By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus NEW HAVEN (BASN) —...
Swing Away: How Do You Replace A Legend?
PIKESVILLE, Md. — How do you replace a legend? When Marty Miller resigned as the baseball coach at Norfolk State University four games into the 2005 season, that’s exactly where Claudell Clark found himself.
Miller was taking over as the full-time athletic director at NSU, so he gave up his baseball coaching duties and turned them over to Clark on an interim basis.
Miller was the proverbial tough act to follow. He compiled more than 700 victories in 32 seasons as the NSU baseball coach. Nearly 600 of those wins came in CIAA competition, and he remains the winningest coach in CIAA history (584 wins).
Norfolk State even named its baseball field after him. But Clark never thought about becoming the next Marty Miller when he assumed control of the baseball team with just two years as an assistant under his belt.
“It wasn’t overwhelming because of replacing him,” said Clark. “It was just the situation itself of being a head coach for the first time. I just wanted to make sure the program kept going in a positive manner.
“A lot of people said, ‘You have to be Marty Miller.’ That was the furthest thing from my mind.”
For a while, it looked as though coaching was going to be far from Clark’s mind. After finishing his collegiate career at NSU as the school’s all-time strikeout leader (249), he was taken in the 28th round of the 2001 Major League Baseball amateur draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
While playing two years with three teams in the Pirates’ farm system, Clark rubbed shoulders with current Pirates outfielder Chris Duffy and left-hander Zach Duke, who is a candidate to be the Pirates’ opening-day starter this year.
But a groin injury sapped some of the velocity from Clark’s low-90s fastball, so he decided to retire from playing and turn to coaching.
He returned to his alma mater as an assistant under Miller, not knowing that two years later, he would be the man in control.
After taking over for Miller in the fifth game of the 2005 season, Clark led the Spartans to the MEAC championship game, where they were defeated 10-9 by North Carolina A&T.
Last season, still wearing the “interim” tag, Clark led NSU to 23 wins, the most since his junior year in 2000. Clark insisted that not being named the permanent head coach did not faze him.
“I think going into last year the program was really going in the right direction,” Clark said. “The interim thing didn’t really bother me. I knew if I was doing the job I was capable of, Marty would make the move. Just being human, you think about it. But I didn’t let that impede my progress.”
And so it was that over the summer, Clark had his interim tag removed.
Clark’s first goal was to guide Norfolk State to a winning season, something it hasn’t had for six years. To help the cause, he leans heavily on assistant coaches and fellow former Spartans A.J. Corbin and Quentin Jones.
Corbin’s work with the hitters helped NSU lead the MEAC with a .302 batting average last season. Jones is Clark’s former teammate at Norfolk and, like Clark, is a former pitcher who spent time in the minor leagues. He is tutoring the Spartans’ pitching staff.
Clark, while overseeing the on-field workings of the team, also busies himself with recruiting, fund-raising and promoting the program. He has worked particularly hard to expand Norfolk State’s recruiting base.
He recalled one particular recruiting trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“They were playing a game in a driving rain,” said Clark. “I figured if they’re going to play in it, I’m going to stand here and watch them.”
So far, Clark’s work is paying off. Heading into Tuesday’s non-conference game against William and Mary, Norfolk State was 11-9. Leading the way are the likes of senior catcher Lyall Foran, junior first baseman Ernie Banks, senior infielder Charles LaLane and pitcher Joey Seal.
Foran, who hails from Canada, is hitting .405 with two homers and 19 RBIs. Banks (no relation to Mr. Cub) is perhaps the team’s most feared hitter.
He’s hitting .328 with one homer and eight RBIs, but he’s been walked 24 times. Though LaLane is hitting only .224, Clark calls him one of his better clutch hitters. LaLane has scored 14 runs and driven in eight.
Seal is the go-to guy on the pitching staff. He’s 3-1 with a sparkling 2.84 ERA and a pair of saves. In 38 innings, he’s struck out 38 batters and walked only 10.
Clark is hoping the early season success carries over to MEAC play, which the Spartans will open this weekend with three games at home against North Carolina A&T. A&T and Bethune Cookman, along with Norfolk State, are expected to be the teams vying for the MEAC title.
“I think we have a good shot at it,” said Clark about the conference crown. “We’re right there at the door. We just need to put it together in the championship series. In my opinion, we have the team to do it.”
“But I want the program to be successful year in and year out. I’m very happy with where the program is, but I still think it has a lot of room to grow. It’s an awesome opportunity for me to coach at the school where I played. I feel like I owe so much to the university.”
And perhaps some day down the road, someone will ask Clark’s successor, “How do you replace a legend?”