Commentary

Doug Clark's baseball life dream

Mass.-native-turned-Mexican-hero hits Caribbean Series-winning HR in 18th inning

Updated: February 9, 2013, 9:23 PM ET
By Marty Dobrow | Special to ESPNBoston.com

In Hermosillo, Mexico, it is 81 degrees a little after 7 p.m. MT on Thursday night. The stands of the new estadio are packed and raucous. Flags waving. Songs ringing out. Cerveza flowing. Two outs, top of the first inning of the Caribbean Series championship, Latin America's great baseball theater. Up steps left fielder Doug Clark for the Yaquis de Obregon, playing as the road team before the home crowd. He grounds out to first to end the inning.

In Springfield, Mass., it's heading down to single digits a little after 9 p.m. ET, as Bill and Peggy Clark set up camp in front of the television in the living room of their three-bedroom ranch on Piedmont Street, where they raised seven children. A huge snow storm is forecast to begin Friday morning. Some say it will rival the great Blizzard of 1978, back when Doug was a little tyke, not quite 2.

[+] EnlargeDoug Clark
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesDoug Clark is 1-for-11 in his major league career, his lone hit coming in 2006 for the A's.
His uniform laden with sponsorships -- Infinitum, Pacifico, the famous Coca-Cola script going down one quadriceps -- 36-year-old Doug Clark jogs out to left field. He is surrounded by lots of big league players. The Mexican team includes, among others, local legend Dennys Reyes (15 years in the bigs), Karim Garcia (10), and Alfredo Amezaga (9). The powerhouse Dominican team includes a former American League MVP (Miguel Tejada), a former National League Rookie of the Year (Hanley Ramirez) and Fernando Rodney, who saved 48 games for the Tampa Bay Rays last season.

Right alongside them is Clark, who learned his first words of Spanish at Central High School many years ago from Mena DeCarvalho. Even though he has been playing winter ball in Mexico for a decade, even though he now has a Mexican-born wife (Pilar) and a son born in Mexico (Matteo), even though he is just about fluent in Spanish, Doug Clark's teammates still often kid him about being an "extranjero" -- a foreigner.

In the top of the fourth inning, with Mexico trailing 1-0, he is called out on strikes.

It is after 10 p.m. now in Springfield as Bill and Peggy Clark -- and their adult children, William and Molly -- grimace at the call. Both William and Molly are teachers, and Friday has already been declared a snow day, so they have no trouble digging in to the game.

In a way, they know, their brother's presence on this stage is preposterous. Doug Clark never played Little League baseball, and at Central High School, he lettered in football, basketball ... and tennis. He went to UMass on a football scholarship, then approached baseball coach Mike Stone about trying out during his sophomore year.

Somehow, three years later, he was a seventh-round draft pick of the San Francisco Giants. He signed a contract for $850 per month and flew west to join the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes.

The lanzadores are dominating in Hermosillo. Groundouts. Popouts. Strikeouts with a flourish. But in the fifth inning, to the delight of the home crowd, the Yaquis take advantage of an error and push ahead, 2-1.

Doug Clark has had a great Caribbean Series so far, going 9-for-21 before the championship game, but after lining out to Tejada in the sixth, he is 0-for-3 on the night.

For so many years now, the Clark family has followed this improbable career. That first season in 1998, Bill Clark would stay up late for the games that began in Oregon at 10 p.m. back East, often listening well past midnight to catch an extra at-bat. Forty-four players would suit up for the Volcanoes that summer. Thirty-four of them would never make it to the big leagues. Doug would use phone cards back then to call home, telling his family about the games, about the West Coast, about his roommate, Ryan Vogelsong.

In years to come, phone cards would give way to cellphones. Cellphones would give way to Skype. Doug kept grinding away. He was always a good hitter with good speed. But in an era when the long ball was king, his power was suspect. Back then, of course, the Giants had a left fielder with pretty good pop.

Sometimes at spring training Clark would just marvel at Barry Bonds. "He has so much power," Clark said one year, "that you can't even fathom it."

In 2005, his eighth year in the Giants' organization, Clark was the starting left fielder for the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies. He hit .316 with 13 home runs, 30 doubles, and 29 stolen bases. He was confident he would finally get the call from the Giants when rosters expanded on Sept. 1. It didn't happen. Deeply disappointed, he flew home to Springfield.

The game will break your heart. Doug Clark has seen it over and over again. More than three hours in, he leads off the ninth inning with a walk. He gets as far as third. The menacing Fernando Rodney shuts the door.

Leading off the bottom of the ninth, all the flag waving and seat stomping comes to an abrupt halt when Ricardo Nanita of the Dominican Republic rockets a home run to right center, tying the game at 2.

[+] EnlargeDouglas Clark
Courtesy of the Clark familyParents Peggy and Bill Clark with Doug in Washington after he got called up to the big leagues in September 2005.
There are groans of anguish in the living room in Springfield. It is long past midnight. Bill Clark watches one more at-bat for his son, a groundout to lead off the 11th inning, then trudges off to bed.

It's a shame, of course, but Bill knows he has already had his share of baseball memories for a lifetime. He knew that back when the phone rang on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2005.

Giants minor league director Bobby Evans had tried to reach Doug earlier that day after the team sustained two injuries the night before. But the left fielder had turned off his cellphone when he went into Central High School to serve as a substitute teacher in American History. So Evans called the house on Piedmont Street and reached Bill, who went flying into the school. He barreled up the hallways and rapped on the door of Room 218.

Doug peered through the rectangular glass window, saw his dad, and awkwardly introduced him to the students. "Douglas," he whispered insistently, "you've got to call the Giants!"

A couple of hours later, 29-year-old Doug Clark was flying first class for the first time in his life, soaring to San Francisco.

Every pitch matters. A borderline strike call inflames the crowd. A ball that curves foul is blessed. There is heartache. There is hope. So much almost.

Doug has come to love this life in Mexico. While all six of his siblings live close to home in New England, he has seen the world through baseball. He knows what this game means to the Mexican people. With two outs in the 13th inning, he lines a single to right. He gets as far as second base, but is stranded there.

Then, in the 14th, Karim Garcia launches a home run to put the Yaquis up, 3-2. A fan in a sombrero holding a big Mexican flag races around the bases after Garcia. The sweet championship is close enough to taste.

Until, with two outs in the bottom of the 14th, Tejada smacks an RBI single to right to knot the game once again.

Doug Clark's big league career lasted exactly 11 at-bats. He was 0-for-5 with the Giants in 2005, then signed with the A's in 2006. In one brief call-up he got six more at-bats. His lone hit, an opposite-field single, came against Clay Hensley of the Padres.

Bill and Peggy Clark were awakened that night by the joyful screaming of one of their sons, Connell. For hours afterward, Peggy watched the crawl beneath the ESPN feed, including this precious detail, "Clark 1-1."

The baseball sits in a case in their living room.

Clark never stopped playing. There was one more year at Triple-A. Then three years in Korea, where fans spoke almost no English, other than saying, "Clock-Clock-Clock: What time is it?" when the guy whose name they couldn't pronounce came to bat.

Always there was winter ball in Mexico. In 2011, he began playing there year-round.

He fell in love with the beautiful Pilar. Then came the little boy, Matteo.

[+] EnlargeDouglas Clark
AP Photo/Andres LeightonMexico's Doug Clark celebrates after being named the Most Valuable Player of the Caribbean Baseball Series.
With two outs in the 15th inning of a game well into its sixth hour, Doug Clark takes a called third strike, shakes his head, and runs out to left field.

In the top of the 18th, now past 2 a.m. in Hermosillo, Clark comes to the plate against a lanky right-hander, Edward Valdez. The first pitch is a breaking ball that doesn't break much and stays up over the plate. Clark puts a good swing on it.

The ball sails down the right field line to a green fence 325 feet away. Right fielder Abraham Almonte goes back, leaps up, extends his glove hand over the wall. The ball sails just beyond it, smacking into the yellow and orange Hermosillo sponsorship banner, just against the word artesania.

Clark floats around the bases. When he gets to the plate, he lifts his dark uniform top to his face, kisses the word "Mexico" on his jersey, and flutters his hands to the crowd.

Immediately afterward, the guy with the sombrero and the Mexican flag goes flying around the bases, diving headfirst into home.

Back in Springfield, now after 4 a.m., Peggy Clark watches with wonder. "We could see Doug running around the bases. His arms were flying out, like a bird. He hardly had his feet on the ground."

William Clark races upstairs to rouse his father, "Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!"

Bill comes down to watch the replay and to sweat out the bottom of the 18th.

Still in full uniform in his hotel room an hour and a half after the game, alongside Pilar and Matteo, Doug Clark says that this moment is the greatest one of his entire baseball journey. "This tops everything for me," he says, "because of the stage we were on here, and the value of the whole tournament in Mexico, and their passion for baseball ... It's just a carnival. The music. The beer is flowing. Everyone is just supporting the team, supporting the country."

He says it is hard to find the words to capture the feeling. "It's the best moment, because everyone is together. No one is Mexican. No one is American."

He is an extranjero no more. If anything, he is a national hero in Mexico. He says kissing his jersey and blowing that kiss to the fans after the big home run is something he has long dreamed of doing. It is his way of saying, "Thank you, Mexico, for giving me the opportunity. This is something I'll never forget."

Pilar got her visa two weeks ago. Next week the family will fly north. Little Matteo, the same age Doug was back during the Blizzard of '78, is getting ready for a huge fiesta on Piedmont Street.

Marty Dobrow

ESPNBoston.com

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