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Breaking Down the Today’s Game Hall of Fame Candidates: Will Clark

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On Monday, December 5, the Today’s Game committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame — the replacement for the Veterans Committee which covers the years 1988-2016 — will vote on candidates for the 2017 induction class. This week we are looking at the ten candidates, one-by-one, to assess their Hall worthiness. Next up: Will Clark

The case for his induction:

Like artists, musicians and writers, there is a tendency to view ballplayers who break out onto the scene in a big, seemingly fully-formed way as always great, no matter what comes later. Sometimes, like James Dean, if they disappear while still young and great, they are forever immortalized. Other times, like Bob Dylan, they have a second and third act which builds on that initial promise, justifying and reinforcing their legacy. Other times, like Orson Welles, they break out big but then decline, sort of hanging around and perplexing us as to why they can’t replicate that early success. Will Clark seems to fall into the Orson Welles category.

By the time Will “The Thrill” Clark was 25, he had notched three top-five finishes in the NL MVP balloting and led his Giants into the 1989 World Series. He found himself and his sweet swing on the cover of magazines and was everyone’s idea of baseball’s next big star. But the power soon disappeared and he never topped 16 homers from ages 28-33. His rate stats were still excellent — he got on base at a healthy clip and played a good first base — but that power swoon came in the middle years when most Hall of Famers find that second gear that Clark never found. He did put together a fantastic final year in 2000, splitting time between the Orioles and Cardinals and batting .319/.418/.546 in 507 at-bats, but then he retired to spend time with his young special needs son, which is a very good reason to retire, to be fair.

The case against his induction:

The numbers just aren’t there. That 2000 season he finished with the Cardinals was like Welles “Touch of Evil.” Great, but not enough to redeem years wandering in the wilderness. While he had some near-MVP seasons early, his peak does not scream “Hall of Famer” and his short-for-a-Hall-of-Famer career of 15 seasons prevented him from compiling the sorts of numbers one might expect a candidate to compile. Heck, even if he played 20 years he may not have gotten there. So much of his value was tied up in walks and defense and those numbers don’t necessarily pop, even in the aggregate. He wasn’t the most durable player late in his career either, and that mitigates against even an imaginary 20-year career resulting in Cooperstown-worthy totals.

Would I vote for him?

Probably not. He had the “fame,” at least early in his career, but that fame and that name outstripped his performance as the years wore on. He gives me a John Olerud vibe. He was much better than Wally Joyner, but he feels closer to him than most Hall of Famers I can think of. A few more peak seasons and you could talk me into him, but I think he falls short.

Will the Committee vote for him?

I doubt it.

Playing in Texas and Baltimore in the mid-to-late 90s and still only topping 20 homers twice is an odd pattern for a guy who was once known for home run power, especially when that guy is a first baseman. That whole positional expectations thing is unfair to Clark — it’s not his fault that he was good at a lot of things first basemen aren’t and not as good at what people expect first basemen to be — but it has cast his candidacy in a bad light. It’s why he was a one-and-done guy on the writers ballot and it will likely doom him on the Today’s Committee ballot as well. Saying someone just doesn’t “feel” like a Hall of Famer is a lazy copout, but in this case I think it’s a copout that happens to coincide with objective reality.

Don’t get down on yourself, Will. You always had your “Citizen Kane” years in San Francisco. We could watch that over and over again.

Whitewash: Rob Manfred says he doesn’t think sign stealing extends beyond the Astros

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Rob Manfred said today that he believes the sign-stealing scandal which has taken over the news in the past week does not extend beyond the Houston Astros. His exact words, via Jeff Passan of ESPN:

“Right now, we are focused on the information that we have with respect to the Astros. I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved. We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”

This is simply incredible. As in literally not credible.

It’s not credible because, just last week, in the original story in The Athletic, it was reported that the Astros system was set up by two players, one of whom was “a hitter who was struggling at the plate and had benefited from sign stealing with a previous team, according to club sources . . . they were said to strongly believe that some opposing teams were already up to no good. They wanted to devise their own system in Houston. And they did.”

The very next day Passan reported that Major League Baseball would not limit its focus to the Astros. Rather, the league’s probe was also include members of the 2019 Astros and would extend to other teams as well. Passan specifically mentioned the 2018 Red Sox which, of course, were managed by Alex Cora one year after he left Houston, where he was A.J. Hinch’s bench coach.

Add into this the Red Sox’ pre-Cora sign-stealing with Apple Watches and widespread, informed speculation on the part of players and people around the game that many teams do this sort of thing, and one can’t reasonably suggest that only the Houston Astros are doing this.

Which, as I noted at the time, made perfect sense. These schemes cannot, logically, operate in isolation because players and coaches change teams constantly. In light of this, players have to know that their sign-stealing would be found out by other teams eventually. They continue to do it, however, because they know other teams do it too. As is the case with pitchers using pine tar or what have you, they don’t rat out the other team so they, themselves, will not be ratted out. It’s a mutually-assured destruction that only exists and only works if, in fact, other teams are also stealing signs.

So why is Major League Baseball content to only hang the Astros here? I can think of two reasons.

One is practical. They had the Astros fall in their lap via former Astro Mike Fiers — obviously not himself concerned with his current team being busted for whatever reason — going on the record with his accusation. That’s not likely to repeat itself across baseball and thus it’d be quite difficult for Major League Baseball to easily conduct a wide investigation. Who is going to talk? How can baseball make them talk? It’d be a pretty big undertaking.

But there’s also the optics. Major League Baseball has had a week to think about the report of the Astros sign-stealing and, I suspect, they’ve realized, like everyone else has realized, that this is a major scandal in the making. Do they really want to spend the entire offseason — and longer, I suspect, if they want a thorough investigation — digging up unflattering news about cheating in the sport? Do they really want to be in the bad news creation business? I doubt they do, so they decided to fence off the Astros, hit them hard with penalties, declare victory and move on.

Which is to say, it’s a whitewash.

It’s something the league has tried to do before. They did it with steroids and it didn’t work particularly well.

In 1998 Mark McGwire, that game’s biggest star at the time, was found to have the PED androstenedione in his locker. It was a big freakin’ deal. Except . . . nothing happened. Major League Baseball planned to “study” the drug but most of the fallout was visited upon the reporter who made it public. It was accompanied by some shameful conduct by both Major League Baseball and the baseball press corps who eagerly went after the messenger rather than cover the story properly.

Four years later Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco went public with their PED use and said drug use was widespread. MLB’s response was slow and, again, sought to isolated the known offenders, singling out Caminiti as a troubled figure — which he was — and Canseco as a kook — which he kind of is — but doing them and the story a disservice all the same.

The league eventually created a rather toothless testing and penalty regime. Congress and outside investigative reporters filled the void created by the league’s inaction, calling hearings and publishing damning stories about how wide PED use was in the game. Eventually Bud Selig commissioned the Mitchell Report. Some ten years after the McGwire incident baseball had at least the beginnings of a sane approach to PEDs and a more effective testing plan, but it was pulled to it kicking and screaming, mostly because doing anything about it was too hard and not very appetizing from a business and P.R. perspective.

And so here we are again. Baseball has a major scandal on its hands. After some initially promising words about how serious it planned to take it, the league seems content to cordon off the known crime scene and refuses to canvass the neighborhood. Sure, if someone gratuitously hands them evidence they’ll look into it, but it sure sounds like Rob Manfred plans to react rather than act here.

That should work. At least until the next time evidence of cheating comes up and they have to start this all over again.