NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
NO. 51: JACK CLARK
Andy Van Slyke stood on deck at Dodger Stadium on Oct. 16, 1985, wondering the same thing everybody but Tommy Lasorda was wondering.
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The Cardinals were leading the National League Championship Series three games to two, but trailed Los Angeles in Game 6, 5-4 with two out in the top of the ninth. Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee stood on second and third with the go-ahead runs and Clark due up with first base open.
It was precisely for these kinds of situations that the Cardinals acquired Clark the previous offseason.
St. Louis won the World Series in 1982, but slumped below .500 in ‘83 and rebounded only modestly to third place in ‘84. George Hendrick had been their cleanup hitter, but was 35 years old and had hit just nine home runs in 120 games.
In his final deal before resigning as the Cardinals’ general manager, Joe McDonald traded Hendrick to Pittsburgh for left-handed pitcher John Tudor, who won 21 games his first season in St. Louis. Two months later, McDonald’s successor, Dal Maxvill, filled the middle-of-the lineup void by sending outfielder David Green, pitcher Dave LaPointe, and prospects to San Francisco to get Clark.
Whitey Herzog still considers him the best fastball hitter of his era. Only Willie Mays has hit more extra inning home runs than Clark. In his first season wearing the Birds on the Bat, Clark missed all or parts of 36 games with a recurrent rib cage injury, but still had belted 22 home runs with 87 runs driven in.
The four-time All-Star was known as “The Ripper” for a reason.
Niedenfuer, meanwhile, had been a reliable right-handed reliever for the Dodgers. He had a 2.71 ERA and led LA with 19 saves. But he was just 25 years old and two days before putting himself in that Game 6 jam, he had dished up the “Go Crazy Folks” home run to Ozzie Smith in Game 5.
Lasorda, the Dodgers’ manager, could have called on veteran left-hander Jerry Reuss, who was already warmed up and ready to go in the bullpen. Had he done that and walked Clark, it would either have set up Reuss with a favorable lefty-lefty matchup against Van Slyke, or forced the Cardinals to pinch hit with the only right-handed hitter left on their bench, Brian Harper, who got just 52 at bats all season.
Van Slyke, who had one hit in 13 at bats during the series, fully expected to be batting that inning with the bases loaded.
“If you were Tommy Lasorda,” he told media after the game, “wouldn’t you rather pitch to me than to Jack Clark?”
It took years for Lasorda to admit it, but he knows he should have walked Clark and may have been second-guessing himself even then. Television cameras caught him pacing the Dodgers dugout, while legendary broadcaster Vin Scully offered a lip-read interpretation of what he was saying: “Should I walk him and pitch to that blankety-blank Van Slyke?”
While Lasorda was thinking about it, Niedenfuer threw a first-pitch fastball that Clark crushed deep into the bleachers in left-center field. Dodgers’ left fielder Pedro Guerrero tracked the ball for a couple steps before spotting the vapor trail streaking high over his head. All he could do was spike his glove into the outfield grass. Clark, meanwhile, enjoyed a leisurely trot around the bases.
The Cardinals won the game 7-5 on the three-run blast and had captured the second of their three NL pennants during the 1980s.
Injuries limited Clark to just 65 games in 1986 while the Cardinals slumped to 79-82 and 28½ games out of first place. Healthy again in ‘87, Clark reached career highs with 35 home runs and 106 RBIs while his .452 on-base percentage and .597 slugging average led the league. St. Louis won 95 games and went back to the World Series.
The next year, though, the Cardinals lost Clark to a two-year, $3 million contract awarded him by the New York Yankees. Herzog learned about it while on a Colorado ski trip from the Rocky Mountain News and wasn’t happy.
In his book “You’re Missin’ a Great Game,” Herzog said he had two immediate thoughts: “First, ‘God Almighty, how in the world do you let go of the one guy who’s making you rich?’ And second, ‘there went my offense.’”
Maxvill tried to replace Clark by giving a $1 million to free agent Bob Horner, formerly of the Atlanta Braves and the Japanese professional league. He lasted 60 games in St. Louis and never played again. It would be nine more seasons before St. Louis made its postseason return.
Herzog, meanwhile, has said often that the 1985 team was the best of his Hall of Fame career, but that it wouldn’t have been a winner without Clark in the middle of the lineup.
“His bat was what turned our track team into a big-league offense,” he said.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1985-1987
.274/.413/.522 with Cardinals | 2x All-Star| 9.7 WAR
TOP 100 SCORE: 3.3