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8 Upper

Thrilled to Death

By Tom Scocca | Posted 8/25/1999

The principle that an athlete shouldn't lose his or her job due to an injury is a mostly admirable one, and one of the few remaining traces of decency and sportsmanship in the otherwise amoral world of professional sports. In the case of Will Clark, down for the rest of the baseball season with bone chips in his elbow, the Orioles should ignore it. If Clark's stout belly is still filling an Orioles uniform next Opening Day, the team will have taken one of its biggest mistakes of 1999 and made it worse.

True, the Orioles have committed $5.5 million to Clark for next season. Those millions are already wasted. If Peter Angelos is serious about using his money to build a winner, he should take one more hint from George Steinbrenner: Cut your losses. When Steinbrenner's Yankees signed Kenny Rogers to a multimillion-dollar deal and Rogers started pitching like crap, the Boss kicked him out of the starting rotation and then shipped him to the Oakland A's, eating most of his salary for the sake of getting rid of a losing player.

That's where the Orioles are with Clark. If they can find a team that needs a left-handed pinch hitter—which is all the aging and crumbling Will the Thrill can be counted on for anymore—they should trade him, even if they have to keep paying his salary, and even if they can't get anything more than a sack of used towels in return. If they can't find a team to take him, they should dump him anyway. Buy him a deck chair and a cabana at the Dan Ford Clinic. Get him out of town.

Even before Clark's latest nagging injury turned out to be a season-ender, the Orioles should have been thinking about getting rid of him, or at least benching him in favor of Jeff Conine. This became clear to me Aug. 19, while I was watching Conine go 4-for-4, knock in two runs, and make a couple of slick plays behind the bag at first in a 9-3 win over the Twins.

I'm not ready to recant, exactly, my belief that the Orioles were wrong to trade for Conine this past spring (8 Upper, 4/7). They gave up a young pitcher, Chris Fussell, to get Conine, then they cut a young third baseman, Willis Otanez, to make room for him on the major-league roster. That was too much to sacrifice for the sake of adding another first baseman/left fielder/DH—that is, a guy without a position—to a team already overstocked with no-position players.

But now that Conine is here, he's turned out to be much better than I expected—decent with the glove and sound, if not spectacular, with the bat. He's nowhere near being one of the league's elite first basemen, but the Orioles are nowhere near being an elite team. On a squad still deluded about its abilities, he goes out and does his job properly and reliably.

This is the stark opposite of what Clark has done. It's hard to blame a player for getting hurt, or a team for having a player who gets hurt. But the Clark debacle is a special case. Who should get the blame here? God? God, it just so happens, had served up plenty of notice about Will Clark's physical condition. When the Orioles signed Clark this past off-season, he hadn't played 150 games in a season since 1990. Omitting the strike-shortened '94 campaign, he'd missed an average of more than 30 games a season. If he was a car, he'd have been coughing smoke and dragging his muffler.

It took a desperate and stupid team to ignore all the evidence and offer Clark a two-year contract after losing Rafael Palmeiro to the Rangers. For one brief moment this spring, when Palmeiro had to get knee surgery, it looked as if the arrangement might have succeeded despite itself. But Palmeiro bounced back and started hitting. And Clark got hurt, and hurt, and hurt.

His first injury, a broken thumb on a bad-hop grounder, could have been chalked up to luck—if you ignore the fact that a brittle guy with failing reflexes is more likely than average to get hurt by a ground ball. But the elbow that finished him off? By Clark's own admission, that elbow has been damaged for more than a decade.

And still Clark and the Orioles act as if it's some sort of freak accident, and everything's going to be OK next season. When he went down, Clark had a total of 10 home runs and a pathetic 29 RBIs; through Aug. 22, Palmeiro had 37 homers and 117 RBIs. Just before he admitted he was finished, Clark had been blaming his low RBI total on the fact he was batting near the bottom of the lineup. Never mind that the main requirement for a top-of-the-order hitter is that he be around every day to answer the bell.

Next to a guy like Clark, Conine looks more and more like a blessing. When first base is otherwise occupied, he plays a serviceable left field. Clark, when he can't play first, is a left-handed DH—and he's not half as good at it as the O's full-time left-handed DH, Harold Baines.

Beyond Conine's competence, evident brains, and versatility, his other great asset is that he's dispensable. If Calvin Pickering is ready for the majors now, Conine can go back on the bench as a utility man. If not, Conine can hold down first base till Pickering's time does come—or till someone better shows up—without being a disgrace or a disappointment. He'll have the job as long as he deserves it, and as long as the club needs him. Too bad the same can't be said about Clark.

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