Thursday, July 10, 2014

Card #74: Bobby Clark

Who Can It Be Now?
Robert Cale Clark was born on June 13, 1955 in Sacramento, California.  He attended Perris High School in Perris, California.  He was drafted for the first time straight out of high school by the Houston Astros in June of 1973 in the 14th Round, but he did not sign.

Instead, Clark attended UC-Riverside in Riverside, California.  He only spent the 1974 season at UC-Riverside as a player before he was drafted again by the Angels in the January, 1975 in the fifth round of the January Draft Secondary Phase.  

The Angels assigned Clark to their Pioneer League affiliate in Idaho Falls, Idaho, for the 1975 season.  Clark was pretty much right-on age-wise for the league, and frankly impressed only with his base stealing skills -- swiping 22 in 24 attempts -- and in showing a little pop in his bat.  His batting average and OBP were slightly below league average but his SLG checked in at 30 points above the league averages.

Clark progressed slowly up the Angels minor league system, speing a full year at every stop he made.  His best year was clearly 1978 at Double-A El Paso in the Texas League.  There, he was named the league MVP on the strength of a 31 HR, 111 RBI season (both of which led the league) and a .316/.393/.605 slash line -- an awesome .998 OPS.  

But let's put this into context.  The El Paso Diablos of 1978 absolutely battered their competition that season.  The team hit 165 HR all year; the next highest total was 92 from the Amarillo Gold Sox.  The top FOUR home run hitters in the league and five of the top six played for El Paso -- Clark with 31, Danny Goodwin with 25 (who hit 13 total homers in 707 major league plate appearances), William Ewing with 25 (never made it to the majors), James Peters with 20 (never made it to the majors) and, at number 6, Floyd Rayford (who tallied 38 HR in 1115 major league plate appearances).  

In other words, El Paso was an inflated hitting environment.  Bill James's work in minor league equivalents included corrections for the hitting environment in the particular league and, where appropriate, the particular stadium.  Without correcting for environment, a lot of teams thought that their hitters in the Florida State League, for example, were terrible (big stadiums plus humid, thick air at sea level mean the ball does not carry well) and that hitters in the Pacific Coast League -- mountainous, thinner air, lower humidity...think "Mile High Stadium" and Denver Zephyrs -- were phenomenal.  

That fact escaped a lot of folks in the 1970s and 1980s -- especially in Milwaukee, when people thought guys like Randy Ready and LaVel Freeman were going to be hitting superstars for the Brewers and, instead, they turned out distinctly average or below average outside the friendly confines of that west Texas town of El Paso.  And, it likely colored people's expectations for Clark to an unfair extent.

Clark moved on to Triple-A Salt Lake City in 1979.  He received his major league debut as a ninth inning defensive replacement for Rick Miller in centerfield in August of 1979 for the AL West Champion Angels, even starting Game 2 of the ALCS against the Baltimore Orioles (he went 0-3).  

Even after that experience, however, Clark started 1980 in the minor leagues. That offseason, the Angels had traded for Al Cowens.  Cowens was traded after a couple of months in an obvious case of buyer's remorse, but he was swapped for another outfielder in Jason Thompson.  It took the Angels deciding to release a clearly finished Ralph Garr on June 6 for Clark to get his chance.  And, to be fair, it wasn't like Clark grabbed the opportunity and ran with it -- slashing at .230/.266/.333, giving him an OPS+ that was worse than 34% of the league.  As it would turn out, 1980 would be Clark's highest number of plate appearances as a major leaguer.  

In 1981, Clark was still filling the same role as he had previously -- defensive replacement, spot starter, pinch hitter/runner.  When the strike hit, Clark went to work in an oil refinery in Long Beach, California, to make ends meet.  A news story from July 25, 1981, quoted Clark as saying, "It's more important to work than to work out. I've got a wife and a kid-to-be. I've played baseball since I was a kid just so I can reach the major leagues. So now I sit on strike. I don't like it. Life goes on and I'm not a ballplayer now. I have no control over it, so until someone tells me to come back and play, I'm just another worker."  Clark played sparingly after the strike.

In 1982 and 1983, Clark struggled at the plate to make an impact.  After the 1982 season, in fact, Clark expressed his dismay at the fact that the Angels had signed Ellis Valentine: "It's one more indication that the Angels have no confidence in me," an angry Clark said. "I have no future if I'm going to be a backup defensive player again."  For its part, the Angels said that they acquired Valentine because, "Bobby Clark notified us he hurt his back. We felt, at that point, it was necessary to protect ourselves with the addition of another outfielder."

After the 1983 season, Clark finally got his wish to be freed from the Angels organization when he was traded by the Angels to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for long-time Brewers pitcher Jim Slaton (more on that from me later).  Clark was excited for the move, saying all the right things about how he was happy to get an opportunity to play and how the Brewers felt like "more of a family" to him than the Angels did. 

One of the commentary guys in The Milwaukee Journal, though, was less impressed.  His response:
Now that the Milwaukee Brewers have finally landed Bobby Clark from California, they out to go out and get John Shelby from Baltimore, Rudy Law from Chicago, Brett Butler from Cleveland, Mookie Wilson from New York and Willie McGee from St. Louis.
Play those six guys in the field alongside Rick Manning and Charlie Moore and Milwaukee would be the fly ball-catchingest bunch of banjo hitters in the major leagues.  Wouldn't score many runs or win many games, but boy, would they run down routine fly balls.  Why, they'd have to change that miserable Brewers logo into a Gold Glove.  Call 'em Lach's Ballchasers. 
It got meaner after that.  To be fair, the Brewers sucked in 1984 -- dropping from 87-75 in 1983 to 67-94 in 1984, so perhaps that editor was more prescient than GM Harry Dalton might have hoped.  Even more presciently, the writer picked up on the fact that no one on the team was a true power hitter any more -- the team leader in homeruns was shortstop Robin Yount, with 16, followed by part-time catcher Bill Schroeder with 14, 35-year-old LF Ben Oglivie with 12, and 34-year-old 1B Cecil Cooper with 11.    

Clark finished with just two HR in 189 plate appearances.  As it turned out for Clark, he suffered a first-degree tear of his hamstring in spring training and had to sit out the first month of the season with the injury.  Then, 1985 was even worse as Clark failed to make the team out of spring training, being sent outright to Triple-A Vancouver.  His contract was purchased later in the season, and Clark finished up his major league career with 101 plate appearances for the Brewers in 1985.  All that earned him was his release later that season.

Clark played out his professional baseball career with three stops in the minor leagues in 1986 -- in San Jose with the independent Bees in the Single-A California League and in Edmonton (California) and Tacoma (Oakland) in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.

Mustache Check: Nope.  At age 26 on this card, Clark looks nearly incapable of growing a mustache.

Trivial Pursuit
On the back of Clark's 1985 Topps card, it noted that Clark worked as an embalmer in the off-season.  I could make all kinds of jokes about this fact.  The only joke I will make is that he should have kept his bats at home.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
So, Bobby Clark for Jim Slaton.  Slaton was a guy who was a personal favorite, as I'll say more about on his card.  He was a good -- not great -- player who would move back and forth from the bullpen to the starting rotation depending on what the team needed.  Clark was obtained ostensibly to provide power -- which was nothing more than wishcasting based on a Double-A season put up at altitude 6 years earlier -- and his niggling injuries kept Clark from being a productive member of the Brewers.  

If, as I did yesterday, we talk about who won or lost that trade, it is a bit of an open question in some respects.  By the time Slaton got to California, he was 34 years old and suffered from being very much an innings-eating contact pitcher who could be homer prone.  Still, three seasons pitching nearly 400 innings versus 290 plate appearances over two seasons with 2 HR, 2 SB, 6 CS, and a .248/.309/.324 slash line as a comparison makes it easy to pick the Angels as the winner here.  

For all Clark's complaining the previous offseason, it is tough to argue with the facts.  Clark did not hit when given the opportunity in the majors in 1980.  He was given a decent chunk of time in 1983 as well, and did not hit well then either.  He got injured frequently, making him difficult to rely on for teams.  And, if you're going to be a malcontent, you need to have more ability to back up the complaining.

These days, the best I could come up with for Clark is a hint of a Facebook page that seems to indicate that Clark is providing baseball lessons.  To be fair, I did not try to call the phone number to see if anyone would answer.  But, from all indications, Clark moved back to where he grew up and has had a good life there.


  1. You should have called to see if we can pay him to be on our 1982 softball reunion team.

  2. Kind of odd for a Milwaukee writer to rip Willie McGee's bat in 1983. Short memory...

    1. No kidding. That, or he knew that Brewers fans would react negatively to the thought of Willie McGee.