Thus began a confusing period in Clark's athletic development. After a brief stint in Rookie League baseball that summer, Clark joined the basketball team at Arizona, where during a November practice he landed awkwardly on a teammate's foot and wrenched his back. A month later he abruptly left school because he wasn't playing much and wasn't getting along with Wildcats coach Lute Olson. In August '91, after he had transferred to San Diego State to play basketball, Clark had surgery for a herniated disk, which he believes dated back to his brief stay at Arizona.
While continuing his college basketball career, Clark played baseball each of the next two summers, but the Tigers grew increasingly frustrated with him. "He was a mixed-up kid," says Larry Parrish, Clark's manager at Class A Niagara Falls in '92. "Sometimes he'd have tears in his eyes. He didn't know what to do. I'd have him with me mentally for a day or two, and then I wouldn't."
Says Clark, "I was a natural in hoops, but that dream was slipping away, and I was faced with playing a sport I hardly knew. The uncertainty was killing me."
The issue was settled for good in the winter of '92, when one of Clark's legs went numb from further disk problems. He realized that continuing to play basketball was too debilitating and he would have to quit.
After having been limited by injuries to a total of only 88 minor league baseball games from '90 to '93, Clark finally played close to a full season in '94, collecting 23 homers and 99 RBIs while dividing his time between Double A and Triple A ball. He had another stellar season at Triple A Toledo in '95, but he was stuck behind Cecil Fielder on the Tigers' depth chart. Then, as the '96 trade deadline approached, Fielder was dealt to the Yankees. Clark made the most of his opportunity, out-homering Fielder, 15-13, the rest of the way. "Tony can be a dominant force, no question," says Fielder. "He's got an opportunity to do some real heavy stuff in this game."
At week's end, Clark had played roughly the equivalent of one major league season, 156 games, and had hit .256 with 39 home runs and 114 RBIs. He had nine homers and 31 RBIs in '97 and was hitting .294 even though he had endured 1-for-26 and 1-for-20 slumps and had struck out once in every three at bats.
"Clark is young and still learning, but he asks all the right questions," Tigers manager Buddy Bell says. "There's no telling what this kid's going to do when he gets more than 1,000 at bats in pro ball."
The RBI Machine
When Tino Martinez set the major league record of 34 RBIs in the month of April, it represented an unusually torrid start for the Yankees first baseman. During the five previous Aprils of his career, Martinez had a grand total of 45 RBIs.
"He always gets big base hits," says teammate Paul O'Neill. "Tino has the same approach every time he's up there. A lot of guys change their swing, depending on who they're facing, if it's a lefty or righty, what inning it is, what the score is or if they're in a slump. Tino never changes. He knows that sooner or later he's going to get a pitch he'll like. And he always seems to be ready."