Tell Me When It's Over is an interview series in which we ask former athletes about the moment they knew their playing days were over. Today, with the MLB amateur draft beginning in a matter of hours: Pitcher David Clyde, the No. 1 pick in the 1973 draft and now an object lesson in how not to handle young talent.
At the time, no one in baseball would have disagreed with the Texas Rangers' pick. In his senior year at Houston's Westchester High School, Clyde went 18-0 and averaged more than two strikeouts an inning. It was what happened after the draft—the attempt to transform an 18-year-old kid into a major league pitcher almost overnight—that proved problematic.
Consider the context: Owner Bob Short's relocation of the team from Washington was not going well. The Rangers had lost 100 games in 1972 and were on their way to losing 105 games in 1973. Manager Ted Williams had quit after only one season, and the team had never come close to selling out a single game. Until, that is, the night of David Clyde's professional debut.
Just 19 days after he left high school, David Clyde, wearing the number 32 of his idol Sandy Koufax, pitched five innings against the Minnesota Twins. The game was bizarre in so many ways. In the top half of the second inning, Clyde walked four Twins and gave up his only hit, a two-run homer to the No. 9 hitter, Mike Adams, one of only three home runs Adams would hit in his major league career. That same inning, Larry Hisle and Jerry Terrell would steal bases, Steve Braun and Rod Carew would be thrown out trying, Rangers catcher Ken Suarez would commit a throwing error, and Clyde would strike out catcher Phil Roof looking.
Clyde picked up the win that night, striking out eight and walking seven in those five innings. A sell-out crowd of 35,698 was announced, with a reported 10,000 more turned away at the gate. The attendance beat the Rangers' previous high by more than 10,000 people and beat the following night's crowd by more than 30,000. Clyde was a certified draw, and Short, the owner, made some much-needed money back. But in September, Short fired first-year manager and future Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog in favor of Billy Martin, who had arranged his own departure from the Tigers just seven days before.
Clyde went 3-9 in 1974, dipping in and out of the starting lineup and all but getting buried in the bullpen during the stretch run. He pitched in just one game for Texas in 1975 before returning to the major leagues with Cleveland in 1978 and '79. His overall record in the majors was 18 and 33 with an ERA of 4.63. After yet another arm injury during spring training with Texas in 1980, Clyde pitched in both Double-A and Triple-A in 1981 in an attempted comeback with his hometown Houston Astros.
He threw his final major league pitch in Fenway Park on Aug. 7, 1979, plunking future Red Sox Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski.
David Clyde now coaches at the Miracles Baseball Academy in Houston.
* * *
God does not reach down and make your arm a thunderbolt at a given point. God gives you that gift at birth.
Baseball's been in my family for a long, long time. My great-grandfather had maybe a lump of sugar with the Cincinnati Reds in the early 1900s. My dad played semi-pro until he got hurt. So I grew up with baseball in my family. And I dreamed of playing it at the highest level.
Baseball was always my love and my focus. I played the other sports just basically as a means to get through to baseball season. Baseball was always the love.
The biggest thing that makes you think you are something is in how you go and perform against your peers. And it's not always measured in wins and losses, because some things are out of your control as a kid. In baseball your defense isn't as reliable as it is as you get older. You realize you have a gift when you throw, and you throw the ball harder than anybody else around. You hit the ball farther than anybody else around on a consistent basis. And then you start competing against older kids, and you measure up there.
None of us in my family demanded that I pitch in the big leagues. The only thing we asked for was a major league contract. Because by virtue of getting a major league contract, we were on the 40-man roster. Which meant that, by the time I'd have been 21 years old, they would've had to use all my options and I would've either been in the big leagues with the Rangers or eligible to be drafted by another team. And that is the only thing we asked for. Everything else was offered and, I'm sorry, I'm an 18-year-old kid. You're offering me to go to the big leagues? I don't think anybody in today's world would turn that offer down.
* * *
My biggest fault was—and I fought this, I think, my entire career, although I started to overcome some of it with Cleveland—was that I always thought I had to be better than I was.
My first pitching coach was Chuck Estrada, and I have nothing but praise to sing for those people. I mean, basically they told me that they were going to leave me alone. If any changes were to be made they'd be done the following spring. We're just going to let you go and throw the way you've always thrown.
OK, I'm going from high school to the big leagues? Well, you know [laughs], you're not facing high school hitters anymore, where eight out of 10 of them I can just overmatch. I'm facing the best of the best, and now my talent's got to make this big a jump. Instead of just sticking with my natural ability, just nice and relaxed, I forced things. I thought my curveball had to be that much better. I thought I had to throw that much harder. Though I don't know how much harder I could've thrown.
I'd get geared up some nights and you knew it was coming, I knew it was coming and you couldn't catch up to it.
* * *
Baseball is a business. Even a bigger business today than it was back then. I was a means to an end at the time. Rather than looking at a long-term investment, Bob Short was looking at a short-term investment. Long-term, things, quite possibly, could've turned out differently.
Bob Short was not the villain. Bob Short was hurting for money. The ballclub was putting a tremendous financial drain on his resources, and Bob needed to sell the ballclub.
Everybody wants to leave a mark. You know what I'm the symbol of? Of how not to handle young talent.
Bob Short is really the epitome of the American Dream. Bob Short was a self-made millionaire. Bob Short owned the Minneapolis Lakers. So in a lot of ways Bob is to be admired.
When Whitey was fired in September of '73, it was probably the worst possible thing that could happen. For me.
If you really want to get down to the real villain in this, and I'll accept my share of the blame, it was Billy Martin. Well, Billy Martin, and the front office at that time, while Billy was the manager, for allowing to happen what Billy did.
Billy did not want me on the ballclub in 1974.
There are several things that are known about Billy, or were known about Billy. Billy was known for being able to get an extra year or two out of players everybody else thought were washed up. Now, Billy did not like young players. I was a young player, strike one. Billy did not like pitchers. I was a pitcher, strike two. And maybe the biggest one of all—and believe me, I in no way, shape or form asked to be the center of attention—but by virtue of the circumstances, the perfect storm that occurred at that time, I was the center of attention. And Billy had Napoleon's disease. Strike three.
I got discouraged and maybe didn't take as good care of myself as I should have. But like I said, I'm going to put some of the blame on the front office people at that time for allowing to occur what happened. I was 19 years old, still somewhat naïve about things, and thinking that, OK, my managers and my coaches and my bosses care about me. And yet I was allowed to sit and not even allowed to work on my craft, to polish it. And the people, in my opinion, who should've been looking after me and their investment just turned their heads to it.
I accept the blame for not taking care of myself as best as I could have, as far as off the field. I wasn't allowed to work on the field like I wanted to work.
I did maintain my conditioning, because I wanted to pitch. When you come to the ballpark and you haven't started in three weeks, and all of a sudden one of your starting pitchers backs out because he doesn't want to possibly lose his 20th ballgame, yeah, I'll take that start.
* * *
You know, not trying to make any excuses, I'm still only 19 years old and there's no one anywhere near my age on the ballclub. Now I don't know if the younger players stayed away from me because of envy. And I don't know if some of the older players were out to take advantage of me because of my youthfulness.
As I was beginning my workouts in Houston prior to spring training in 1975, I told my father, "Dad, if I have go through another year like I went through last year, I will give this game up. "
I was torn about going to the front office and saying, "Get me out of here. I want to pitch." I didn't want to be viewed as somebody throwing the towel in and saying, "I can't do this." You know, I'm 19. I still respect my boss, who was Billy. And Billy's responsible, probably, for me being very outgoing and bold and stuff. Because I'm not going to let somebody take advantage of me ever again. If it were to happen today I would kick the manager's door in and pinch his head off.
In '78 I was under manager Jeff Torborg. I thought that was a blessing, because he caught Koufax. And then '79 was the first year that Dave Duncan was the pitching coach. I don't know that Dunc was a mechanic, but as far as being able to climb into a pitcher's head. … And that's the big thing at the major league level—the mental side of it. And if I'd have just thought, "OK, I belong here; I deserve to be here; I do belong here," maybe I wouldn't have forced things so much. And Dunc started giving me that confidence. Torborg was kind of a mechanics guy, and he got my mechanics started back on the right path, and then I had a back injury in '79 and sat for a while. But Duncan started giving me the ability to believe in myself.
Confidence is awful tough to come by when you're not successful.
It took me a long time to come to terms with things. Not that I was all wound up and bitter and all that. But shortly after I left the lumber business, which I was in for 20 years after I retired, I was sitting in my garage one afternoon, and this was back when Roger Clemens was going for his 300th victory. I'm sitting in the garage painting some things for the house, just doing general honey-dos, and listening to sports talk radio all day long while I'm doing it. And I forget what show. It was a national show. I don't remember if it was a Sunday morning or what day of the week it was, but this really, really helped me. In the 100 and so years of the game of baseball there's only been—and it's more than this now—but at the time there had only been 15,000 players to play in the major leagues. Of that 15,000, there's only been 7,500 pitchers. So when you view things in that context, even if you lose, even if you have a 20-game losing season, you're a pretty dadgum good pitcher. Number one, your team obviously thinks you're a good pitcher or they wouldn't keep running you out there. And no matter what your level of success is at the major league level, if you're in the big leagues, you're good.
* * *
For whatever reason I owned the Yankees. Left-handed pitching beat the Yankees on a very consistent basis. I should love the Yankees. But I don't really like the Yankees. I've never been a fan of theirs. Great organization. Great organization as far as success and everything. I grew up a Kansas City A's fan, and it seemed like we were a minor league team for the Yankees [laughs].
But I owned the Yankees. I had the Yankees beat 1 to 0 on the last Friday night of the 1978 season, which is the year Bucky Dent hit the home run against Boston. So I'm in Yankee Stadium on Friday night, and I've got 56,000 people just like you're in church on Sunday morning.
And I pitch 7-plus innings and leave the ballgame after a leadoff hit in the eighth, I believe it was, with a 1-0 lead and the closer comes on and doesn't hold the lead and we lose that game on Friday night. [Editor's note: Clyde led off the inning with a walk. He was pulled after a sacrifice bunt moved the runner to second.] There was no pressure on me. But to pitch in that venue, to pitch in that venue, in that situation, and to perform like I did …
* * *
I loved pitching in Fenway. I really did. I mean, I loved that ballpark.
I want to say my last pitch in the majors was on a two-strike count. And I was trying to come inside. As you know, Yaz carried his hands up above his head, and I was trying to come in up and under his arms to get him. Not to hit him, but, you know, to get him to swing and miss. That's why I'm thinking it was a two-strike count. And the ball just exploded up and in on him.
I hurt my back that night. And I don't know that I felt it in the game, but when I woke up the next morning I couldn't move. I was scared to death. I couldn't get out of bed.
* * *
I'm traded back to Texas in 1980 as an insurance policy for Jon Matlack. And I go to spring training and I'm injured. I get hurt during spring training. I'm throwing very well at the beginning of spring training, and then about a week before we start games, I come down with a bum shoulder. And the Rangers release me.
I filed under my health insurance saying I was injured on the job. My health insurance denied it. I waited too long to file a workers' comp claim. The Rangers didn't pay for it. I filed a grievance against the Rangers. You know, it's going to come down to, Who does the arbitrator believe? He can believe our doctors who say your injury was traumatic, which means it happened at an instant, or they can believe the team doctors who are going to say that it occurred over time. And I got backed into a corner where doctors were asking for their money, and I couldn't afford to roll the dice double or nothing. The Rangers offered me a 50 percent settlement. And out of that 50-cents-on-the-dollar settlement I paid for my shoulder surgery.
My contract with them, I believe, was for $65,000, and we settled for $32,500. And out of that $32,500 came taxes, Social Security, all that good stuff, and $20,000 in medical bills.
I am out of baseball that entire year.
I would not have had the surgery if I had thought I was done.
Here's what happened next: I'm recovering from shoulder surgery. It's spring training. I want to try to catch on with somebody, and I'm not released to start throwing yet. I haven't even picked up a baseball yet. Well, I take that back. I had been throwing for maybe a month, but I'm not ready to actually compete. And since I'm not ready to compete, I'm in a tryout situation where I've got to go show people I can throw before they're going to sign me. So spring training finally comes to an end and I'm finally released to pitch competitively. Worst possible time in the world to try to catch on. All the people who had said they would give me opportunities? Forget it.
* * *
Well, finally, I go down and I throw for the Astros in the Astrodome, and they give me the opportunity. And I go off to Columbus in the Southern League and have a great six, eight weeks. Pitcher of the month. All sorts of good things. I go to Triple-A, and I don't have quite the success in Triple-A.
Do you know who the most unhappy baseball players are? Triple-A. Because at the Triple-A level, you have older players who think they can still play and belong in the big leagues, and you have younger players who think they can play and belong in the big leagues, so nobody's happy. And I started getting that sense again, of OK, I thought I wanted to come back to this, but ...
In Double-A, it was enthusiastic. You know, even though it was bus rides, guys were happy to be at the ballpark, happy to play. All of a sudden we get to Triple-A, and you've got the manager talking about things that are not really true, putting the blame on the entire pitching staff for the losing streak you're on, not talking about the nine errors that were made the night before [laughs]. I made the pitch. I made the pitch, Skip, but you know Swiss Cheese at shortstop and Can't Catch A Cold at second base couldn't turn the double play.
It's the PCL. PCL's a hitter's league. Umpires treat it as such, therefore the strike zone is more geared for a hitter. But the Astros are still very interested. They want me to go to the instructional league. And I go to the instructional league at the end of the season. The instructional league is very much like spring training: work out in the morning, break for lunch, play a game in the afternoon. On the mound one morning, waiting for the ball to be thrown around the horn and get back to me, I'm looking out in centerfield and for the very first time in my entire life, including 1974, the thought entered my mind: What am I doing here?
I knew at that point, if I was asking myself that question, that I wasn't being fair to the people who were paying me, I wasn't being fair to my teammates, and I wasn't being fair to myself. So, at that moment, I decided I was done with professional baseball.
* * *
Everybody wants to leave a mark on his profession, no matter what it is. You know what I'm the symbol of? Of how not to handle young talent. And not just in baseball. In all of professional sports. I think LeBron James and Kobe Bryant were so successful at an early age because they had things in place for them. In baseball, there still isn't anything in place. But I have left a mark. Oh my God, can you believe the amount of attention that a mediocre major league pitcher still creates 40 years later? I mean, look at my career. It was mediocre at best. And yet 40 years after the fact I'm still getting national recognition.
I am the poster child. And it makes me feel wonderful, because it's going to happen again no matter how hard they try. The perfect storm is going to arise again. It will happen again. The perfect storm will arise again. A hometown boy is this phenomenal athlete. The local ballclub is in dire straits, and they're going to need to do something. And so the great thing is that when that does happen, I'll hear them say, "We're not going to let happen to him what happened to David Clyde."
Rob Trucks is the author of Cup of Coffee, a series of conversations with former pitchers whose major-league careers lasted fewer than 50 innings. His other work for Deadspin includes interviews with former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk and the late Dave Duerson, and an oral history of Big Star co-founder Alex Chilton's time in Tuscaloosa. You may e-mail him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @tusktusktusk. Theme music and video courtesy Steve Wynn.