Whether St. Louis or Texas closes out the World Series, local connections are in the cards for the champion.
Texas Rangers minor-league pitching coordinator Danny Clark, who played at Elizabethton and East Tennessee State, was Rangers’ closer Neftali Feliz’s pitching coach with the Single-A Clinton LumberJacks (Iowa) in 2008. Texas pitcher Derek Holland was also on that team, as was position player Mitch Moreland, a closer at Mississippi State who did pitch a couple of innings for the LumberJacks.
Clark also has been around St. Louis closer Jason Motte, a former Johnson City Cardinal whose brother Justin played at Science Hill. Jason Motte began his career as a catcher, and hit .310 in nine games for Johnson City before being promoted to Peoria in 2003.
Clark was the head coach at Milligan College when Motte occasionally worked out with the Buffs, and Clark said the fire in Motte’s eyes was striking.
“You could see that when he was working out at Milligan,” Clark said. “He would come and throw and work out with us, and he’d catch some bullpens (sessions). Even though he was a catcher at that time, he had that look in his eye. You could tell he was a competitor.
“To be able to convert from a catcher to a pitcher — I know just from the experiences when I’ve dealt with guys in our organization — that’s a tough thing to do. And to be able to do it as quickly as he has and be able to proceed to the big leagues that quickly is obviously an accomplishment.”
Clark basically said Feliz and Holland were can’t-miss prospects when he was coaching them in Iowa. Not that it took a crystal ball.
Feliz went 6-3 with a 2.52 ERA for Clark in Clinton in 2008. And while he walked 28 in 82 innings, he struck out 104 and allowed opponents a .193 average. Holland was 7-0 with a 2.40 ERA and 29 walks in 92 innings.
“They both threw extremely hard and were wild at that time,” said Clark, who also worked with Texas pitcher Matt Harrison in the Arizona fall league in 2007. “And they really lacked a lot of secondary pitches. Seeing them develop over the last three or four years has been really, really nice to kind of sit back and watch.”
Clark will fly out of the Tri-Cities to Texas today with his wife, Jennifer, and three children — 6-year-old Chloe, Claire, 4, and Colby, 2 — to attend World Series games three, four and five. Some of Clark’s former pupils feel like family, too.
“Derek and Neftali and Matt Harrison and I usually talk at least once a month through text or a phone call,” Clark said. “I see them when I go to Arlington maybe two or three times a year, and I get to sit and talk to them a few minutes. It’s always nice to see how they’re doing and where they’re at in their life more than baseball. I just want to make sure they’re doing the things they need to be doing.”
Clark was finding his way in the pro ranks at the same time as those young pitchers.
“I was basically with them as their pitching coach before their careers kind of took off,” he said. “I don’t think those relationships will ever die, just because of the common bond we had. We kind of, in a lot of ways, grew up together.”
Clark’s career has also coincided with the Rangers coming of age. He’s quick to credit president Nolan Ryan and general manager Jon Daniels. Texas finished last in the American League West Division in 2007. Of course, that was the year Texas traded Mark Texeira and Ron Mahay to the Atlanta Braves at the deadline for Feliz, Harrison, shortstop Elvis Andrus, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Beau Jones.
“Obviously, it starts with the ownership,” Clark said. “And then Jon Daniels having the vision he had as a general manager when I first got there six years ago — trying to build within. A lot of the players you see there now are from our system. I think it’s a culture that has developed there, especially over the last two or three years.”
Clark isn’t the only former Buccaneer assisting Texas. Former ETSU pitcher Jeff Andrews, who played on some of Charlie Lodes’ most talented teams, is a pitching coach for the Rangers’ Double-A Frisco RoughRiders.
“Jeff Andrews — what a great pitching coach,” Clark said. “You know, he probably had more wins than anybody on Lodes’ ETSU teams.”
Clark has a former Milligan player that he expects to reach the majors — as an umpire. Science Hill alumnus Will Little has drawn rave reviews behind the plate.
“Will played for me all four years at Milligan,” Clark said. “He actually called some of our Spring Training games last year. He’s got exactly what it takes. He’ll make it (to the majors) in the next three years. He’s set himself up really well.
“Number one, he’s a good strike-ball umpire. That’s the number one criteria they look for. And then his demeanor — he can handle the pressure really well. I’ve talked to two or three umpire supervisors who are really high on him.”
The adrenaline isn’t the same as being a manager in the dugout, but it’s pretty similar when a World Series ring is at stake.
“I want that ring,” Clark says with a sort of ravenous chuckle. “And I am definitely excited to watch them and see how the organization has grown. Six years ago we were dead last and we were 29th in baseball as far as the minor leagues.”
Clark said those rankings were based on a formula that included minor-league affiliates’ success and the number of MLB players the farm system produced.
“And in the last three years they’ve been first or second in the minor leagues,” Clark said, “and obviously, they’ve been to the World Series now two years in a row. It’s been a fun ride to be involved with it.”