In the world of sports, athletes often dedicate their entire lives to reaching the pinnacle of their profession, but for many, life at the top can be short-lived. Sometimes all a player gets to experience at the highest level is one minute on the court, one trip to the plate, one shot on goal or one checkered flag, but more often than not, that fleeting moment in the spotlight is a story all its own. This is One and Done, a FOX Sports series profiling athletes, their paths to success and the stories behind some of sports’ most ephemeral brushes with glory.
Had it not been for some guy named Steve Jobs, Doug Clarey might be known as the most notable alumnus from his high school’s graduating class. Whereas Jobs’ computers were a home run in the tech field and earned him multiple posthumous biopics, it’s Clarey’s lone round-tripper for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1976 that might have made for a better Hollywood movie.
Originally from Los Angeles, Clarey grew up a Dodgers fan, with Vin Scully’s soothing voice often serving as a lullaby of sorts as it trickled from the transistor radio in Clarey’s room at night. That all changed, however, when Clarey was 12 and his family moved to the Bay Area after Clarey’s father’s job as an airline dispatcher was transferred from LAX to San Francisco.
A short time later, the A’s relocated to the area as well, and subsequently Clarey’s allegiance began to shift — although living in another two-team town was good enough for the rising baseball star.
"I resonated with them and all the young players that they had, so that was a great thing," Clarey said of the A’s in a phone interview with FOX Sports last week. "And we’d go to as many baseball games as we could at Oakland or San Francisco."
In 1972, the Minnesota Twins took Clarey in the sixth round of the draft shortly after the shortstop’s graduation from Homestead High School in Sunnyvale, Calif., less than two miles from Apple’s current headquarters in Cupertino. That summer, Clarey joined the club’s rookie ball team in Melbourne, Fla. From there, Clarey began his ascension through the minor-league ranks, with a move to the Cardinals via the Rule 5 Draft coming after the ’74 season, and by 1976, the light-hitting infielder with the sweet glove appeared poised to join St. Louis’ Triple-A team in Oklahoma.
"Kenny Boyer was the manager for the Tulsa Oilers, and I was having a great spring training," Clarey said. "I remember talking to Kenny, and he was looking forward to having me. He was looking at moving me from shortstop and having me play some third base also, to become kind of a multi-positional player."
Ultimately, however, the Cardinals cut more infielders from the big club than expected — veteran major leaguers Luis Alvarado, Mario Guerrero and Ed Crosby played at Triple-A in ’76, and Garry Templeton hadn’t yet begun his lengthy big-league career — so Clarey was shuffled down the line. Unfortunately, Ken Oberkfell, the franchise’s heir apparent in the infield, was firmly entrenched in the Double-A lineup, so Clarey ended up back at Class A, the last place he expected to start his fifth pro season.
They told me that my job would probably be bouncing around from team to team that year.
"They told me that my job would probably be bouncing around from team to team that year," Clarey said. "They said that I’d be the rover if they had injuries that year. It was the type of thing that was not the ideal situation for me, but it was something I accepted."
After three appearances with St. Petersburg in the Florida State League, Clarey received news more surprising than his original demotion. The Cardinals’ second baseman, Mike Tyson, had unexpectedly landed on the DL, and the team’s top choices to replace him in the lineup were out of options and needed to clear waivers before they could join the major-league team. So in a moment of desperate need, Clarey became their guy.
"I came walking into the clubhouse, and Hal Lanier was the manager, and he said, ‘Doug, come over here,’" Clarey recalled. "So I went over to his office, and he was very straight-faced. He said, ‘I’d like you to go home and start packing,’ and I’m going, ‘Oh, gosh, what’s going on here? Have I been released?’ He said, ‘There have been some changes up on the big club, and they want you to report to St. Louis right away.’
"I couldn’t believe it," Clarey continued. "I went from a high of hopefully playing Triple-A to a low of being in Single-A and maybe being a rover for the baseball season to going straight to what my dream was, which was playing big-league baseball."
That night, Clarey traveled to St. Louis, where the team put him up in what was then known as the Stouffer’s Riverfront hotel near Busch Stadium. He signed his contract the next day, but was thought to be little more than an insurance policy until the Cardinals could bring up the guy they wanted.
In his first career at-bat, Clarey struck out on three pitches against the Mets’ Jon Matlack. It wasn’t clear when Clarey would be sent back down, but with a West Coast trip following the New York series, Clarey hoped he’d hold on long enough to join the team in his adopted hometown of San Francisco. After spot duty as a pinch runner during a game in San Diego, Clarey was able to do that.
"It was great because my parents were still living there and my old high school baseball coach, Jim Hemphill, was still there," Clarey said. "My high school coach was actually on the field when I came out of the clubhouse to take batting practice. He was out there by the batting cage, so I was able to talk to him and he was very enthused about my being there.
"A lot of my friends came out to the games in anticipation of me maybe participating in one of them, too. So I had passes all over the place going out. It was great for them to share in my experience."
However, the first two games of the series, a 15-7 win and a 7-1 win, passed without Clarey getting in, and the third, a getaway game on April 28, 1976, looked like it might, as well. It probably would have had it not gone deep into extra innings. But the one-run lead the Cardinals grabbed in the top of the 14th didn’t hold, and when the pitcher’s spot came up next with one out and one on in the top of the 16th, Preston Gomez — managing in place of Red Schoendienst — went with the only position player he had left.
… As soon as I walked up to the batter’s box, everything changed. It was like everything that had been natural for all these years, it all kicked into gear, and I blocked everything out.
"As soon as I got to the on-deck circle, I heard all these cheers from all the people who were there for me, so that was pretty neat, to be acknowledged like that," Clarey said. "But as soon as I walked up to the batter’s box, everything changed. It was like everything that had been natural for all these years, it all kicked into gear, and I blocked everything out. It was like I was in that zone where I know I’ve done this so many times before."
Then three pitches later, after pulling a slider foul and taking a ball from Giants lefty Mike Caldwell, Clarey’s boyhood dream came true.
"In truth, I don’t remember swinging the bat, but I remember making contact and the natural instincts took off and I started running to first base as fast as I could," Clarey said. "Then I remember rounding first base and kind of looking to see what was going on. I remember seeing Gary Matthews, the left fielder at the time, kind of coming down or looking over the wall. I looked up and saw the second-base umpire twirling his finger for a home run. It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is unbelievable. This has got to be a dream.’
"I must have been going as fast as I could circling the bases because it was such a thrill to know what I’d just done," Clarey continued of his first big-league hit, a two-run homer that ultimately won St. Louis the game. "I remember coming to home plate and (teammate) Don Kessinger was there. He was jumping up and down and congratulating me and slapping me on the back. Then back in the dugout everyone was high-fiving me. It was great jubilation."
After the game, Clarey walked into the clubhouse to find his teammates had laid out a stretch of towels from the door to his locker, a red carpet of sorts for the star of the night. Before he got on the bus to the airport, Clarey got a few short moments with his parents, who were perhaps more excited about his accomplishment than he was.
"I remember hugging my mom and my dad, and my mom was crying and my dad had the biggest smile on his face," Clarey said. "It was such a treat, especially for my dad, because he was so integral and supportive of my baseball career. It was almost like he would live a part of his life vicariously through my baseball experiences, so I knew that meant a lot. It was great to be able to provide that kind of experience for him."
Kessinger, the runner Clarey drove in with his homer and the first person to greet him at home plate, put the moment and its aftermath in perspective on the team’s flight to Los Angeles later that night.
"I remember the comment that he made — I didn’t realize how prophetic it would be. He said, ‘You know, Doug, even if you never get another hit in the major leagues, you’re going to have this one shining moment that you can tell your grandkids about,’" Clarey said. "I remember that he said it sincerely, from the heart, and he was so happy for me, but I remember thinking that I hoped it was one of 3,000 hits that I would have in my baseball career. But that wasn’t meant to be, and what he said was true."
Over the course of the 1976 season, Clarey made two more trips to the plate as a major leaguer, both in extra innings. He was never able to replicate the magic of his homecoming game at Candlestick Park, grounding out to the pitcher in the 12th inning of a game in Atlanta that May and popping out to first base in the 10th inning of a loss at Wrigley Field in August.
At the end of the ’76 season, the Cardinals traded Clarey to the Mets for Benny Ayala, and by the end of the 1977 season, he’d been traded again, to the Brewers. Milwaukee traded Clarey to the Orioles before the 1978 season, and Clarey went on to have the best hitting year of his career with Baltimore’s Double-A affiliate in Charlotte, belting 19 homers to go with 69 RBI. Still, after the ’78 season, Clarey found himself contemplating his future in baseball.
"I realized that I’d been doing a lot of bouncing around," Clarey said. "I’d seen a lot of ballplayers that basically hung on and hung on and hung on into their late 20s and 30s for an opportunity to play, and that never resonated with me. My whole thing was to play in the big leagues. I didn’t want to be a career minor leaguer."
So after talking about his potential with player development officials with the Orioles, Clarey ultimately decided to retire from playing at age 24.
"They kind of said, ‘Well, Doug, you’re a great infielder and a good guy, a great influence, and we see you as managerial material,’ but that’s not what I had in mind," Clarey said. "I was playing baseball to play baseball. I never really wanted to get into coaching or managing, so I did a lot of soul searching and I said, ‘You know what, I want to pursue something else.’
"I was one of a slew of ballplayers that were good but not good enough to make the major leagues on any consistent basis, and I think that realization put a damper on my spirits. If I went up to the major leagues it was going to be similar to what I had experienced, maybe coming up for a week because somebody got hurt or something like that, and that’s not why I was playing. I was playing so that I could become an everyday ballplayer. It wasn’t just about being a part of the team. I wanted to be a producer. I wanted to be a person who was actually part of making the team what it was."
With baseball in the rear view, Clarey earned a degree from UCLA and went on to a 12-year career in commercial real estate. Then in 1993, he opened Cheech’s Pizza in Los Angeles, a business he operated until earlier this year, when he turned over the restaurant to his 28-year-old daughter. Though the 61-year-old Clarey doesn’t yet have the grandkids Kessinger once predicted he’d regale with his stories of his first major-league hit, he hopes to someday have the chance to pass along the deeper message that carried him to the big leagues and around the bases at Candlestick Park.
"It proved to me that a person, if they put their focus and energy and time and have a burning desire for something, they can accomplish anything that they want in their life," Clarey said. "I remember when I was in high school and people would say, ‘Well, you’re going to be graduating, what are you going to do with your life?’ I’d tell them, ‘Well, I want to be a major-league baseball player.’ The responses I’d get were very typical. ‘Yeah, OK, right.’ But I never let that dissuade me because that was what I wanted. I thought of nothing else and put all my dreams, all my focus on that, and sure enough the opportunity came."
And while Clarey’s story may never get him his own biopic like his late classmate Jobs, the memories aren’t a bad consolation prize.
"It’s something I look back on very fondly," Clarey said of his baseball career. "Usually when I tell people my story — a lot of people would come into the pizzeria and loved to talk baseball when people found out that I played — people would just shake their heads like, ‘That’s unbelievable. It’s like a movie. Who could think of something like that?’ So I guess I was part of my own Hollywood movie, in a certain respect."