They came from towns and farms all over Iowa whenever Marshall-town High catcher Jeff Clement played. They filled the stands at Bobcat Field, sat along the foul lines on lawn chairs, gathered on the knoll beyond centerfield, stood on the football bleachers beyond leftfield, watched from nearby rooftops. The entire state, it seemed, wanted to catch a glimpse of the Great Home Run Chase of 2002. "Every night," says athletic director Tim Bell, "the atmosphere was absolutely electric."
Clement, a 6'1", 205-pound lefthanded hitter, entered his senior season needing 12 home runs to break the national high school career record of 70, set in 1998 by Brighton ( Mich.) High's Drew Henson, now with the New York Yankees. As Clement neared the record in late June, another player from Iowa, Winterset High's James Peterson, was also chasing Henson. Clement got to 71 first, on July 3, but three weeks later he and Peterson were tied at 73 as the state tournament began. The scholastic version of McGwire-Sosa had Iowa radio stations interrupting their programming with live coverage each time one of the principals stepped to the plate.
In the first game of the tournament, at Bobcat Field, Clement homered twice. Playing later that day, Peterson couldn't answer, and Winterset was eliminated. Clement ultimately led Marshalltown to the state title and finished with 75 homers. "I was surprised [the record] got so much attention," says Clement, who was drafted in the 12th round by the Twins but chose to accept a baseball scholarship to USC.
Clement's other passion is painting. Last spring his pastel of flowers and water pitchers won top prize in a regional competition. "Jeff has a great ability to interpret space," says Mary Anne Tordsen, his art teacher. It was his artistry with the bat, though, that made the summer of 2002 special. "Jeff gave people something positive to follow," says his father, Brad, principal of Miller Middle School. "The record captivated this community."