The .400 hitter the Tigers let go to the Padres

As a rookie in 1992, Phil Clark hit .407 for the Detroit Tigers in limited action, but was waived the following year and latched on with the Padres.

The 1992 Tigers were an aging team.

Nearly every important piece of the team was on the wrong side of 30: their opening day starter Bill Gullickson; catcher Mickey Tettleton; double play combo Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell; jack-of-all-trades Tony Phillips; outfielders Dan Gladden, Gary Pettis, and Rob Deer;  bench players Dave Bergman and Skeeter Barnes; and after Gullickson in the rotation there was the almost fossilized Frank Tanana and Walt Terrell. No doubt, skipper Sparky Anderson loved veteran players. But the ’92 Tigers stumbled from the gate (as the geriatric often do) and fell apart early.

The Tigers lost their first six games – three each to the Blue Jays and Yankees – and found themselves six games out of first place after six games! The old adage “The sooner you fall behind the longer you have to catch up,” was all they had to cling to.

Few seasons have been so over so quickly, unfortunately, and despite some decent performances (most notably by Fielder, Deer, Tettleton, and Sweet Lou) the Tigers never got closer than 5 1/2 games of first place after the 0-6 start. The rotation was abysmal after Gully and Tanana: youngsters Kevin Ritz and Scott Aldred proved they weren’t ready for prime time, combining to post an ERA over 6.20 in 24 starts. With an explosive offense, the Tigers won their share of high-scoring games, but were 15-25 in one-run games. Sparky must have went through five pipes that season.

In such circumstances is the opportunity to take a look at some young players, and the Tigers did that as the season wore on (and on). One of the rookies who debuted in ’92 was a hard-hitting catcher named Phil Clark. Clark wasn’t exactly a fresh-faced newbie – he had been in the Detroit organization for six seasons, having been the overall 18th pick in the ’86 amateur draft. The muscular Clark was a high school star out of Texas who ignored college offers to ink a deal with the Tigers. In his first pro season, with Bristol in the Appalachian League, he hit .332 in 66 games against other 18 and 19 year old kids who had just graduated from high school and signed pro deals.

Clark was a catcher but was quickly converted to the outfield and third base in his first few seasons as a Tiger farmhand. He had a strong throwing arm, but Detroit had many catching prospects (and Matt Nokes at the big league level). Everywhere he went as he climbed the organizational ladder, Clark hit well. he batted over .290 in each of his 2nd, 3rd and 4th seasons. In his first year at Triple-A Toledo, the right-handed batter struggled. In his second try, in 1991, he batted .254 with little power. And that was the knock on Clark – he didn’t hit for enough power as a third baseman or corner outfielder. Even as he continued to catch some as well, he was never given a chance to show what he could do at the big league level. The Tigers acquired catcher Tettleton (with his powerful switch-hitting bat) prior to the ’91 campaign.

In 1992 at Toledo, Clark (now 24 years old) showed some power for the first time. He hit 20 doubles and 10 homers in 79 games and posted his highest slugging average as a professional (.465). The Tigers first called him up in late May, and he stayed with the team for about seven weeks, serving as an occasional right fielder, left fielder, and DH off Sparky’s bench. Clark homered against the Twins in his first start, on May 30. Playing mostly at Tiger Stadium, the rookie had his best series against the Red Sox in mid-June, banging out five hits in consecutive games. That lifted his average to .423, but Sparky still used Clark sparingly. Despite a .378 average and .451 on-base percentage, Clark was optioned back to the Mud Hens just after the All-Star break.

The Tigers made Clark one of their September callups, and Clark again performed well at the plate: 5-for-9 with a pair of doubles. But that was it for the youngster, and he ended his first big league trial having appeared in 23 games but producing 22 hits and a .407 batting average. On a disappointing team that won just 75 games and was out of the race all season, Clark was barely noticed. The following spring when he was sent packing, he was barely missed, either. The Tigers invited Clark to the big league camp at Lakeland, but cut him on the eve of opening day. In his eighth pro season and out of options, he was put on the waiver wire. The San Diego Padres snatched him up and added Clark to their 25-man roster. In ’93 with the Padres, Clark hit .313, excelling after he was placed in the regular lineup in June. He spent two more seasons with San Diego as a teammate of his younger brother Jerald Clark, playing first base, the corner outfield, third, and even catching a few games. The Red Sox gave him a brief shot, but by 1996 Clark’s major league career was over. He went to Japan, where he played on the same team as Tuffy Rhodes, who would become a short-lived Wrigley Field legend with the Cubs. Clark finished second in the Japan League in batting in his first season overseas, and was runner-up in homers the next season. Still, no big league clubs came calling. The record shows a .276 average for Clark in 264 games, with 17 homers, and 65 RBI. He’s now a coach in the Pirates’ minor league organization.

Clark’s career .407 batting average with the Tigers is the highest of any player who went to the plate at least 25 times for Detroit – higher than Ty Cobb, Harry Heilmann, Charlie Gehringer, and all the rest. For that, he might be remembered, just a little.

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