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On the eve of the fourth of July, Jack Clark of the St. Louis Cardinals came to the plate in one of his favorite National League parks—one of those with an outfield fence and a pitcher on the mound. Clark settled into his closed stance, waggled his bat like a car antenna, then whipped it through the sultry Georgia air, hitting a Charlie Puleo fastball into the leftfield seats at the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. St. Louis went on to win 9-1.
No eyebrows were raised, no studies commissioned, no experts consulted, no comparisons made. No one laughed in derision. Clark's power numbers in this season of the long ball have nothing to do with the ball's diameter or density, Haitian voodoo or lackluster pitching. Clark says it most simply: "When I hit 'em right, they go."
Approaching this week's All-Star break, the 31-year-old Clark had already gone for 26 home runs, 85 RBIs, 68 runs scored and a .641 slugging percentage, all of which had helped drive the Cardinals to a 9�-game lead in the NL East. Clark has never hit 30 home runs in a season during his 11-year career, and only once has he driven in as many as 100 runs. But the thunder in his bat comes as a shock to almost nobody in baseball.
One recent evening, Mike Schmidt sat back in the home dugout at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. Fresh in Schmidt's mind was the Cards' 12-8 win over the Phillies the night before, when Clark had homered and doubled. "Jack is in the hot spot now," said Schmidt. "In the four hole on that club, there's no telling what Jack can do if he stays healthy."
"Jack provides us with intangibles that aren't reflected in his raw statistics," says teammate Tom Herr. "He's the one real intimidator we have in our lineup. When you have a bee in the middle of the lineup with a big stinger like he has, teams are so worried about stopping him that they forget about some of our other weapons. Then all the little bees with little stingers can do some damage."
Two years ago, the Cards and Clark, who was in his first season with St. Louis after eight full years with San Francisco, won the pennant and led the NL in runs scored with 747. Clark missed 96 games last year with torn ligaments in his right thumb, and St. Louis finished 79-82—28� games behind the Mets—and last in the league in runs. Now, with Clark producing at an MVP pace, the Cards lead the league with 5.7 runs per game, and own baseball's best record.
"I don't know if the balls are juiced," Clark says. "Me, I'm just hitting. And I'm gonna keep on hitting. I'm not so worried about living up to what people think about me or say about me anymore. I don't care. I just think about the next at bat."
Truth to tell, Clark has been the National League's best-kept secret for 10 years. Controversy, humor and original thoughts are not his style. He doesn't rip teammates in the media or put shaving cream in their caps. He doesn't chew champagne glasses or inhale beer through his nose. He doesn't endorse anything special. Yet if there were a category for cold sweat induced, he would lead the league. With the bat in his hands, Clark is a pitcher's nightmare.
But while the opposing teams always respected his ability, they took comfort in knowing that Clark seemed incapable of playing an entire season. Pitchers could usually count on Clark's sidelining himself mentally or physically by falling into a mood, stepping into a hole, sliding into a base the wrong way or overswinging. He missed an average of 79 games in each of the past three seasons. A surgical knee benched him for 105 games with the Giants in '84, a pulled muscle under his rib cage cost him 36 with the Cardinals in '85, and thumb surgery put him out for those 96 games in '86.
As a result, until this season the three-run, ninth-inning home run he hit off Tom Niedenfuer at Dodger Stadium to give the Cardinals the '85 pennant was Clark's main claim to fame. Niedenfuer had struck out Clark with a fastball on his previous trip to the plate in that game, and he was feeling cocky. "I can understand it," said Schmidt. "Maybe Tommy Lasorda tells Niedenfuer to pitch around Jack, not give him anything good to hit. But pitchers can feel they are better, too, just like hitters can. So he tries to throw it by Jack and...." And Niedenfuer—now pitching for Baltimore—hasn't been the same since.