|Friday, May 30
Updated: June 20, 5:22 PM ET
The rise ... and fall of a phenom
By Jeff Merron
Special to ESPN.com
David Clyde wants to make a comeback. Thirty years after his major league debut, the most hyped and heralded phenom in modern baseball history is ready to return to the dugout.
He thinks he has something to offer as a pitching coach. Something he didnšt receive as an 18-year-old who jumped directly from high school to the majors.
Something about confidence.
"Teaching pitching is not rocket science," Clyde said. "Where the real trick comes in is to build the confidence and security in the pitcher's mind, because that's what the game is all about."
Confidence, says Clyde, was the ingredient missing during his first few years with the Texas Rangers. The ink was barely dry on his contract, signed shortly after the Rangers drafted him No. 1 overall out of Houston's Westchester High in 1973, before he found himself on the mound at Arlington Stadium against the Minnesota Twins.
The media frenzy had started on the morning of draft day, with all the Houston TV stations camped out on his lawn. It continued as Rangers owner Bob Short, in a desperate attempt to get fans to the ballpark, hyped his debut.
On June 27, 1973, in a circus-like atmosphere featuring Polynesian belly dancers, lions, and a papier-mâché giraffe, Clyde -- all of 18 years, two months, and five days old -- stood surrounded by 35,698 fans and did his job.
After walking Jerry Terrell and Rod Carew, he settled down, striking out the next three batters. In the second inning, he walked four more Twins and surrendered a two-run homer to Mike Adams, but escaped bigger damage thanks to two runners caught stealing.
When Clyde left the game after five innings (one hit, two earned runs, seven walks, eight strikeouts), the Rangers held a 4-2 lead. Bill Gogolewski pitched four strong innings in relief, and Clyde went on to record his first major league win. Just 17 more would follow before he retired following the 1981 season.
Clyde was already a show in the early 1970s when he pitched for Westchester. His team was excellent -- "We made front page news," Clyde recalls -- advancing to the state finals his senior year. During that 1973 high school season, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound flamethrower went 18-0 and struck out 328 batters in 148 1/3 innings. And he walked just 18.
In his sophomore year, he pitched a perfect game against the defending state champs. As a senior, he pitched another perfect game. Also as a senior, he had a stretch of five games that went like this: no-hitter, no-hitter, one-hitter, one-hitter, no-hitter.
It would be David Clyde's last great season.
Clyde was born on April 22, 1955 in Kansas City and grew up an A's fan. When his family moved to Houston, he started attending a lot of Astros games. He knew baseball, knew the history of the sport. Sandy Koufax was (and still is) his idol.
But Clyde never met the Dodger legend. He learned about pitching from his father, Gene, who pitched semi-pro ball. Clyde, who also played basketball at Westchester, remembers "lots and lots of hard work" with his father in the high school gym each winter.
"My practice time with him came throwing in the gym starting in January," Clyde says. "He was my mentor, completely."
That mentoring paid off. In his junior year, Clyde remembers, he had heard through the grapevine that had he been eligible, he would have been the first pick in the 1972 draft. But high school athletes didn't get the same kind of scrutiny back then as they do now, and, says Clyde, "I didn't pay much attention" to all the talk.
Even leading up to the 1973 draft, things were pretty low-key.
"I spent about two hours the night before the draft, talking to Hugh Alexander of the Philadelphia Phillies," Clyde remembers. "At that time, he was their head scout. We were just talking baseball, and he said, 'You know, in the morning, if you're still available when we pick, we're going to take you.' So I didn't know I'd be the first pick, but I knew I was going to be a pretty high pick.
"I donšt know that I knew who had the No. 1 pick, and I don't know that I knew who the Rangers were -- there wasn't much news on them anywhere."
Houston papers didn't cover the team from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Houston TV showed Astros games. And you wouldn't read much about the Rangers in the national sports media, which consisted primarily of Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News.
So, three weeks after he was drafted, Clyde took the mound in Arlington, just 250 miles from where he lived. But it may as well have been on the moon.
It's been widely reported that Clyde and his father, in their negotiations with the Rangers, insisted that the youngster go straight to the majors. Not so, insists Clyde.
"There's been a lot of confusion over the years on that," he says. "We were not going to settle for anything less than a major league contract. That puts you on the 40-man roster. We were concerned about the options."
Options are a complicated business, but what Clyde wanted, simply, was a chance to sign on with another team if he didn't make it to the majors with the Rangers by the time he was 21. And the major league contract guaranteed that once the Rangers exhausted Clyde's three option years, another team could pick him up on waivers.
Said Clyde: "They're the ones that came in and said, 'Here's what we want to offer David.' They're the ones who came in and said, 'Herešs $50,000, we want to take you to the big leagues.' "
He got the major league contract. His total package broke down to a $65,000 signing bonus, a $22,500 salary, and a standard $7,500 incentive clause.
So if Clyde and his father didn't insist on a quick major league debut, who did? It wasn't Whitey Herzog, then the Rangers manager. Instead, it was owner Bob Short. As you might have guessed, his focus was drawing fans to the ballpark and making a buck.
"Bob Short had a penchant for name players -- he brought in Denny McClain -- to enhance the Texas Rangers' image," recalls Clyde's teammate, Toby Harrah. "And David Clyde out of Houston was one of the early phenom pitchers out of Texas. Anything to improve attendance, was, in theory, a good idea."
It was a good idea in practice, too. The Clyde Show worked -- in 1973, the Rangers averaged 18,187 when the phenom pitched, and just 7,546 when he didn't.
"It was a shot in the arm," Harrah says. "He was really good for the Rangers. The fans liked him, and he was very accessible. He was like a breath of fresh air."
In other words, Clyde helped make the Rangers saleable. That's what Short wanted -- to sell the team. Without Clyde, it would have been difficult. With Clyde, and the attendance boost, and the national publicity, it happened. In May 1974, Short sold the Rangers to plastic pipe magnate Brad Corbett.
By then, Clyde's career was already on a downswing.
After his successful debut, Clyde's numbers tell part of the story: He started 17 more games, finishing 1973 with a 4-8 record. More telling are other numbers: 93 innings pitched, or about five innings a start. An ERA of 5.01, well above the league average. And only 74 strikeouts, against 54 walks. Clyde's pinpoint control in high school eluded him in the pros; his walks-to-strikeouts ratio would remain high throughout his career.
"I thought his stuff was good, and he probably tried to pitch like Sandy Koufax, but he didn't have the command to do that at that age," says Sonny Siebert, who pitched for the Rangers in 1973 and later became a pitching coach for the Padres and Rockies. "He didnšt keep the ball down very well. And major league players caught on to that."
Siebert, a two-time All-Star, came up with the Indians in 1964. "When I was brought up, I was very inexperienced as a pitcher," Siebert says, "and I was fortunate to have Birdie Tebbets as my first manager. He protected me. He put me out there for six or seven innings, and as soon as I lost something off my fastball, he put in a reliever."
During the 1973 and 1974 seasons, Clyde did get plenty of relief help. But it was too late, too often.
"I think after he started getting hit hard, his confidence went," Seibert says. "And when that went ..."
Siebert trails off, since we already know how the story ends. Once Clyde's career took a downward spin, the momentum prevented any kind of reverse.
"Sometimes it takes just one game to turn your career around," Siebert said. "All of the sudden you start to think, 'I can get big leaguers out.' I don't think David Clyde ever got to that point. To get a hitter out, you have to believe you can get him out."
Clyde agrees that despite his successful debut -- and the flashes of brilliance he displayed throughout his years in the majors and minors - he never really felt that he belonged.
"I made this jump from high school to the major league level, and I thought that my abilities had to make that big of a jump, but they didn't," Clyde said. "I was already throwing in the mid-90s ... Instead of just relaxing and believing in my abilities I tried to be more than I was."
Toby Harrah, Clyde's teammate on the 1973 and 1974 Rangers and again with the Indians in 1979, said there was more to it than that, though.
"Watching him throw, you had to be real impressed," Harrah says. "As far as his athletic ability, he probably had enough to pitch in the big leagues, and through proper instruction, he would have been fine."
But he didn't get that instruction, at least during those first few years.
"He had a great fastball," Harrah says. "He never had a breaking ball, didn't have a changeup, didn't have a move to first base.
"How he pitched more than five innings in the major leagues and did anything is beyond me."
And Clyde's time in the minors from 1975-77, interrupted by an operation for a pinched nerve in 1976, didn't do him much good.
"He was the same pitcher in 1979 as he was in Texas, not much of a breaking ball, not much of a changeup," Harrah recalls. "He hadn't progressed much at all as a pitcher."
Some people, notably Herzog, thought Clyde had a good curve. Most thought he exhibited a lot of poise on the mound. But what almost everyone agrees on (including Clyde himself) is that Clyde should not have been pitching in the major leagues in 1973 and 1974.
"I don't think he had the skill level coming out of high school to be a regular in a major league rotation," Seibert says. "He needed a couple of years in the minors. He just needed a couple of seasons to learn how to pitch."
Whitey Herzog didn't want Clyde to go straight to the majors. Even after the promotional aspects of the move were explained -- or, more accurately, dictated - to Herzog, the Rangers manager insisted that Clyde be sent down after his first two starts. No go. So Clyde started, the fans came through the turnstiles, and Short had his propped-up attendance.
After the 1973 season, Short fired Herzog and replaced him with Billy Martin. Bad move - at least from Clyde's perspective.
"Whitey being fired was the worst thing that ever happened," Clyde says. "Whitey was the brains behind the 1969 Mets. (Herzog was the Mets' farm director and many people credit him with building the team that won the 1969 World Series.) Everywhere he went, he was a winner. We felt safe when we signed with the Rangers that we were going to be taken care of, physically, because of Whitey's history with the development of talent."
Martin being hired might have been the second-worst thing that happened for Clyde.
"Most of the pitchers on that team would candidly and off the record tell me that Billy didn't know anything about pitching," says a longtime Texas writer, Mike Shropshire, who covered the Rangers during that period. "At least, when David first came up, he had Whitey and Chuck Estrada, who were very sympathetic to pitchers."
Martin's hiring was, plain and simple, "Bob Short, looking for another gate attraction," Shropshire says. "It was a boost to the Rangers, but it was the beginning of the end for David."
Art Fowler became the new Rangers pitching coach in 1974. "Art Fowler's job was to get drunk with Billy on the road," Shropshire says. "He wouldnšt know a release point from a whooping crane. So if David had technical problems, there was no support for him to overcome that. You couldn't have found a manager and a pitching coach more ill-suited for a pitcher like David."
Although Martin's arrival might have been bad for Clyde, it was good for the Rangers.
After finishing last in the AL West in 1973 with a major league-worst 57-105 record, the Rangers made a remarkable turnaround the next season.
Newly acquired Ferguson Jenkins went 25-12 with a 2.82 ERA, completing 29 games and tossing six shutouts. Jim Bibby, the staff ace in 1973, went 19-19 with a 4.74 ERA. Jackie Brown and Steve Hargan won 13 and 12 games, respectively. The AL West division title was actually within reach for the Rangers throughout much of the season.
Perhaps because of his erratic performances -- and perhaps Martin, like his predecessor, thought Clyde belonged in the minors -- Clyde started just 21 games in 1974, finishing with a 3-9 record and a 4.38 ERA.
He pitched only 117 innings. And, Clyde says, he didnšt get much work between starts. He made seven relief appearances, but there was one 30-day stretch he wasn't allowed to throw on the side.
Clyde's strong start - a 3-0 record - never paid off with an increased workload. Thirty years later, Clyde still doesn't know why.
"I didn't ask," he said. "I was 19, brought up my whole life to respect my elders. I thought they were looking out for me. And they weren't."
Harrah says Martin's sparse use of Clyde "had more to do with his age than anything. Billy didn't really fool with the starting rotation that much. You just don't take a kid out of high school and have him pitch every fourth or fifth day."
Frustrated, confused and pitching only sporadically, Clyde turned increasingly to alcohol.
"After a while, you start partying too much," he recalls. ""You're 19, and you don't have anyone to talk to, the closest person to you in age is 24 or 25 years old."
Clyde says he wasn't an alcoholic, but admits he drank and partied too much.
''What a time I had," Clyde told The New York Times in 1981. "I'd go to Lord and Taylor's in Chicago and buy a double-breasted suit and never ask what it cost. I'd take $500 and go to Aqueduct in New York, and come back with just enough for a cab. And I partied. I ran with the wrong crowd. I know that now. I had put these guys on a pedestal -- I had read about them as a kid -- and here I was one of them. So I figured I must be on a pedestal, too. But they're like anyone else. And so am I. We'd party until 3 in the morning and then come to the ballpark with hangovers.''
The party didn't last long. A few weeks before spring training in 1975, Clyde had a tonsillectomy.
"He was not in any physical shape to make the team," Shropshire says. "He was having marital problems and all that. He was sick. I'm not so sure that David, in the recesses of his subconscious, wasn't happy to get away from Billy Martin."
Get away he did. He was sent to Double-A in Pittsfield, Mass. In 1976, he moved up to Triple-A Sacramento. But the Rangers had seen enough. On Feb. 28, 1978, they dealt Clyde and Willie Horton to the Indians for Tom Buskey and John Lowenstein.
Apparently, the Indians liked what they saw, at least at first. Clyde pitched only four innings in April, but made his way into the rotation and started 25 games between May and September, finishing with a career-best 8-11 record, and a career-low 4.28 ERA.
But in 1979 he was hospitalized and sidelined with gastritis. He started just eight games, including a complete-game five hitter against the Royals in which he allowed just two earned runs.
He was hit hard in four of his next five starts, though. On Aug. 7, he pitched his last big-league game, lasting only 5 1/3 innings against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.
His last major-league inning was a mess; after getting Rick Burleson out on a grounder, he gave up a homer to Carlton Fisk, a double to Fred Lynn, threw a wild pitch (advancing Lynn to third), walked Jim Rice, and gave up a single to Bob Watson. With his final major-league pitch, Clyde hit Carl Yastrzemski, sending the legend to first and loading the bases.
In 1981, after rotator cuff surgery in '80, Clyde attempted one last comeback, with the Astros. Playing for Houston, his high-school hometown, would have been nice. He pitched well at Double-A Columbus, at one point winning five straight games with 19 consecutive scoreless innings. But at Triple-A Tucson he struggled, finishing with a 4-10 record and 6.95 ERA.
He retired just before the 1982 season.
"I decided I just didn't want to do baseball anymore," he says. "I was about to get married again, and I was missing a kid growing up. I retired (though) I think I could have made it back to the majors."
Maybe. There were a lot of possible baseball futures awaiting Clyde in 1973, and the one he lived had some early glory, years of struggle and confusion and pitching in obscurity, and a mediocre return to the big leagues. It was a complicated, up-and-down ride that lasted long after his 15 minutes of fame passed.
One fan, when asked what he remembers about Clyde, says only, "A high-school failure." That may be what's implanted in our collective baseball subconscious. But there was so much more to his story -- money, politics, personalities, talent, competition, misunderstandings, exploitation, and lots of lonely personal struggles.
"A lot of people around here (Dallas) think of David as a one-start wonder," Shropshire says. "People don't realize that he hung around as long as he did. What if they had drafted him and did the normal thing and sent him to the minors. Who knows how well he would have done?"
Jeff Merron is a regular ESPN.com Page 2 contributor.