OPINION: Shannon’s Dave Clark settles into the hot seat

After three whirlwind days – he woke up on Monday as a third-base coach and went to bed as a big-league manager – Shannon’s Dave Clark finally had a chance to catch his breath, briefly, on Thursday.
“All of this was very unexpected,” Clark, 47, said in a morning phone interview. “It’s the last thing I would have dreamed of, to be named interim manager with 13 games left in the season. But you go about your business every day, doing what you do, and you never know what will happen.
“Baseball is a game that’s full of surprises.”
His Houston Astros will begin a 10-game sprint to the end of the season tonight at home against the Cincinnati Reds. After that, there’s a season-ending road trip to Philadelphia, the defending World Series champions, and New York.
“We’re going to take the field trying to win them all,” Clark said. “The main thing, I’m going to have fun doing it. This game plays so much better when you’re having fun doing your job.”
The Astros are out of the playoff hunt, but there’s still plenty for Clark to accomplish in the next 10 days. As the only potential candidate named in public for the 2010 managing job, this is a live-fire audition for Clark, a former big-league outfielder who has six seasons of minor-league managing experience.
“I’m looking at this as part of the interview process,” Clark said. “These 13 games give me an opportunity to manage, to show what I can do. Is is enough time? I can’t answer that. My job right now is to get this team ready to play.”
Houston wasn’t playing very well, or Clark would never have gotten this opportunity. They were 70-72 on Sept. 12, then swooned during a six-game road trip, with a losing streak that eventually reached nine games.
Monday, the Astros fired manager Cecil Cooper and gave Clark the battlefield promotion.

Beating the Cardinals
Of all the teams to have coming to town for his big-league managing debut, the NL Central leaders from St. Louis were next up for Clark and the Astros. After losing his first two games, the team won 3-0 on Wednesday night to give Clark his first managerial victory – just 2,550 behind Tony La Russa, who was in the opposite dugout.
“I could not have scripted it any better,” Clark said. “We got six strong innings from our starter, Bud Norris, and that lined up everything perfectly for our bullpen.”
Clark laughed when asked about the difference between watching the game from the hot seat and standing at third base, where you may get second-guessed a couple of times a season.
“I’m so used to running out there when we’re at bat, I caught myself a couple of times starting to get up and run out to third,” Clark said. “I had to remind myself to keep my seat.”
Clark played his last big-league game in 1998. Within two seasons, he was working in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization – first as a hitting coach, then as a Single-A manager.
“I’ve watched a lot of good managers manage,” Clark said. “The one who influenced me the most? Jim Leyland. I just love his style of baseball and the way he handled people. That’s the biggest thing, communication.”
It was in 2003 when the Journal’s Mark Beason interviewed Clark, who was in his first season as a minor-league manager.
“My ultimate goal is to manage in the big leagues one day,” Clark told Beason.

Seeing the light
Clark got a lot closer to the goal in 2005, with a move from the Pirates’ minor league system to manage the Astros’ Double-A team in Corpus Christi, Texas.
“I started to see the light at that point,” Clark said Thursday. “In Double-A, I was working with kids who’re maybe a year or so from playing in in the majors, and I really loved that.”
Last year, he managed the Astros’ Triple-A team at Round Rock, Texas, and this spring took the field with the big-league club.
“It seems like everything I have done has been leading up to this,” said Clark, who makes his offseason home outside of Memphis – “Not too far from home,” he said.
A long period of uncertainty could follow Houston’s last game on Oct. 4. There are reports the team’s management expects it will be November before a decision is made about next season’s manager.
The Astros are sure to flirt with some bigger names – Cardinals’ pitching coach Dave Duncan is one name that’s been floated around, but he said earlier this week, on the brink of his 64th birthday, that the fire to be a manager isn’t burning any more.
That fire is burning brightly for Dave Clark. He has a chance to really spark something big in the next 10 days.

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@djournal.com) is sports editor of the Daily Journal.

John L. Pitts/NEMS Daily Journal