A 1990 poll of 65 major league players ranked Will Clark as the best clutch performer in baseball. Had his peers been asked to rank the cockiest or most arrogant player in the game, Clark might well have finished first as well. Clark’s abundance of natural talent earned him the nickname “The Natural” and the tall first baseman never lacked for confidence. One of baseball’s fiercest competitors, Clark was known for the fearsome glare he would fix on a pitcher while standing in the batter’s box. “The big thing people say to me is, ‘Why don’t you ever smile?'” Clark once remarked. “Well, I’m too interested in trying to beat somebody right now to smile.”
An All-American at Mississippi State, Clark played a starring role for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team which yielded such future major leaguers as Barry Larkin and Mark McGwire. During the five-game Olympic tournament, Clark batted .429 with three home runs and eight RBIs. The following year he won the Golden Spikes Award, given annually to the country’s top collegiate player.
Selected with the second-overall pick of the June 1985 draft by San Francisco, Clark wasted little time acclimating himself to life as a professional. Just two days after signing with the Giants, Clark homered on his first swing in the minor leagues. Less than ten months later, after just 65 games at Single-A Fresno, Will “The Thrill” opened the season as the Giants’ regular first baseman. Clark connected for a round-tripper against future Hall-of-Famer Nolan Ryan in his first major-league at-bat on April 8th, and finished his rookie year with a .287 batting average and eleven home runs despite missing 47 games with an elbow injury resulting from a base-running collision in mid-season.
Over the next six seasons, Clark would establish himself as the premier first baseman in the National League. In his first full season, his smooth left-handed swing produced a .308 batting average and a career-high 35 home runs as the Giants captured the NL West crown. Inexplicably, the slow-footed Clark attempted 22 steals that year, and was successful just five times. Though overlooked for All-Star status that season, Clark was voted the starting first baseman for the NL All-Star team every season from 1988 through 1992. His finest hour came in 1989, when he batted .333 (narrowly losing the batting title to Tony Gwynn on the final day of the season) with 111 RBIs, finishing second in the NL MVP voting to teammate Kevin Mitchell.
The Giants won their second NL West title in three seasons that year, and during the NLCS Clark took his game to an even higher level, sealing his reputation as one of baseball’s best clutch hitters. During San Francisco’s five-game triumph over the Cubs, Clark raked the Chicago pitching staff at a .650 clip while driving in eight runs. In Game One at Wrigley Field Clark picked up four hits, launched two circuit blasts (including a grand slam which left the stadium) and drove in an LCS-record six runs.
In the decisive Game Five, Clark faced hard-throwing Cubs reliever Mitch Williams with the bases loaded and the score tied in the bottom of the eighth. Clark smoked Williams’ first delivery back through the box to break the tie and propel the Giants into the World Series. But in a Fall Classic remembered more for the devastating earthquake which struck just hours before the scheduled start of Game Three, the Giants were unceremoniously swept by their cross-bay rival Oakland Athletics.
Clark had become quite a durable player since his rookie year injury, setting a San Francisco record with 320 consecutive games played from September of 1987 through August of 1989. However, a string of injuries cut into his playing time in the early ’90s and diminished his production. Clark drove in just 73 runs in 1992 and 1993, the lowest total since his rookie year.
Clark’s contract ran out after the 1993 season, and although the popular star had become a fixture in San Francisco baseball, the Giants were unwilling to offer a long-term contract to a player saddled with recent injury problems and coming off two straight mediocre seasons. However, the perennially underachieving Texas Rangers were willing to take a shot on a player known as much for his intensity and leadership as for his bat. After contract talks with incumbent first baseman Rafael Palmeiro stalled, the Rangers signed Clark to a five year, $30 million deal to replace his former Mississippi State teammate. In his first season in the Lone Star State, Clark quickly took a fancy to AL pitching, posting a .353 average at 1994 All-Star break. His attitude benefited the Rangers as well. “He’s got the will to win, and knows what is involved in getting it done,” said manager Kevin Kennedy. “Not just some days, every day. It’s the kind of intensity that this organization needed.” When the players’ strike hit, Clark ranked fifth in the AL with a .431 on base percentage and placed seventh in the league with a .329 batting average.
Over the next four years, Clark maintained a high level of offensive production, finishing below .300 only in 1996. Injuries continued to curtail his playing time, however, limiting him to 123, 117 and 110 games from 1995 through 1997. But Texas fans were far from disappointed. Clark’s veteran presence teamed with the booming bat of outfielder Juan Gonzalez to lead Texas to its first two AL West titles in 1996 and 1998. Unfortunately for the Rangers, they faced the World Series bound Yankees in the opening round of the playoffs each time and Clark failed to repeat his earlier post-season heroics, collecting only three hits in 27 at-bats over the two series. The Rangers managed to win just one game in 1996 and were swept by a powerful Yankees squad in 1998.
Despite putting together his most productive season in seven years in 1998 (.305, 23 HRs, 41 2Bs, 102 RBIs) Clark suddenly found himself out of a job. Palmeiro decided to re-sign with Texas after five years in Baltimore, effectively ending Clark’s days as a Ranger. Reviving his pas de deux with his old college teammate, Clark responded by signing a two-year deal with the Orioles.
Clark spent a desultory season-and-a-half with a pair of underachieving Orioles teams. Injuries plagued him again in 1999, as a fractured left thumb and a bone spur in his elbow limited him to 77 games and just 29 RBIs despite a .303 batting average, although he did manage to collect his 2,000th career hit on June 15th against Kansas City. The following year a trading deadline deal sent Clark from Baltimore to St. Louis, where he filled in for first baseman Mark McGwire, who was limited to pinch-hitting duties by a case of patellar tendinitis.
Clark’s arrival reinvigorated a Cardinals club that led the NL Central but had treaded water since the loss of McGwire. He homered in his first at-bat and in each of his first four starts for St. Louis, and batted a robust .345 with 12 round trippers and 45 RBIs in his two-month Cardinals’ cameo. He added a three-run homer off Braves’ southpaw Tom Glavine in Game Two of the club’s sweep of Atlanta in the Division Series, but decided to retire less than a month after St. Louis fell to the Mets in the League Championship Series.
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, Clark grew up (and remains) an avid hunter and fisher. He has been known to practice his archery in empty stadiums after games and has taped several hunting programs for ESPN.