by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Some things you do for love, some you do for tradition. In frosty weather, with the season already a week old, and the team — let’s be honest — not expected to win as many as it loses, those who came out for Opening Day at Tiger Stadium on Monday afternoon did it for tradition. They did it because their folks did it. They did it because they love the first pitch, the organ music, because some rituals you keep alive, even if, for the moment — with empty seats and an alien roster — they don’t make much sense.

This is how baseball absorbs its bumps in the road, the sagging summers known as “rebuilding years.” It relies on nostalgia. The addictive joy of a hot dog in the bleachers, the feigned importance of keeping score with a pencil.

The romance of the cleanup hitter.

You know what I’m talking about. Waiting for the No. 4 man to step to the plate. Counting on a big wallop. Looking for the fourth name in the morning box score, checking to see whether the numbers — at least one run, one hit and one RBI — suggest a home run.

Everyone else in the lineup gets a number, “batting second . . . batting fifth . . . batting ninth . . .”

The cleanup hitter gets introduced by his job description. “Batting cleanup . . .” The very words suggest hope.

Which brings us to the locker in the back of this suddenly young and unfamiliar Tigers clubhouse. For the first time on an Opening Day, the locker bears No. 17, for Tony Clark.

This is your big name, folks. This is your marquee. This is the guy, Tony Clark — long, lean, strong, a little knock- kneed, with the easy gait of the basketball player he always has been — who could fill the seats and be the story for 1997.

Never mind that he spent most of Monday striking out. We’re talking potential here. Like lightning in a storm. It’s the anticipation that makes you watch.

“Right now, he’s probably only 50 percent baseball player, and 50 percent natural athlete,” says manager Buddy Bell.

This, about a guy who hit three home runs in his first five games.

Bo gambled on a hoops player

Now it’s true, Clark may not be a baseball player for all time, but he is one for this time, a young man chosen, seven years ago, for his pure athleticism by Bo Schembechler, who, as a former football coach, was used to making talent fit the position, not the other way around.

Schembechler took Clark in the 1990 draft despite the fact that Clark was an avowed basketball player, committed to playing college ball for the Arizona Wildcats.

“Are you crazy?” the critics wailed. “He could wind up in the NBA! The whole pick could be wasted! He might never be a baseball player!”

That was all true. But Schembechler relied on the game to work its snake-charming magic. And it did. Tony Clark is all baseball now. It has been months since he has even played a pickup game of hoops. And when asked what he would watch on TV if he had to choose between a baseball game and a basketball game, he doesn’t hesitate.

“I’m watching baseball now. I can learn something from it. I can spot something in a pitcher I may face, or maybe I see something a hitter is doing that might work for me.

“Yeah, I might switch to the basketball game for the last two minutes to see who wins, but that’s it. I’m all baseball now, not basketball.

“My hands used to get sweaty if I went more than a day or two without shooting.”

He holds out his palms for inspection.

“See. No more sweat.”

You look at Clark, who politely stoops over for shorter interviewers (and at 6-feet-7, who isn’t shorter than Clark?) and you see a blend of Grant Hill and Cecil Fielder. Like Hill, he is serious, focused, young, 24, and just coming into his own (with his Magic Johnson-like facial hair, he even looks like Hill). And like Fielder, he will be judged, ultimately, by the productivity of his stroke, how hard, how well and how timely he hits the ball.

“I see my job as making sure I bring the other guys around when it counts,” he says. “As long as I bring them in, I’ll be able to sleep at night.”

Spoken like a true cleanup hitter.

As baseball goes, he’s just a baby

Now, don’t get me wrong. Clark is no more polished than a lamp in the attic. He needs work. He needs guidance. Mostly, he needs at-bats. He is pretty much working on a half-year of real baseball experience. But in that half-year — 100 games to be exact — he hit 27 homers and drove in 72 runs. If you extrapolated those numbers for a full season, it would be 43 homers and 116 RBIs.

You see why the Tigers are excited.

And why they hope fans will be, too. Let’s face it. With Fielder gone, the man who knocks the most balls over the fence and sweeps in the most runs is going to be the biggest draw for this team — especially given its projected soft pitching. Besides, doesn’t everyone love the cleanup hitter?

“I’m not thinking about the attention I’ll get,” Clark says. But he seems well-suited for it. Personable, intelligent, good with kids. And for those who were tired of watching Cecil’s waistline push the outer limits of his uniform? Well, Clark is the Slim-Fast version.

Opening Day is gone. Wednesday, the Tigers return to reality, small crowds, cold afternoons. But baseball is nothing if not hope. And Clark, like all cleanup hitters, is the personification of hope. So you check his box scores, you follow his growth chart and the summers pass. Today you’re doing it for tradition. One day, maybe, you’re doing it for love.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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