The conflicted reflections of a Bonds’ understudy

These are the first days of a new season, a time when all things seem possible. And why not? For the first time in 66 years, the San Francisco Giants opened the season as defending World Series champions. Perhaps the dreams you dare to dream really can come true.

One former Giants left fielder has started the season in court, facing federal perjury charges. He is the guy with a record 762 home runs and seven most valuable player awards, four of them after he turned 37. During that time, it wasn’t just his stature as a ballplayer that grew; reportedly his shoe size expanded from 10½ to 13.

Doug Clark spent a lot of time in the Giants' organization, but he also played in South Korea.
(Courtesy of Doug Clark)

Another former Giants left fielder started the 2011 season in the Mexican Baseball League, playing for the Quintana Roo Tigres. At age 35, his shoe size remains 10½ – same as it was in high school in Springfield, Mass. That’s where the baseball commemorating his one major league hit sits in a case in his parents’ three-bedroom home.

Barry Bonds and Doug Clark have met. During Clark’s eight years in the Giants’ organization, they shared the same stage at times in spring training and for a few weeks in the big leagues in 2005.

Clark’s first big league experience came in 2000, his third year as a pro, when he scored an invitation to big league spring training. His locker was just two down from Bonds’s and it was hard for Clark to hide his awe. Sometimes he would stare at the batting cage when Bonds was taking hacks, that short and perfect swing launching epic blasts into the desert sky. “He has so much power up there,” Clark later reflected, “that you can’t even fathom it.”

The next year at spring training, Clark made a video for his older brother, Will, who was about to get married in Springfield. He briefly interviewed a number of Giants veterans for their views on marriage, eliciting comments that ranged from, “Have tons of kids” to “Don’t do it!” The film showed Bonds fast asleep in the trainer’s room. He woke up to smack a record-setting 73 home runs, while Clark, playing Double-A ball in Shreveport, La., hit six.

After the 2004 minor league season, Clark traveled to San Francisco. One day, he scalped a ticket to a Giants-Dodgers game, and watched from the left field bleachers, looking down at the treasured real estate and the sport’s greatest player. Bonds turned 40 that year and won his unprecedented fourth consecutive MVP. In five plate appearances, Dodgers pitchers walked him every single time. As Clark said, “It was incredible to watch how the game would change because of him.”

By then, of course, the speculation about Bonds’ use of performance-enhancing drugs was rampant, after his grand jury testimony in the BALCO case the year before. Clark had a unique perspective: He was one of the rare professional athletes with a college degree in biology. He came from a family of teachers, and often worked as a substitute himself in the offseason. Beyond that, he had essentially served as an understudy to Bonds for years. In seven minor league seasons – reaching as high as Triple-A – he had yet to make $15,000 in a year. He had a career batting average of almost .300, with a reputation as an excellent base stealer, a good outfielder, and a great teammate, but in an era with a lust for the long ball he had never sufficiently delivered the goods. Major league teams typically carry 4-5 outfielders, and Bonds, for one, wasn’t budging.

Spring training 2005 was a circus in the Giants’ camp in Scottsdale. The Congressional hearings on steroids were set to begin on St. Patrick’s Day. Even though Bonds was not going to testify because of the ongoing grand jury investigation, he had become ever more the elephant in baseball’s living room. Clark recalls the relentless presence of TV cameras in the usually subdued camp, as well as the gag order on the players in talking about Bonds. “It was almost,” Clark recalled, “like he was above life.”

Outfielder Doug Clark with his parents, Peggy and Bill.
(Courtesy of Doug Clark)

Bonds spent almost that entire season on the disabled list after three knee operations. Clark spent the year as the left fielder for the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies. He had his best minor league season, batting .316 with 13 home runs and 29 stolen bases. Surely, he felt, this was his year to break through to the bigs.

Prior to September call-ups, 10 players had appeared in the outfield for the Giants that year, four of them rookies. At one point the Giants traded for Alex Sanchez, a skinny outfielder who earlier in the year had the distinction of becoming the first big leaguer ever suspended for failing a steroids test. Manager Jesus Alou defended the signing, saying, “It’s not like he murdered somebody or stole Mona Lisa.”

When the rosters expanded on Sept. 1, Clark was devastated not to get the call. He went home to Springfield and began substitute teaching at his alma mater, Central High School. Late on Monday night, Sept. 12, after a full day of teaching, he lay in bed in the basement of his parents’ house and shook his head in wonder at the top highlight on SportsCenter. Without a single game of minor league rehab, Bonds had returned, blasting a double off the top of the wall in his first at-bat.

Early the next morning, Clark shut off his cell phone and went into school. Teaching an American history class that afternoon, he heard an insistent rapping on the door. Through the sliver of glass, he saw the familiar face of his father. “Douglas,” Bill Clark told him in front of an overcrowded class, “you’ve got to call the Giants!” A few hours later Clark was heading west, flying first class for the first time in his life.

The next morning 72-year-old school secretary Dolores Crinella began the PA announcements like this: “First of all, we’d like to congratulate Central High graduate Doug Clark, who was in here yesterday substituting. He got called up to the major leagues by the San Francisco Giants. Congratulations. Detention has started. It will be held on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 1:52 to 2:28 in Room 128.”

Clark was the first player to arrive in the San Francisco clubhouse, let in by a security guard. He found the legendary leather recliner in “Bonds’s Corner” and immediately plopped down. Moments later, he found what he had longed for: a major league jersey hanging in a locker, No. 40. CLARK.

He entered the game as a pinch hitter that day and walked on four pitches, his family cheering from Springfield, thanks to the freshly ordered MLB package.

A few days later, the Giants traveled to Washington D.C. The USA Today story about that journey began, “Once Barry Bonds got past the discomfort of that first cross-country plane ride, he simply wanted to make the nation’s capital just like any other road trip.”

Clark remembers the flight as a festival of riches: unlimited steak, lobster, and ice cream. He was astounded to see team personnel pick up his bags, and he could hardly believe the accommodations at the Ritz Carlton.

He went 0 for 5 that September, exclusively as a pinch hitter, and never got to play left field. The next year he signed with the Oakland Athletics and got another brief call-up in June. As fate would have it, the A’s traveled to San Francisco for an interleague series. With two out in the bottom of the eighth inning on June 24, he was sent out to left field in a double switch, standing in front of a fence with a mural of Bonds facing Mays, Ruth, and Aaron, next to the words “A Giant Among Legends.” After the third out was recorded, Clark ran in, while Bonds ambled out to reclaim his spot.

On June 28, Clark got his one and only big league hit, an opposite field single off the Padres’ Clay Hensley(notes), who had been suspended the year before for failing a steroids test in the minor leagues. The next summer, Hensley would surrender the 755th home run of Bonds’s career, the one that tied him with Hammering Hank.

How many of those home runs were boosted by performance-enhancing drugs? To what extent did the use of PEDs by some players squash the dreams of others who chose not to use? We’ll never know.

Much time has passed since Bonds became the home run king in 2007. Though he never formally retired, he hasn’t played since. Clark spent the last three seasons playing in South Korea. A few weeks ago he said goodbye to his family in Springfield and headed down to play the 2011 season in Mexico. Before taking off, he reflected on his history with Bonds, particularly those few weeks together with the Giants in 2005.

“He was really isolated from the team,” Clark recalled. “There were only a couple of times when you were able to jump in on a conversation with him, after a game when he hit a home run and he was talking in the shower about the pitch.”

Clark vividly recalled the electricity in the stands every time Bonds was about to hit. “When he would come into the dugout, you would start to sniff it,” he said. He marveled at the way fans would react to Bonds climbing into the on-deck circle, huge cheers or boos and a complete loss of focus on the drama playing out between the pitcher and the hitter at the plate. When Bonds stepped into the batter’s box, Clark says it was like a heavyweight champ stepping into the ring.

“That’s the type of guy he was,” he said. “That’s the type of effect he had, not just on the game itself, but on all the people in the ballpark.” Then Clark paused and added, “I guess you have to respect that.”

Marty Dobrow is the author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010).

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Updated Wednesday, Apr 6, 2011