me for the rest of his life. You learn from guys like that.”
Clutch hitting for Clark is, “an internal strength that you pull up, one you don’t even know you have.” The strength of a clutch hitter can often be found in the way he puts others first, he says.
“You never forget how you get to that point. You have to feel like you’re lucky to be up there. You have to like to compete. That guy is trying to get you out; you’re trying to help your team win any way you can. You’re playing for your fans. You’re playing for your city. You’re playing for the name on the front of your jersey. Your name just happens to be on the back. When you’re fortunate enough to get those clutch opportunities, you hope you do something damaging.”
When it comes to clutch hitting, Clark says, you have to accept whatever happens. “If you’re going to go down, go down in flames. If I’m going to go out, I’m going to go out because I swung three times in a row.” He knows, “the percentages of failure in clutch situations are there,” but still believes there’s always a message a player can send in an at-bat: “Take your shot. Send a message—to the scouts, to the other manager, to the pitcher, to the team.”
He knows, “there are pressures and anxieties, and everything else that goes into it. You have to be able to slow down. You just can’t walk up there and say, ‘I’m a clutch hitter.’ You have to go in there with the psychological profile that you do on yourself ahead of time. This has to be done. You have to win the battle before you even get up there. You have to be in the on-deck circle and be a cool customer.”
The Cardinals didn’t bring home a World Series championship in 1985 but one clutch hit from a player in the National League Championship Series is still remembered by generations of baseball players and fans. It was in fact more than just one memorable hit. It was an extension of a player being himself and being prepared to carry out what he was meant to achieve.
Although he retired from the majors in 1992, Jack Clark is still delivering clutch hits today. He loves working with charities, such as the Taylor Hooton Foundation, which raises awareness about the dangers of steroid abuse. He also enjoys being a Cardinals analyst, he said—”I enjoy being able to be myself and speak my mind.” His insights and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals on pre- and postgame shows are a favorite of Cardinals fans.
Clark is still every bit the person he was when he played in the majors. If someone asks him a question, he is going to answer with the truth. Part of his legacy will always be delivering clutch hits of truth and passion to the game of baseball.
He said: “If someone showed me up, I had a fervor. Hell was coming and I was coming with it.”