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Sports Corner

A Giant salute to 22

Team retires the number of first baseman Will Clark this month

Giants fans from the Marina district to the far reaches of the Bay Area are circling July 30 on their pocket schedules so they’ll be there at Oracle Park when Will Clark’s number 22 joins the row of Giants’ retired numbers. Prior to the game against the Chicago Cubs, Clark and his family will be seated in a row of chairs in front of the pitcher’s mound, alongside former teammates, Giants’ brass, and fellow number retirees.

At the climactic moment, his number will be unveiled between Monte Irvin’s 20 and Willie Mays’s 24, with a full house of hosannas cascading from the stands to one of the most beloved figures ever to don the orange and black.

The ceremony was originally scheduled for 2020, but was postponed due to Covid, and Clark has been busy fine-tuning his acceptance speech. “I’ve had it written for two years, and I pulled it out recently to practice it,” said Clark. “It’ll be emotional, no doubt, so I’ve got to find a way to do it without falling apart.”

‘LOTS OF HARD WORK’

The Giants made the first baseman their number one pick in the 1984 June draft from Mississippi State University, where Clark played in the College World Series and was a key member of Team USA at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. During his eight seasons with the Giants, he was a man of many nicknames.

When he homered off Nolan Ryan in his first Major League at-bat at the Astrodome in 1986, he was quickly christened “The Natural,” in reference to Robert Redford’s film portrayal of fictional baseball folk hero Roy Hobbs. “It was an okay label, but there was nothing natural about any of it,” Clark said. “Whatever I was able to accomplish in baseball was the result of lots of hard work.”

A MAN OF MANY NAMES

His teammates dubbed him “Nuschler” for the determined scowl that would take over his face during a tight game. It wasn’t a made-up term. In fact, it’s Clark’s middle name. “My great grandmother’s maiden name was Nuschler. In the South, it was not uncommon for a middle name to be a family name,” said the New Orleans native. “Dad was senior, I was junior, and my son is the third. He goes by ‘Trey’.”

Clark’s most enduring moniker, and his personal favorite, is “The Thrill” for the countless times he came through in the clutch. Teammate Kevin Mitchell often said, “Will’s the type of player who always wants the bat in his hands when the game is on the line.”

Said Clark, “That’s the attitude every player should have. Those who don’t, I’ve found, often don’t succeed in those kinds of situations. You’ve got to want to be in the pressure cooker.”

A classic example took place at Candlestick Park on Oct. 9, 1989, in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 5 of the National League Championship Series against the Cubs. With 62,084 fans screaming from the stands, Clark stepped to the plate to face closer Mitch Williams. After falling behind in the count 0-2, he stepped out, took a deep breath and put on his “Nuschler” face. Recalled Clark, “A few pitches later, I got a fastball over the plate and was able to knock it up the middle for a single.” Two runs scored on Clark’s decisive hit, which brought San Francisco its first National League pennant since 1962.

But perhaps a more far-reaching impact on baseball and sports in general occurred in Game 1 of the NLCS at Wrigley Field. Clark was already 2-for-2 off Greg Maddux when Cubs’ manager Don Zimmer emerged from the dugout for a meeting on the mound.

From the on-deck circle, Clark’s eyes were laser-focused on the conference taking place, and he turned to Mitchell standing nearby and said, “Did you see that?” Mitchell replied, “See what?”

“I saw Maddux mouth the words ‘fastball in’, and that was all I needed to know,” said Clark, who proceeded to clobber Maddux’s first offering into the right field stands for a grand-slam homer that sealed an 11-3 Giants’ victory.

Today, when Clark sees everyone covering their mouths during on-field meetings, or better yet, football coaches doing the same calling plays from the sidelines, he has to chuckle.

Still, Clark said, “Looking back on it, I wish to God I never mentioned it after the game. I should have kept my trap shut, and no one would have known.”

Imagine that. William Nuschler Clark Jr., lip-reader. Who would have thought? So why didn’t anyone ever call him “Mr. Peepers?”

“No way,” said “The Thrill.” “I’ve got more than enough nicknames already.”

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