The first sign of sage sprouted more than a decade ago, long before Tony Clark appeared in a major-league uniform. It was a gray hair, and he was 21 years old.
More and more would come, enough to keep a Bic on permanent retainer, at least until they better suited his role. Young turkdom lasts only so long, after all, and early on, Clark understood that he might be an even better mentor and example than he was a baseball player.
Which, seeing his four 30-home run seasons and career slugging percentage a couple dinks and dunks shy of .500, says an awful lot about his character. It is, in fact, perhaps the most referred-to inanimate object around the Arizona Diamondbacks' clubhouse these days, more than Chris Young's athleticism, Stephen Drew's clutch hitting, Brandon Webb's guile and Bob Melvin's savvy.
Yes, Tony Clark's character is a character, and a big one, as the Diamondbacks set to open the National League Championship Series against the Colorado Rockies at Chase Field on Thursday. He is the most important backup first baseman in these playoffs, maybe in any playoffs, because to Diamondbacks' many yins – Young, Drew, Justin Upton, Mark Reynolds, Conor Jackson, Carlos Quentin and all the rest of their core – he plays the yang.
"I've been fortunate to be around superstars," Clark said. "I've been fortunate to be around guys that simply made the most of their opportunity. To take that information and chew on it and offer it later has been wonderful."
He starts down the list. Kirk Gibson. Alan Trammell. Cecil Fielder. Sparky Anderson.
"I'm dating myself a little bit," the 35-year-old Clark said.
Back to 1995, actually, when Clark joined the Detroit Tigers, who had selected him with the second overall pick five seasons earlier. He stood 6-foot-7 and batted from both sides, swatted home runs that needed GPS trackers and manned first with the grace of someone wearing satin shoes, not spikes. Injuries in 2000 slowed Clark, Detroit soured on him after 2001, and from 2002-04 he bounced among Boston and both New York teams. In 2005, he signed with Arizona, hit 30 home runs in part-time duty and cemented his place with the organization.
Though ambassador to the kiddie corps isn't an official title, it might as well be. Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin calls Clark the team's "father figure" after seeing how the young players gravitate to him. Rare is the day that Clark escapes unscathed from an advice gatherer, the Diamondbacks' very own Dear Abby.
"Our older guard is the sounding board and stability," Melvin said. "The youth just kind of plays along, and as talented as they are, it works. It's one thing to be young. It's another to be talented and young."
Well, they are both, and both to an extreme degree. Young hit 32 home runs and stole nearly 30 bases this year, Drew hit .500 with a couple home runs in the first-round playoff sweep of the Cubs and Justin Upton, only 20 and the best prospect in baseball, starts in right field. Oh, and at 30, left fielder Eric Byrnes is the geriatric of the everyday lineup.
"We are young. That's a true thing," Young said. "But we're not young mentally. As far as baseball, we understand how to play the game because guys like Tony Clark are here. Guys like Orlando (Hudson) are here. Guys like Eric Byrnes and (Chad) Tracy are here helping us learn the ropes and play the game the right way. And it's paid off for us huge."
In spring training, Clark watched the kids play. He saw a warehouse's worth of talent and, over the six weeks, sat down with all the young players, their cooperation a necessity, to chart a course for success.
There were little things, like fielding cleanly and letting their pitchers work, and bigger ones, like adjusting to the league and learning opponents' tendencies. He wanted them to talk. His locker could be a confessional if needed. Not just baseball. Life, love, marriage, music, kids – whatever they needed, Dr. Clark provided the proverbial couch and the receptive ear.
And what happened? The Diamondbacks, against so many odds, won the NL West and clinched home-field advantage. The kids listened to Clark, maybe because his voice really could put a baby to sleep, maybe because he told good stories, maybe because he knows this baseball racket and how it works.
Such wisdom reminds Clark how wrong such a situation could have gone. The Los Angeles Dodgers spent the last half of September a club divided, young vs. old – or, even better, stupid vs. stupid. They torpedoed their season over petty differences.
"When guys humble themselves, indifferent to experience, indifferent to résumés, and are genuinely trying to find a way to win a ballgame that night, they realize it doesn't matter that I do it," Clark said. "It doesn't matter that he does it. As long as we're shaking hands, I can sleep. It's overstated and undervalued."
Not in the Diamondbacks' clubhouse. It helped them survive the midseason 20-25 slump that would have cleaved a lesser team. And it reinforced to Clark that even if he does hit 17 home runs, as he did in just 221 at-bats this season, his purpose here is far greater.
"To me," Clark said, "a leader is a servant."
Enough so that he sometimes he'll relax on the Bic. What's wrong with a few gray hairs? If he can play the part to perfection, he might as well look it too.
- Tony Clark