Thursday, August 27, 2015

Jack Clark's transformation from wild moundsman to slugging outfielder

Jack Clark’s 18-year major league career was defined by power. Whether he was smashing tape measure home runs or unleashing laser beam throws from right field, Clark’s feats flashed the tools that impressed his rookie league manager Art Mazmanian to pull him from the pitcher’s mound shortly after the start of his professional career in 1973 with the San Francisco Giants.

Clark with the Giants in the minor leagues

Mazmanian, a former infielder who reached the Triple-A level with the New York Yankees in the 1950s, used the keen eyes he developed from being a part of the talent rich Yankees organization to change the fortunes of Clark’s career. He only needed to see Clark pitch a few games for his rookie league team in Great Falls, Montana to know that his future was in the outfield, not on the mound.

“I managed Jack Clark as a rookie (in 1973),” Mazmanian said in a 2009 phone interview from his California home. “They started him out as a pitcher. I had him pitch four [sic] games. He went 0-2. I saw him hit it out of our ballpark and it was 350 down each line. I knew what kind of a hitter he was.”

Mazmanian had some inside intelligence on Clark’s exploits from an unlikely source, his daughter. She had seen Clark play in high school and urged her dad to come out and watch.

“He was one of the better high school hitters in our area,” he said. “He played against my daughter’s team, Walnut High for two years. She kept telling me, ‘Dad, you oughta see this guy, he could really hit.’”

Mazmanian with the New York Yankees

Almost immediately, Clark reminded his manager of one of the Yankee greats that he watched operate during his formative years in professional baseball. He told Clark that his talents were reminiscent of Joe DiMaggio, but were missing a certain intangible that was inherent in the Yankee Clipper.

“After four games, I called him out, ‘Jack, you are a better hitter than anyone we got here, this is ridiculous. Tomorrow I am going to put you in center field. You remind me of Joe DiMaggio, but you are too lazy to be a centerfielder. You are going to play right field in the big leagues someday.’”

Mazmanian’s decision wasn’t without controversy. George Genovese, the legendary scout who signed Clark vehemently disagreed with his manager's position change.

“The scout that signed him got mad at me because he was the one that got me the job at Great Falls. [Genovese] said, ‘Artie, I signed him as a pitcher.’ I said, ‘George, he’s a better hitter than any player that’s here. How many .300 hitters are in the big leagues anymore? And he’s 17 years old.’ I told [Genovese] that he could go back to pitching in instructional ball. Jack fought me on it, he wanted to pitch.”

Clark rewarded his manager’s decision with an extraordinary performance. The 17-year-old newly minted outfielder tore up a heavily collegiate pitching staff in the Pioneer League.

“I put him in center field the next day, and he hit in 17 straight games,” Mazmanian said. “They stopped him and hit in 13 additional straight games. … He [just] missed leading the league in home runs, doubles, RBIs, and total bases.”

Despite Mazmanian’s prediction that Clark would be a top-notch major league right-fielder, the Giants weren’t sold that outfield was where they wanted him to develop. For the next two minor league seasons, he played almost exclusively as a third baseman. The experiment ended after he committed a whopping 109 errors in 147 games.

“The next year, they wanted to make a third baseman out of him,” Mazmanian recalled. “I said to my wife, ‘If he plays third base, he’s going to kill someone in the front row of the bleachers in the first base area because he didn’t have a catch-throw.’ He had a strong arm, but not the footwork. And sure enough, they moved him back to the outfield.”

Clark amassed 340 home runs from 1975-1992, making the All-Star team four times. He was one of the most feared bats in the National League all throughout the 1980s, made possible by a veteran minor league manager trusting his baseball instincts. He never pitched again after Mazmanian pulled him from the mound, and ironically he played four games in the major leagues at third base and handled all of his chances without an error.

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