In the third inning of a spring training game at Scottsdale Stadium in Arizona last month, San Francisco Giant Will Clark ripped a fastball sharply past first base for what seemed a certain two-base hit. But no. Oakland Athletics first baseman Mark McGwire dived for the ball, speared it on the second hop and crawled to the bag, barely beating the runner. Then Clark did an unusual thing. As he crossed the base, he reached down and patted the kneeling McGwire on the head.
It was a revealing gesture. Clark's enthusiasm for the game is such that a fine play by an opposing player will elicit an exuberant response. The head pat was also a way of showing the crowd that he's a good sport, and Clark is an unregenerate crowd-pleaser. But perhaps more than anything else, the pat was this supremely confident young man's way of saying to a kindred star and a rival for fan and press attention in the same metropolitan area, "O.K., good buddy, you got me this time, but my turn is coming." As for McGwire, he merely nodded and went about his business. That says volumes about him as well.
In truth, Clark and McGwire are friendly rivals who have much in common besides their extraordinary ability. They play the same position, and they were both college All-Americas, McGwire at Southern Cal, Clark at Mississippi State. They were teammates on the 1984 U.S. Olympic baseball team. They were first-round draft choices, McGwire by Oakland in 1984, Clark by San Francisco in 1985. They are both 24 (McGwire is not quite six months older). And they play on opposite sides of San Francisco Bay in ballparks not 30 minutes apart. In all probability, there have not been two such exceptional players of the same age at the same position in such close geographical proximity since Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays broke in with the New York Yankees and New York Giants, respectively, 37 years ago.
And make no mistake, Clark and McGwire are the genuine article. Clark, in his second major league season, hit .308 with 35 homers and 91 RBIs for the National League West champion Giants in 1987. He became the first Giant to bat better than .300 and hit more than 30 homers in a single season since Willie McCovey did it in 1969, and only the seventh in the franchise's history, joining such distinguished company as Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Walker Cooper, Johnny Mize and Mel Ott. He batted safely in six of the seven League Championship Series games and hit a game-winning two-run homer off the Cardinals' John Tudor in Game 2. His teammates voted him their MVP, and he is considered by connoisseurs of the art of hitting to have the finest natural swing in the game. The Natural, in fact, is one of several nicknames he has accumulated in a career virtually unblemished by failure. Most people, however, just call him Will the Thrill.
Impressive as they may be, Clark's '87 figures are like flyspecks compared with those of his cross-Bay confrere. McGwire set an alltime rookie record by hitting 49 home runs, breezing past the old mark of 38, shared by Wally Berger and Frank Robinson, on Aug. 14. He drove in 118 runs, batted .289 and had the highest slugging percentage (.618) in the majors. He became only the second player, after Carlton Fisk in 1972, to be chosen unanimously by the Baseball Writers Association of America as AL Rookie of the Year. And yet McGwire almost didn't make the team in spring training and only began to play regularly at first base in late April.
Clark and McGwire may have youth and talent in common, but they are as dissimilar in temperament and style as, say, Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger. They don't even see the world the same way. Clark has 20-13 vision in both eyes, and McGwire can't read the Big E on the eye chart without his contact lenses. McGwire is a private and shy man, desperately uncomfortable with his sudden celebrity. He is such an ardent family man that he passed up a chance to hit his 50th home run last year to be at the side of his wife, Kathy, during the birth of their son, Matthew. Clark, on the other hand, is a bachelor with a bevy of girlfriends, one of whom is a former Miss San Francisco. He is a popular man-about-town who frequents many of San Francisco's in restaurants and relishes the attention he receives.
On the field McGwire is workmanlike and undemonstrative, while Clark's every move seems calculated to attract notice, a characteristic he shares with an illustrious predecessor, Mays. McGwire is polite and quiet; Clark is brash and talkative. "There's not a shy bone in this body," says the Thrill, and his natural ebullience occasionally causes him, as teammate Mike Krukow puts it, to "stick his finger in the pan."
One such occasion was the celebration following San Francisco's division-clinching win in San Diego last Sept. 28. Broadcaster Gary Park was positioned in the Giants' clubhouse for live interviews on San Francisco television station KTVU when Clark came whooping and hollering past his camera, clutching a bottle of champagne. "Are you going to drink that stuff or spray it?" Park inquired, chuckling nervously. Clark did neither. Instead he stared wild-eyed into the camera, blurted out the F word and shouted, most inappropriately for a second-year player, "I've been waiting a lo-o-o-o-ng time for this." After that he became known, briefly, as Will the Shrill.
McGwire was an unheralded rookie in April. By midseason he had become the Bambino reincarnated, but he was so humble about it that he aroused neither resentment nor envy among his teammates. Says coach Jim Lefebvre, "He had an attitude you'd like to copy and distribute to all young players."
Clark came to the Giants as a can't-miss star after only 65 games in Class A ball, and he hit a home run off Nolan Ryan in his first major league at bat. Because he's incapable of tempering his soaring enthusiasm, he became the target of more than the usual hazing from the older Giants. Once he returned to the clubhouse and found that a treasured pair of lizard-skin cowboy boots had been mysteriously painted a hideous orange. He accepted the cruel joke with such good humor that he won over all but the crankiest of his teammates. "He handled the pranks with the grace of a veteran," says chief prankster Bob Brenly. "He can laugh at himself," adds Krukow, "and that's essential in this game."