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As usual, David Clyde, the Texas Ranger bonus baby, was having trouble with his curveball. Warming up in the bullpen, he was not even conscious of the drizzle or the cold or the young boy, his arms outspread like wings, who was tightrope-walking across the top of the outfield fence. The boy stopped directly above Clyde's catcher, began to totter, regained his balance with a furious flapping of his arms, and then just stood there, watching, his arms outspread, while below Clyde warmed up in preparation for a night game at Wahconah Park, home of the Pittsfield, Mass. Rangers of the Double-A Eastern League.
Before every pitch, Clyde's routine was the same. He pressed his feet primly together on the wet grass (it was too muddy to throw from the mound), bowed his head, joined his ball and glove hands at his waist as if in prayer, and then, after a contemplative pause, began his motion. Always at the same point, his motion faltered. Just as his throwing arm passed the side of his head the arm dropped slightly and his elbow tucked into the side of his body as if he were flinching from pain or maybe fear, all of which caused the ball to travel in a high lazy arc toward his catcher, who invariably caught it at what would have been the batter's eye level.
"It's always at the same point," said Clyde. "When I get right here, just when I'm ready to release the ball, something in the back of my mind tells me, 'I don't have it!' and my arm drops and I just roll it up there. I've lost my confidence in it. In high school I had a good breaking ball; I used to throw it for a strike with a 3-1 count. But once I got to the bigs everybody started preaching to me that my breaking ball needed work, that it wasn't real good. I started trying too hard, changed my rhythm, and lost it. I started thinking too much, too, instead of just going out there and throwing with that easy simple rhythm I had in high school."
In 1973, when David Clyde was a senior at Westchester High School in Houston, he compiled an 18-0 record, an 0.18 ERA and accumulated 328 strikeouts in 148? innings to become the most sought-after amateur pitcher in the country. Beyond such statistics and his obvious physical talent (superior, if not super, major league fastball; good curve-ball), he had, according to Jackie Moore, then a Texas coach, now the Pittsfield manager, "such poise that I told the front office there wouldn't be much need to work with him."
The lowly Rangers made Clyde their first draft choice, gave him a $125,000 bonus, and then, amid much fanfare, announced that he would start his first major league game only 19 days after he graduated from high school. He was 18 years old. There was some controversy at the time about the wisdom of subjecting one so young to major league pressures. Ranger Manager Whitey Herzog said he had seen too many young pitchers ruined by being asked to do too much too soon. "A kid takes a shellacking or two," said Herzog, "and his confidence suffers." On the other hand, Bob Short, owner of the team, claimed that Clyde could handle the pressure, that he had the poise to be a big-league pitcher, and then, in his own defense, added, "Look, I've got a big investment here. I'm not going to risk losing it by ruining Clyde's career for the sake of one big box-office appearance."
It was no secret that Short was in dire financial straits after having transplanted the Rangers from Washington. The team was a perennial last-place finisher and had yet to prove it could draw substantial crowds. Short was accused of using David Clyde to save his franchise by hyping the gate. Which he did. In a circus-like atmosphere (Polynesian dancers, two lion cubs, a man dressed in feathers and scales) Clyde drew 35,698 fans to his debut, which he won, and similar crowds to each of the next few games he pitched at Arlington, Texas. Eventually, spectators who had come to see the novelty of a high school youth pitching against major-leaguers began to appear at the ball park on nights Clyde wasn't working. They had discovered baseball and the Rangers, who, shortly thereafter, be—came a respectable team worthy of such attention. Ironically enough, once the Rangers became respectable they could no longer afford the luxury of pitching an unsteady but potentially talented youth in increasingly important games. Clyde got less and less work in 1974, became less and less confident and suffered through a 3-9 season (he was 4-8 in '73) while his teammates were making a run for the division title. In spring training this year he pitched very little because of a tonsillectomy, and then he was shipped out to Pitts-field of the Eastern League.
"There's no doubt about it," says Moore, "he was the drawing card that saved the franchise. He's changed a lot since then, though. He's not so confident now. His problems are mostly mental. He's lost that relaxed attitude he had in high school."
Sitting in the stands at Wahconah Park, watching batting practice before a game with Quebec City, David Clyde, 20 now, is dressed in jeans and sneakers and a soiled suede jacket. He is smoking one cigarette after another. The only reminder of past glory is the ring on his left hand. It is a huge ring, with DAVID in diamonds underlined with rubies. "I'll never forget it," says Clyde. "It was such an emotional thrill I can't put it in words. Even if I never go back, at least I tasted the good life. I was so confident that first game. I was throwing 3-1 curveballs. I wanted to show them what I had. Then I started to lose a few—I don't remember the losses much, only the wins—and I began to outthink myself. I felt I had to pitch different than I did in high school, but I was wrong. If I could pitch that way again I'd be right in there. You can't do something that doesn't come naturally to you. Then, my life-style affected my pitching, too. I really enjoyed myself there, you know what I mean. I maybe got caught up in things that weren't me. Nothing bad, really, just the kind of things any young kid is gonna do, keeping late hours and everything. Even if you're straight in the big leagues you keep strange hours.
"I'm just now getting out of the whirlwind of things. I'm trying to simplify my life again, to get it back the way it was in high school. I guess you can't pitch like you did in high school if you aren't the same person you were then. I've got business interests now. I love fine wines, you know, good-looking women. There's some good-looking women here in Pitts-field, but I don't know where they go at night. I sure can't find them. If I did, what could I say, 'Hey, you want to go out with an ex-major league star?' I'm in the process of a divorce, now, too. It was all my fault. Gee, I don't know why any major-leaguer gets married. You're never home. I admit I'm no all-American boy, if there is such a thing. It's just like the American Dream. Everyone visualizes what it is but no one ever gets it. But I'm getting more relaxed now, I think. I know what I want out of life. And I've got all the time in the world. Heck, I'm not going anyplace."
In his first three starting assignments with Pittsfield, Clyde was predictably wild. He walked 11 batters in 13? innings. He lost two games and won none. "I didn't pitch that good," he says, "but I wasn't that bad, either. I was wild but it was cold, too. I couldn't even feel the ball in my hands. You can't pitch...aw, what am I saying. I was lousy, that's all." His fourth start of the season was against Quebec City on that cold, drizzly evening in Pittsfield. David Clyde pitched a six-hit shutout, the first shutout of his professional career. He walked only two batters and struck out 12 in nine innings. Still, it was not exactly what he had been looking for. In the early innings he simply overpowered the Quebec batters with his major league fastball. Of the 13 curveballs he threw in the first four innings, only four were strikes. Then, in the fifth inning, with the bases loaded and no outs, he was forced to resort to his curveball either because the batters were starting to hit his fastball, or because he had come to some inner realization. He struck out the next batter on two sharp curveballs, got the next on a fastball, and then set up the last batter with a curve-ball and struck him out with a fastball. In the last five innings, Clyde threw 16 curveballs, 11 of them strikes. In the Rangers' cramped clubhouse after the game, amid a lot of shouting and laughing not unlike that which surrounded Clyde in high school, he said, "I'm really happy. It's great to be alive, eh? Baseball is starting to be fun again."