Al Clark crushes the batting-practice offerings. Hits 'em out of the park.
For nearly an hour, he weaves tales from his umpiring career. World Series assignments, no-hitters and treasured mementos. Cal Ripken's record-breaker, Bucky Dent's home run and Nolan Ryan's 300th.
Iconic baseball moments teeming with Hall of Fame characters.
Sure, the stories have been rehearsed over decades of after-dinner speeches and barstool bull sessions. But Clark's childlike enthusiasm and roof-raising laughter draw folks in.
"He steamrolled me," his wife, Cynthia, says of their courtship.
"Al is a very gregarious soul, to say the least," says Rick Reed, an umpire and longtime Clark confidant. "He will take over a room rather easily.
"He was the hit of my son's wedding. Our pastor said, 'Now that is an interesting guy.' "
For all his charisma, Clark understands that batting practice is prelude. The only issue is, when will the pitcher start throwing heat?
Clark makes it easy. He asks for it.
"I was done (umpiring) in the middle of the year in 2001," he says. "Justly or unjustly, we can talk about that, too. I don't care. That doesn't bother me in the least.
"As a matter of fact, I've got a Web site to help other people thrown into a situation that they never thought they'd be in, called ' www.areyoureadyforjail.com.' "
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By the time he moved to Ford's Colony in 1992, Clark was an umpiring staple. The son of a Trenton, N.J., sportswriter, he earned promotion to the American League in 1976 after only four seasons in the minors.
He was 27, confident and very ambitious.
"No one grows up wanting to be an umpire," Clark says. "You grow up wanting to be a player. And when that hard, harsh realization sets in that you're not good enough to be a player, you set your sights elsewhere.
"I went to Eastern Kentucky University. I taught for a year. I didn't enjoy that. I wrote (sports) for a year. I did enjoy that. But after growing up with a sportswriter, I wanted to eat steaks instead of hamburgers the rest of my life."
Big-league umpiring afforded Clark filet mignon — he likes his medium-rare. The accommodations were first-rate, perks abundant, salary considerable — $384,000 annually plus more than $300 per diem during his final season, Clark says.
He befriended not only co-workers, but also athletes, television executives, business tycoons and adventurous women. He appeared as an extra on his favorite soap, "Santa Barbara," free-lanced in public relations for Polaroid and married a relative stranger on a boat — the annulment came a day later.
"You'd love to have a beer with him," says World Golf Hall of Famer and former Williamsburg resident Curtis Strange. "He was very friendly. He got us tickets once to Fenway, great seats, and came over and talked between every inning. You'd have never known he was working."
Don't misunderstand, Reed warns. Clark was not merely a social animal. He was also a fine umpire, one with a dramatic flair — late in his career Clark tore a hamstring, so animated was his ejection of Detroit Tigers infielder Gregg Jefferies.
Clark's assignments speak to his talent, and he rattles them off with pride. But given his unseemly departure from baseball, and the four months he spent in the Petersburg federal prison camp, the list demands verification.
Everything checks out.
Clark worked 13 playoff series, two All-Star Games and two World Series, including the 1989 Oakland-San Francisco Series interrupted by an earthquake.
During regular seasons, Clark was behind the plate for Ryan's 300th victory and Randy Johnson's first no-hitter. He was on the bases the night Ripken surpassed Lou Gehrig as baseball's Iron Man and the afternoon Dent's homer lifted the Yankees over the Red Sox in an American League East playoff.
"My entire adult life I lived a dream," Clark, 60, says. "But baseball for me was never the end. It was always only a means to an end. Now that ride was a tremendous ride. Every day I went to work, my office was either Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park or Comiskey Park or Camden Yards or Memorial Stadium. ... But I always had an eye on life after baseball."
Life after baseball came sooner than expected.
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Major League Baseball first investigated Clark in 1998, over the sale of balls purportedly used in the perfect game pitched that season by the Yankees' David Wells.
Clark did not umpire the contest, but certificates of authenticity bore his signature. He said then and repeats today that his friend Richard Graessle, a memorabilia dealer, forged the documents.
Baseball officials cleared Clark in the Wells case but fired him three years later without public explanation.
The New York Times reported in June 2001 that Clark was dismissed for using his MLB credit card to upgrade coach airline tickets for Cynthia and himself after a rain-delayed game caused them to miss their original flight.
Clark confirms the Times' story but said he believes MLB still suspected him in the Wells matter.
"I had 26 years in the big leagues," Clark says. "It didn't end the way I wanted it to end, and it was a shock. But you turn the page."
The shock of unemployment paled to the shock of incarceration.
On Feb. 23, 2004, Clark pleaded guilty in Newark, N.J., to one count of federal mail fraud for his role in a memorabilia scheme. He and Graessle had escaped punishment in the Wells matter, but they had, indeed, been scamming collectors.
During the 1990s, the pair conspired to authenticate hundreds of ordinary baseballs as having been used in notable games that Clark umpired — they went so far as to rub them in the same mud MLB uses to remove the new-ball sheen. Graessle sold the balls to collectors — one fetched nearly $8,000 from a Texas man — and mailed certificates of authenticity that Clark signed.
Clark's attorney, New Jersey-based David Fassett, recommended house arrest. Prosecutors did not object.
"He was completely forthcoming not only with me but with everybody connected to the case, including the government," Fassett says. "In all my dealings, he was the same guy. Completely honest and straightforward. Nothing to hide. Admitted what he did. ...
"But we certainly knew going in that he was exposed to jail time, and that he was exposed to more jail time than he got."
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Clark faced up to a year in prison, and on June 3, 2004, U.S. District Judge John Bissell sentenced him to four months in prison and four months of house arrest.
Although Clark testified that he never profited from the memorabilia sales, Bissell ordered him to reimburse the Texas man and contribute more than $32,000 to charity for a total fine of $40,000.
"The integrity of the sports official is paramount," Bissell, a former amateur hockey referee, said in court.
"There is something sacrosanct in this country about baseball and the special place in history some of its players hold," U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said in a statement the day Clark was sentenced. "Mr. Clark knew that when he committed his fraud. Now a different umpire was making the call, and Mr. Clark has been called out on strikes."
Graessle — messages left at a number listed to him were not returned — helped authorities build their case against Clark, and six days later he, too, was sentenced to four months in prison and four months of house arrest. Moreover, Bissell ordered him to settle $100,000 in back taxes.
The equality of punishment galls Cynthia, a marriage and family therapist.
"Deep down, if you really want to tap the well, he thinks he got screwed," she says of her husband.
Clark insists otherwise.
"They wanted to make an example of me, and they did," he says. "That was their prerogative. But I have no malice toward anybody, either in baseball or out of baseball or anything that happened in the court system. Life's too short to lament. I've had a great life, a great career. ...
"Is it embarrassing? Of course it's embarrassing. To say (otherwise) would be hugely illogical and untruthful. ... It happened. Screw it, and quite honestly, the four months I spent in jail, I mean they weren't happy times, but they were certainly a learning experience.
"People who know me know what kind of person I am. And people who don't know who want to formulate opinions ... I just don't care."
But even those who know him best were appalled by Clark's actions.
A baseball novice — "I didn't even know what a foul pole was" — when she met Al, Cynthia had grown to love what she calls the sport's "choreography." She attended most every game Clark umpired.
"I was pissed," she says. "But you don't bail on your husband when he's in trouble. You just don't."
Reed, the umpire and Clark's former crew chief, feared for his profession's integrity, and in the wake of Clark's case, MLB seized control of all memorabilia rights.
"There are some people in baseball who look at it as a black mark on the game and its officiating," Reed says. "Al was made kind of an example by the judge, and I think that point was very well made. I just don't think it should take away from his 26 years of service to the game."
Herb Clark, who introduced his son to baseball and wrote about the game for decades, probably spoke for everyone.
"How could you?" Clark recalls his late father asking.
Seems an appropriate brushback pitch.
"I didn't think it would be a big deal," Clark responds. "I knew I was doing something wrong, but I didn't think it would be as big a deal as it became.
"I had always been a good guy. I've always been out there and extended myself to people. Young people, kids, in so many different ways, so many different areas. Emotionally, financially.
"And this guy from North Jersey (Graessle) was kinda down and out, and he had asked me to do some things. ... I made a mistake in judgment. ... Screw it. I want to meet the guy who doesn't screw up. I walk around here with my head up high and talk to people, and people who don't want to talk to me, that's fine. I don't care."
And it truly wasn't about the money?
"You may or may not believe this, but I never earned a dime," Clark says. Graessle "was a delivery guy in New York and he had a family. He offered me money. I didn't take it because the amount of money he offered didn't make any difference to me. ... The couple of thousand dollars he wanted to give me ... meant more to him and his family than it did to me.
"God's honest truth and give me a Bible right now as I did in the courtroom. I never took a dime. Not one single cent."
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Clark reported to the minimum-security federal prison camp in Petersburg on July 12, 2004. He lived in a dormitory-like setting with fellow inmates — no claustrophobic cells, barred doors or violent encounters.
As on the baseball diamond or at a dinner banquet, Clark's supersized personality emerged. He wrote detailed letters to Fassett about coping with prison life, and by the time of his departure Nov. 10, he was teaching informal umpiring classes.
"It's not a big deal," Clark says. "It was a big deal then. But four months out of my life, with everything that I've done, it's just another experience, albeit one that I don't necessarily want to duplicate."
During her husband's incarceration, Cynthia read about a Web site catered to those facing prison. So she and Al launched a similar venture — areyoureadyforjail.com.
On the site, Clark offers predictable advice such as, "Trust no one." More detailed counsel requires a credit-card number.
"Quite honestly and quite simply, I was not afraid and am not afraid to admit that I've been to jail," Clark says. "I think there are a lot of people like me who never thought they'd be involved in the legal system ... and are very frightened of what could happen to them.
"It's a helluva learning experience and why shouldn't I try and help somebody else? Why should I hide in a closet? It happened. You can Google 'Al Clark' and it's all there. I wish they'd put other stuff there, not just the negative stuff, but that's OK."
Hide? Al Clark? Not with his nature, voice and nose guard's build.
At Ford's Colony — friend and retired basketball referee Jess Kersey sold him on the resort — Clark is close to ubiquitous. His home sits on the 11th fairway of the Blackheath Course, and in season he plays golf almost every day, to a credible 8-handicap.
"Obviously," Clark says, "I'm enjoying the fruits of my labor."
Relaxing near the first tee, Clark greets residents and staff by name. They respond with a handshake or slap on the back.
When the LPGA Tour staged media day for its Michelob Ultra Open at Kingsmill, Clark not only attended, but also asked questions of defending champion Suzann Pettersen. He then introduced himself to a reporter.
"He's no shrinking violet," Cynthia says affectionately.
Cynthia and Al share their cluttered home with a dog and two cats. Mementos from Clark's signature games hang from the walls and spill from closets, and he shows them proudly.
There's a photo of Clark and Ripken standing near third base between innings of Ripken's record night. And one of Clark and his fellow umpires before a game with the first President Bush.
The press pins that Clark's father collected are handsomely framed, as is Clark's favorite keepsake, the worn-to-the-nubs brush he used to dust home plate from his minor-league days until the 1983 World Series between the Phillies and Orioles. Randomly placed in the backyard is a home plate from Yankee Stadium.
"I was always deemed to be very fair, but don't screw with me, because by virtue of the uniform I wear, I will win," Clark says. "I'll be very respectful of the fact that you've become a big-league player. Respect the fact that I earned the right to be a big-league umpire. ... I'm gonna be here for nine innings, and you don't have to be, and I've got the hammer. That's not being arrogant. That's just the way it is."
He's on a roll now, back to smacking pitches thrown right down the middle.
Catfish Hunter, he says, was the best pitcher he ever saw; Rod Carew, Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn the finest hitters.
Clark describes fleeing the locker room when an earthquake struck San Francisco before Game 3 of the '89 World Series and racing onto the field wearing only longjohns and shower shoes. With pinpoint accuracy, down to which umpire worked each base, he recalls his first big-league game, Minnesota at Texas on April 9, 1976.
"I ... don't remember my feet touching the ground," he says of his debut. "That was the culmination of a lot of hard work, and it was grand just being there."
Clark could go on, and he often does, his audience rapt. But at least one person can upstage him: Cynthia.
"It's funny when we get into a conversation with other folks," Clark says. "Of course everyone wants to talk about baseball — until they find out Cynthia's a licensed sex therapist, and baseball gets put way back on the back burner."
As usual, Clark roars at his own punch line. But his biggest laugh comes at his own expense.
"When I die," he says, "someone's going to have a ball going through all the memorabilia in my home."
Clark pauses for dramatic effect.
"I keep asking people if they want me to authenticate it."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun