Will Clark vs. Barry Bonds: What If 'Will the Thrill' Had Joined Team Balco?
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On April 8th, 1986, a young, confident (some would say cocky), 22-year-old rookie stepped up to the plate in the Houston Astrodome against future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, one of the most feared pitchers of all time. And he belted the first pitch he saw over the center field wall for a monstrous home run.
Clark not only announced his arrival to the big leagues in dramatic fashion, he put an exclamation point on the moment by stepping on home plate, making one of those crazy “Nuschler” faces that Giant fans would come to love, and pointing into the stands in dramatic fashion, like he knew it was going to happen all along.
The footage of this legendary home run has been replayed numerous times this week in light of the latest Giant hitter to hit a major league home run in his first major league at bat, Brett Pill. Pill did it Tuesday in San Diego, becoming only the third player in Giants history to accomplish the feat after Clark and Johnnie LeMaster (1975).
Reliving the moment after it was played on the recent telecast, Mike Krukow detailed how floored the entire dugout at the time because nobody hit it out of center field in the Astrodome—definitely not off of Nolan Ryan, and certainly not a rookie in his major league debut.
Describing what Clark said when he came back in the dugout, Krukow, in his best Clark impersonation said, “Well I hit a home run in my first game in college, and then I hit a home run my first game in A ball, I just figured I’d hit a home run my first game in the big leagues.”
Reacting to Krukow’s comments the next day, Gary Radnich not only agreed with Krukow, but remembered that the big debate in 1988-1989 was whether Clark or Jose Canseco was going to have a better Hall of Fame career.
After a strong rookie year, Clark would go on to average over 100 RBIs, 27 HRs and a .304 batting average over the next five years (1987-1991), making the All Star game four out of the five years.
Clark would also make the All Star game in 1992, but his numbers started to decline, and so did his games played. After 92’, Clark only played over 132 games in a season once in his final eight seasons.
Clark began to deal with nagging injuries, and after a subpar season in 1993, Clark and his storied career in San Francisco was coming to a close.
It was well documented during the 1993 season that Clark and the Giant’s new free agent acquisition Barry Bonds didn’t see eye. And like a kid in love with a new toy, many fans were fine to have Bonds even if it meant losing Clark.
Clark, spending the next seven seasons in three different cities, would continue to battle injuries but still put up decent numbers when he was in the lineup.
In 1998, the last time he recorded at least 500 AB’s in a season (and first time since 1992), Clark hit .305, had 102 RBIs, 23 HRs, with a slugging percentage over .500 and an OPS close to .900.
Of course in 1998, not many players received attention other than Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, as they captivated a nation in their quest to topple one of the most hallowed records in sports, the single season home run title.
After McGwire and Sosa, and their massive forearms both conquered 61, many athletes were starting to evaluate their incredible power surge, and the steroids that were whispered to be attributed to them.
According to literature that has since come out, it was after this year that the aforementioned Bonds, the future home run title champion, would begin using his own training regimen, using the most state of the art steroids, undetectable at the time, and incredibly effective.
Within two years, Bonds' entire body began to change shape, and so did his ability to hit home runs. Up until the year 2000, Bonds highest home run total was 46 in 1993, his first year in San Francisco. Bonds not only hit 49 home run’s in 2000, he hit 73 in 2001, and then 46, 45, and 45 in the following three years, all between the ages of 35 and 39.
Up until this time, Bonds and Clark’s careers were fairly even in a lot of key stats. Understanding that they were different types of players with different strengths and attributes, at the end of the 1998 season, many people may be surprised at how comparable some of their numbers were.
After 13 seasons, Bonds completed the 98’ season with a .289 career average, 1216 RBIs, and 1,917 hits. Clark, also finishing his 13th season, completed the 98’ season with a higher career average at .302, 1,965 hits (48 more career hits than Bonds), and 1106 RBIs, just 8.5 RBIs less per year.
Unfortunately, the following season, Clark would again battle injuries, only playing in 77 games, by far the least amount in his entire career.
In 2000, his 15th and final season in the big leagues, Clark had one of the best statistical years of his career, batting .319 with 21 HRs, 70 RBIs, a .546 slugging percentage, and a .964 OPS in just 130 games played.
Clark’s numbers were dwarfed by Bonds' 2000, as he hit .306 with 49 HRs, 106 RBIs, a .688 slugging percentage, and a 1.127 OPS.
Following his resurgent year of 2000, Clark hung up his cleats to the dismay of many analysts who felt he had a couple good years left. Clark seemed happy to retire to his home in Louisiana and get back to his first two loves, hunting and fishing.
Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that I wished Will Clark would’ve started using steroids during his career. Actually, it’s quite the contrary. The fact that Clark stayed natural and still had an amazing career makes me respect his numbers even more.
I do wish that Clark would’ve committed to staying in great shape, allowing him to extend his career and potentially reach some very attainable goals considering his numbers when he retired.
Assuming he could’ve played another six years, one shorter than Bonds ended up playing, Clark had a legitimate shot at 3,000 hits, something that would not only have guaranteed him Hall of Fame status, it’s something that not even Bonds was able to do.
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