FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Coming off a season in which his statistics proved almost as painful as his left elbow, Orioles first baseman Will Clark has been busy this winter ridding himself of some other unwanted numbers.
Gone is the No. 12 he wore last year, along with the 20 extra pounds he carried into spring training. And then there were the bone chips that made throwing a ball more excruciating than any one-run loss. Twelve of them were removed in late August, giving Clark the full extension in his arm that had ceased to exist during the second half.
He also altered his date for reporting to spring training this year, choosing to get a head start on the other position players by arriving at Fort Lauderdale Stadium on Friday morning rather than today. Even the calendar wasn't untouchable.
"I usually come in a few days early anyway," he said. "But seeing how I was on the disabled list last year, I wanted to come in with the pitchers and catchers. I worked so hard this off-season that I figured I may as well go in there early and get ready to roll as soon as possible."
It was difficult for Clark to maintain that kind of momentum last season. Signed to a two-year deal in December after Rafael Palmeiro bolted for Texas, Clark hit safely in his first 10 games and was batting .370 before fracturing his left thumb in Toronto on April 18. He returned to the disabled list on Aug. 21 with inflammation in his left elbow, and surgery was needed five days later.
Clark's season, which began with such promise after a torrid spring, ended with only 10 home runs and 29 RBIs in 77 games. And that wasn't even the worst of it.
Clark, who turns 36 next month, already had been put through an emotional grinder far more intense than anything related to baseball. His wife, Lisa, underwent open-heart surgery last winter, bringing sleepless nights and a drastic change in his off-season routine. No longer preoccupied by hunting trips or focused on getting into shape before camp opened, Clark showed up in Fort Lauderdale with the usual steely look in his eyes and a spare tire around his waist.
"Because I was taking care of her at the house, I wasn't able to do nearly as much as I needed to do," he said. "This year, being able to put in a full off-season of workouts, I was really excited to get down here early."
Armed for battle
And show off the elbow Dr. James Andrews cleaned out in Birmingham, Ala. Clark had a similar procedure in 1996, and was given no assurances another one won't become necessary.
"We talked about it after the surgery and he said, 'You should stay pain-free for at least a few years,' so we'll see where it takes me," Clark said. "I'm just looking at it from the standpoint of this year and this year only. What I'm having to deal with right now is the fact that I'm pain-free and I have full extension. That's completely different from last year."
Clark rehabbed the elbow without trepidation. He already had begun throwing and hitting by the final series of the season, then took off a few months, as usual. He resumed workouts around Christmas, "and I've been going at it ever since."
"From Day One, the elbow -- knock on wood -- hasn't given me any problems," he said. "Then again, I had surgery three years ago and all of a sudden 12 bone chips wind up back in there for some mysterious reason."
With his health apparently not an issue, Clark expects to be the regular first baseman this season. There's not even a trace of doubt in his mind. Jeff Conine, who made 93 starts there last season, returns to the Orioles after signing a two-year deal with a club option for 2002. Prospects Ryan Minor and Calvin Pickering also will be given a look there this spring, but neither is expected to supplant Clark.
Before a reporter could greet Clark on Friday, he issued a playful warning that he didn't want to see the word "platoon" in any story written about him.
"I've had a few injuries the past few years, but then again, I've also had years like 1998 [with Texas] when I played almost every day, hit .300, drove in over 100 runs, hit 23 homers, 40 doubles," he said.
"If I stay out there on the field -- and that's why I did all this work during the off-season -- I will give [manager] Mike Hargrove and [owner] Peter Angelos and the fans of Baltimore a lot of numbers."
It appears Hargrove will give Clark every opportunity to do just that.
"His elbow, his thumb and the whole 9 yards is going to dictate how much Will plays," he said. "Track records are a great gauge of what a guy will do. You really can project to a certain degree of accuracy what you're going to get out of a person, especially when they have a track record as long as Will, who has been an everyday player his entire career. I see no reason at this point for that to change if he's healthy."
The more Clark stays on the field, the more he can distance himself from last season, when the Orioles spent all of one day above .500 and every highlight from a Rangers game seemed to include another homer by Palmeiro and more unflattering comparisons between the former college teammates.
"I don't compare myself to anybody," he said. "I'm Will Clark. I know exactly what I can do, exactly how to go about it. But you want to do well your first season."
This could be his last in Baltimore. Clark will be a free agent again, and how he plays and how healthy he stays will determine how much money he collects in what could be his final contract before retirement.
One year at a time
"I'm just concentrating on this year," he said. "We'll take care of the future when we get to it. If I was younger and it was contract time, I might think about getting something done before the season. But now that I'm older, I'll take what comes. I want to go out there, play every day and just concentrate on that. And if I do a good job, we'll see what happens."
Whatever Clark does, it'll be with a 23 on his back, the number he wore at Mississippi State while winning the Golden Spikes Award as college baseball's top player in 1985. No. 23 wasn't available to him in San Francisco or Texas, so he chose 22, which has been retired by the Orioles in honor of Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer. He settled for 12 last season, but 23 came up for grabs after Chris Hoiles was released and declined an offer to serve as a minor-league catching instructor.
"Twelve wasn't good to me," Clark said, grinning through the painful memories. "I broke my thumb, I had 12 chips taken out of my elbow. Twelve's not the number you want."
There are plenty he would rather not have back this season.