Each off-season, he went home to the serenity of Bath. In 1993, '94 and '95 he pitched for the Indians, and in '96 for the New York Mets. In one stretch of eight starts in '96 he went 6-1 with a 1.97 ERA. He began the '97 season with the Mets and finished with the Cubs. As a Cub in '97 he started nine games and had a 6-1 record with a 2.86 ERA. That, coupled with the torrid stretch in '96 with the Mets, stimulated the kind of wishful thinking that shapes baseball economics. The Cubs, seeking to avoid salary arbitration, signed Clark for the '98 season for $5 million, more than he had earned in his previous decade in professional baseball. It didn't work out. Clark went 9-14 with a 4.84 ERA. He became a free agent after the '98 season and signed on with the highest bidder, the Rangers, for $9.3 million, guaranteed, over two years.
Clark didn't pitch much in 1999 because of a ligament tear in his pitching elbow, and in 2000 the Rangers didn't use him much. In June, Tom Hicks, the team's owner, called Clark's signing a mistake, and the pitcher became testy. He told the beat writers, "Since I'm a mistake, I don't see any reason to be here." Soon after, Texas released him. The Rangers paid him off for the '00 season, as they were required to do, and Clark was done with baseball.
"I would have loved to play longer, but I always told Amy I wouldn't overstay my welcome," Clark says, sitting at his kitchen table, tugging at his camouflage cap as if he were still pitching out of a jam. "The fact is, I wasn't getting guys out." Also, he had that other life: a family to raise and hunting land to manage and the money to do both, money enough to do as he pleased. He returned to Bath for good. His final numbers were just fine: 74 wins, 71 losses, 4.61 ERA, $19.8 million earned.
He was in Bath when Brandon was born in December 2000, and when Allyson, who is seven, began playing T-ball last year. He was on his way to the hospital in March '03 when his mother, a breast cancer survivor, died of kidney failure at age 73. He was in town three months later when Pot, who is now 82, needed to go to the hospital, despondent over his wife's death and, the doctor said, dehydrated from lack of fluids.
This summer, like last summer, Clark will play in an afternoon golf league, on the nine-hole golf course in Bath. Last summer he went down to Springfield occasionally to meet with Donnie Beechler, a Silver Crown Series dirt-car racer he was backing. He and Beechler are still associated, and Clark and his buddies also go to NASCAR races in a large RV he recently bought.
Some days Clark climbs into his big truck and drives to fund-raisers in central Illinois, and occasionally he writes checks to the charities that are important to him, particularly the Children's Hospital of Illinois, in Peoria, and Ducks Unlimited. He's on the board of the Illinois Conservation Foundation. Somehow the days get filled up—the long summer days, the short winter days, the hunting days, all of them.
He follows his old teams and teammates in the Springfield paper and on TV. He's aware that they are working and he is not, and that does not bother him one bit.
On one ordinary working day in baseball, the Cardinals beat another of Clark's former teams, the Cubs. The wounds have healed, and Clark is a Cardinals fan again; last year he bought a tiny St. Louis uniform for his son. That same day, the Indians lost to the Minnesota Twins, and the Mets beat the Cincinnati Reds. The Rangers, a team Clark does not root for, beat the Seattle Mariners. Thome went hitless as the Phillies lost to the Florida Marlins. Frenchy did not pitch.
It was a busy day in Bath as people came to town from all over to launch their boats in the Illinois River and spend the day fishing or waterskiing or tubing or mucking around. Clark rose early, as he does most every morning, and went to his hunting club. Later he and Phelps boarded Clark's 19-foot fishing boat, a retirement gift from Thome, and cruised up and down the river. The day was hot, and Mark checked up on Pot, to make sure his father didn't have any wild notions about doing some adventurous outdoor activity on a day his doctor wanted him to stay inside. For dinner the retired pitcher took Amy and the kids up to Havana, to a restaurant called Rich Desserts, for the Friday-night seafood buffet. Mark loaded up on the buffalo fish, caught locally and deep-fried. It was late by the time they got home, past 10:30 p.m.
Mark helped get the kids into their beds and then, exhausted, crawled into his. He didn't even check the baseball scores, not until morning. His money made money while he slept.