When Trenton first got a minor league baseball team — all the way back in 1994 — it was the Detroit Tigers who decided to move their Double-A affiliate to Mercer County.
The Tigers first round pick in 1990 was a big first baseman named Tony Clark, who was still deciding between playing baseball or basketball by the time he advanced to Double-A in 1994.
Clark emerged as the first star player in Thunder history, hitting .279 with 21 home runs and 86 RBI in 107 games before receiving an early August call-up to Triple-A Toledo.
He would play in the big leagues the following year, and has become one of the most well-respected players in all of Major League Baseball ever since.
A veteran of 1,475 MLB games with the Tigers, Red Sox, Yankees, Mets, Diamondbacks and Padres, I was recently able to catch up with the now 36-year-old in the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium.
Mike Ashmore: You remain one of the best players in the history of the Trenton Thunder. I know it’s been a while since you played there, but what do you remember about your experience playing there?
Tony Clark: “There’s not much that I don’t remember. It still marks one of the best years of my baseball career. From all the quirks and issues with the ballpark and all the construction, to the struggles that the team had, to the famous burgers at that place not too far away from the ballpark, it was a blast. The support was amazing, even in light of our struggles as a team. I know our affiliate, Detroit, was only there for the one year. But I’m thankful that I at least had the chance to be there for that first year.”
Ashmore: You talked a little bit about the issues you encountered with it being the first year of the team and the stadium and all that. There are a lot of fans who follow the team now who didn’t follow it back then, so I’d imagine a lot of people might not know exactly how difficult it was getting this team off the ground 15 years ago…
Clark: “From the first day of simply signing autographs and not being able to play because the turf hadn’t taken hold, or the fresh smell of paint or the yet to be laid carpet in the locker room, it was fantastic. Everybody was doing their best to make it as comfortable as possible. It was interesting, but it was fun. The guys that we had there were outstanding. The “Win A Free Suit” sign in left field, that I guess now is gone…I guess there’s a “Hit It In The River” promotion now. All those little things, it just made it a blast. I’ve seen a lot of pictures with the uniforms, and mine was fitting way tighter than it probably should have. Just thinking back, like I said, it was a blast. I haven’t had an opportunity, outside of the day that they retired my number, to actually get back there. But I know any time that I get close, I always have a place that I can stop in.”
Ashmore: You, Nomar Garciaparra and Jackie Robinson are the only players with retired numbers at Waterfront Park. That’s some elite company. What did it mean to you to get your number retired there?
Clark: “It’s special. Baseball had been around there for a long time prior to us coming in and playing, so the baseball roots were deep. To have had an opportunity to play there for the one year with the Detroit affiliate, and have what ended up being one of my better minor league seasons, and to have a city embrace me the way it did…it’s not often you think about the minor leagues and say, ‘Yeah, it was a blast,’ but that year, that time, all those circumstances, it really was. It’s something I enjoyed. I’m honored they chose to retire my number. I still have all the plaques, and the retired picture up on my wall at my house in its own little Trenton section.”
Ashmore: You talked about how that was one of your best seasons in the minors, if not the best. On the field, what do you feel like that year did for you?
Clark: “It was my first full season. After being injured, and playing a few years and still going back to school and playing basketball, it was my first full season of minor league baseball. It allowed me to settle, and it allowed me to make some of the adjustments that I was inevitably going to need to make and do it in a place that absolutely embraced baseball and its players. I couldn’t have picked a better forum to work to establish myself as a potential Major League ballplayer.”
NOTE: Something absolutely worth noting here is that Tony Clark had never met me before. Had no clue who I was. Only knew my name when I introduced myself, and that I covered the Trenton Thunder when I told him. For him to give me the kind of answers he did, and the amount of time he did…I think that says a lot about what kind of person he is, and only backs up the positive reputation that he’d established while in Trenton and throughout the big leagues.
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com