Detroit Tigers: Tony Clark’s Journey to Detroit: The 1990 MLB Draft

25 Feb 1998: Tony Clark #17 of the Detroit Tigers stretching during Spring Training at the Merchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida.
25 Feb 1998: Tony Clark #17 of the Detroit Tigers stretching during Spring Training at the Merchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida. /

The Detroit Tigers’ patience with Tony Clark paid off in an otherwise strange 1990 MLB Draft.

Within the last decade, the Detroit Tigers have drafted positional players primarily out of college in the first five rounds of the draft with the exception of Nick Castellanos in 2010 (44th overall) and Derek Hill in 2014 (23rd overall).  For Castellanos, he was in one of the last draft classes in which there was no spending limit for a pick.

The way the MLB draft has shifted, the emphasis is to draft more college players. But two decades ago, that was not the case. According to Baseball-Reference*, 46% of the players chosen in the first 10 rounds of the MLB Draft came out of high school.

The 1990 MLB Draft reflected the Detroit Tigers’ pattern at that time, of drafting high school players in the first round. Only Glenn Wilson out of Sam Houston State in 1980 (18th overall) and Rob Souza, who was drafted in the 2nd round in 1984, were college picks**.

The Detroit Tigers’ first five picks were all high school players in 1990 which if you think about it now, rather mind-blowing but this was a completely different time.  The first college pick wasn’t until the 6th round when they chose Steve Wolf. Milt Cuyler and Travis Fryman who were Tigers’ regulars in the early part of the ’90s, were both high school picks in 1986 and 1987, respectively. Tony Clark, however, literally and figurately, stood above them all.

Tony Clark, Duel Threat

Tony Clark was just 17 years old when he was drafted by the Tigers, turning 18 a week later after he was drafted. Picked right after the Atlanta Braves drafted Chipper Jones, Tony Clark was drawing comparisons to Darryl Strawberry. Clark was drafted as an outfielder after a senior season in which he hit .543 with 11 home runs and 21 RBIs. But Clark was one heck of a basketball player. His senior season, he averaged an eye-popping 43.1 points per game for Christian High.

It was easy to see why, tall and lanky at 6-8, 205 pounds, Clark had a full ride waiting for him at the University of Arizona to play for legendary coach Lute Olson. This note was a part of a  scouting report from Baseball America on Tony Clark around the time he was drafted.

“Some see Clark as the next Magic Johnson, a 6-foot-7, three-point shooting phenom with the ability to alter the course of a basketball game.”

With that kind of attention, it was easy to see why he gained that much attention from colleges from a basketball perspective. After he finished playing basketball for the West team at the Olympic Festival in July, he signed for the largest bonus for a prep player at that time at $500,000 and the Tigers would allow him to play college basketball.  He then reported to Bristol to join the Tigers’ rookie team. But basketball would come calling back to Clark just a short time later.

After a disappointing start in rookie ball in which he batted just .164 with just one home run, he would head to the University of Arizona to start his basketball career. However, his time in Arizona was short as in December, he quit the team. He suffered a back injury playing basketball and when he reported for short-season Niagara Falls, he could not play. He would sit the entire season, having surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back in August of 1991.

That did not stop his basketball career. He would transfer back closer to home at San Diego State University, playing 28 games for the Aztecs, averaging a career average of 11.4 per game. There were a lot of fans and even the writers at the time who wished that the Tigers would have selected a pitcher than Tony Clark because he was trying to do two sports at once and the Tigers farm system was not developing anything from a pitching standpoint.

It wasn’t until 1993 that Tony Clark would make onto the 40-man roster and go from the outfielder to 1B when he was promoted to Double-A Trenton. By then, the experiment to play basketball was over. While he did have a solid career in Detroit, posting a 12.2 bWAR in his time in a Tigers uniform, he would not make his debut at Tiger Stadium until 1995.

So far, Tony Clark has the second-best bWAR of any positional player the Tigers have drafted in the first round since the 1990 season. Here are the career WARs of the other Tigers positional players drafted since then who were drafted in the first round.

Tony Clark has been a great teammate and ambassador for the game as he continues to lead the MLBPA in the negotiations against the owners. But those who remember the 90’s Tigers squads, his time from being drafted to finally making his debut to Detroit was a long journey. Let’s hope that the Tigers projected pick Spencer Torkelson’s rise to Comerica Park is much, much shorter.

*the article came from the Wall Street Journal, referencing a chart from Baseball-Reference

** both picks were from the June regular phase of the draft.