Friday, December 22, 2017

Will Clark: The Thrill is Never Gone

It's not uncommon for Christmas to come early. For some folks, the joy of Christmas arrives in a new job, the birth of a child, deployment, a healthy diagnosis and so on. For me, Christmas came on Friday, December 8 at the downtown business lunch hosted by Archbishop Riordan High School. The gift was the opportunity to meet and hear a talk given by my favorite ballplayer and male athlete of all time: William Nuschler Clark, Jr. known to most San Francisco Giants fans at Will "The Thrill."

The 1986 Sports Illustrated cover story "Double Trouble," featuring Mark McGwire and Will Clark reported the difference these two first baseman brought to Bay Area baseball. I'll never forget reading some of the color commentary about his impact. For example, rather than a rote message "Hi, this is Will. I'm not here right now. Please leave a message" it played the B.B. King song "The Thrill is Gone." This lunch hour affirmed what Giants' fan have always known—the Thrill is never gone.
The number of fans who wear #22 at every Giants game is remarkable.
Will Clark played first base for the Giants from 1986 to 1993. During his tenure, the New Orleans native helped a struggling squad with(100 losses in 1985 turn things around. In just two years time, the Giants won the NL West eventually make a run for what was known as the "Bay Bridge Series" in 1989 (by way of winning the NL Championship Series). His contract with the Giants expired in 1993 and he left us for the Texas Rangers. No Humm Baby.....Bum Baby.

A friend said she was surprised I had not met the six-time All Star before. On one hand, I agree. Given my loyalty to the orange and black and the legacy of this leftie, perhaps it shouldn't have taken 30 years of fandom to connect. However, in the past, I wasn't so sure I actually wanted to meet him. Sometimes, it's easier to keep our heroes and our favorite athletes, musicians or artists at arm's length. Often, their public persona doesn't match up with a personal encounter. Other times, we might not know what to say. I know these folks put their pants on just like everyone else, one leg at a time, and yet the reason we even know who they are is because of what they do. And in the case of Will Clark, it's not just what he did, but how he did it.
given the nickname "The Natural" because of this beautiful left-handed swing. #art
Will Clark played with a remarkable intensity that was as sharp as his vision (I once read he had 20 x 12 eyesight—a necessary good for a baseball player!). With "The Thrill" in the line-up, one would ever question who was the hardest working man on the team. He shared that he took about 200 swings before each game. "Nothing supplants hard work," he said. "Today's players only take about 20-30 swings before the game." Hearing his words reminded me that Clark was going to talk the talk; he could. This crowd knows exactly how he walked, and much to our delight, his accomplishments were captured in  highlight reel to kickstart the event.

Set to AC/DC's "TNT" the collective audience watched some of my favorite baseball memories and Will's best: his first hit as a Giant—a home run off of Nolan Ryan in that vapid ballpark: the Astrodome, the grand slam off of Greg Maddux in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Cubs in Chicago, the two-run single against Mitch "Wild Thing Williams" in Candlestick to break the 1-1 tie in the game/secure the series and the slide into second base in St. Louis launching an epic baseball fight that cleared both benches. These feats and more brought AC/DC's lyrics to life: 
Cause I'm T.N.T., I'm dynamite
(T.N.T.) and I'll win the fight
(T.N.T.) I'm a power load
(T.N.T.) watch me explode
Oh, hell yeah.
And as much as these highlights had me sitting on the edge of my seat in near rapture, I looked at Will Clark and wondered who was enjoying this more. When the video came to a close with a 23- year old Will Clark celebrating the 1987 NL West title, he turned to the audience and shouted "Are you fired up? Because I'm so fired up right now!" The cheering. clapping and whistling was so enthusiastic, one might wonder if they were at AT&T Park in October.

Will's address to this crowd was one part advice to today's baseball players, two parts storytelling, and all parts unabashedly, uncompromisingly Will. Once called "Will the Shrill" before he had his tonsils removed, Will talked fast, his words were gracious and yet politically unapologetic. When he said "my world is very black and white." ever last part of me thought "we know, Will. We always have." In a city like San Francisco that claims to be liberal and tolerant but often times falls short, his words were actually a welcome respite. Clark has only ever been who he is—and that's why this city loved him so. We still do.
Will, as he always was...always will be.
His message?
1. "Common sense is a lost art. If something is telling you don't do it. DON'T DO IT." Clark returned to this point when he told the story of Kevin Mitchell making a one-handed catch—with his bare hand—against the fence in left field at Busch Stadium. "Common sense says you have a glove in your hand for a reason." Good one, Will. Great one, Boogie Bear (Kevin Mitchell's nickname).
2. Trust your gut. So many times, my gut would tell me he's going to throw a slider. I'd talk myself out of it and guess what? He threw a slider. This is true in life, like common sense, listen to that inner-voice.
3. Family is first. Will Clark retired from MLB in 2000 to spend more time with his wife Lisa and their two children. His son, Trey (Will Clark, III) has Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), a diagnosis which puts him on the autism spectrum. Will left the game after helping the St. Louis Cardinals in their play-off run, leaving the game with an impressive .650 post-season batting average. #baller.
4. Respect. Will said "it is so important to respect your elders. Where I come from it's yes sir, or no ma'am. I was taught that you respect the military and law enforcement." He praised two of the games greatest, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. Clark said, "being around these greats and listening to what they said about hitting advanced my game. Pure and simple. They had more influence on me than anyone will ever know."
Prior to this event, I thought long and hard about what I wanted to ask Will. I decided that I would build rapport by telling him that I lived in Napoleonville, LA. He immediately turned about and said "what were you doing down in Napoelonville?!" I knew this would get a reaction—it always does. Napoleonville's notoriety must be in name only, because this itty-bitty bayou town is home to but all of 2,000 people. They too are great outdoorsmen like the Thrill. It's the Louisiana way.

As a teacher at another Jesuit high school I asked him about his experience at Jesuit High in New Orleans. I even snuck in a reference to Endymion, my favorite Mardi Gras parade that passes in front of his alma mater. And, more importantly I wanted to know why HE thought San Francisco loved him in the way we do.

My friend Matt, a San Francisco native couldn't believe Will Clark was my favorite male athlete of all time. "How is it not Joe Montana?" Great question, Mateo. Montana, the "Comeback Kid" did great things at Notre Dame and for the San Francisco 49ers. Guiding the Irish to  the 1977 National Championship and the Niners to four Super Bowl titles, one would think "Joe Cool" is number one for those reasons alone. But that nickname says it all. Under pressure, #16 was calm, cool and collected. He had to be. But what I've always loved about #22 is the fire, intensity and passion that he brought day in and day out to Candlestick. to MLB and to Riordan's downtown business lunch.

Christmas involves a lot of talk about presents—making our list and checking it twice. We join in the relentless pursuit for that "perfect gift" or maybe this year you've limited your shopping to four of them (see the Four Gift Christmas Challenge). And yet, quite often the best present is a person's presence. In theory, we proclaim this as true, until you really do get that magical gift. However, my first formal chance to talk t0 and be with Will "The Thrill" left me thinking, other than a Clark 22 jersey, I really don't need a single thing with my name on it under the tree. Thank you Sea and John for making this happen. Thank you ARHS!
Those were great years, Will and unforgettable memories. Thank you. In the giving, we received. Merry Christmas....thanks for playing ball.

Photo Credits
Hall of Fame ballot
Getty Images

No comments:

Post a Comment