Matt Clark hopes this year’s Olympic baseball tournament will prove that what goes around comes around, and that the lessons he learned playing in Japan will help earn Mexico its first Olympic medal in the sport.
Clark, who had two stints in Japan, has been playing in the Mexican League since 2015. In 2019, he was asked to join Mexico’s team for the Premier 12, where he helped propel Mexico into its first Olympic baseball tournament.
“My grandmother is from Mexico. I’m a Mexican citizen now,” Clark said recently from his home in Houston. “I didn’t know they were going to put me on the team. They just called me out of the blue at the end of that season in 2019. ‘You’re on the team,’ they said. ‘We’d love to have you.'”
“That tournament was probably the most amazing experience I’ll take away from baseball, being able to go to the Olympics. It’s been pushed back a year but at least we’re going.”
Clark first came to Japan in 2013 with the Chunichi Dragons, and returned in 2016 for a spell with the Orix Buffaloes. In between his Dragons stint and his becoming a fixture in Mexican ball, Clark made his major league debut with 16 games for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2014.
“Those 16 games in the big leagues definitely don’t define what I’ve done as a player. It’s one little tidbit of a long story,” he said.
The 2019 Premier12 filled two of the spots for the six-team Tokyo Olympic tourney. Israel, another Olympic baseball newcomer, had previously qualified as had host Japan. South Korea qualified by reaching the final against Samurai Japan, while Mexico qualified by beating the United States in the bronze medal game.
Clark tied that game 1-1 with a sixth-inning RBI single and prevented a loss by leading off the bottom of the ninth with a home run off his former teammate, Orix Buffaloes closer Brandon Dickson. Mexico won the bronze medal and the right to compete in the Tokyo Olympics when then-Hanshin Tigers’ first baseman Efren Navarro singled in the 10th-inning game-winner.
“I played for Team USA in the Pan-Am Games in 2011,” Clark said. “Paul Seiler (executive director and CEO of USA Baseball), who is still a really good friend, said, ‘I can’t believe we let one of our own guys leave and then come back and beat us.’ To qualify for the country means the world. It’s going to be really fun this summer, and I’m interested to see who else qualifies.”
The United States is scheduled to host the Americas qualifying tournament in early June in Florida, while Taiwan will then host the final qualifier starting from June 16.
“It was awesome. Tokyo Dome is like my favorite place to play because I’ve always hit well there,” Clark said. “Being able to step up to the plate and hear the fans cheer for you because they remember you was one of the cooler things.”
“I told the guys, ‘Watch, when I go hit, they’re going to cheer more than normal,’ because they remember me playing here, and they cheered really loud and people were yelling. It’s almost like coming home again going back to play there.”
Clark may not have been an all-star in Japan, but he credited his time here with making him the player he is now, one good enough to be selected for Mexico’s national team.
“I learned more from my first full season in Japan with the Dragons,” he said. “I think that propelled me into having a better career now. I think I’m (now) 10 times the hitter I was that year. Physically, mentally, strength-wise, it’s a whole different thing. I learned more about myself and myself as a hitter that year. It taught me a great deal. I will never forget that.”
After a year off due to the coronavirus, Clark is now preparing for his league season and another trip to Japan.
“Once the season gets going, because it’s been such a long layoff, get the juices flowing again. Once we take the flight over, it’s going to be all hands on deck. Because it’s only six teams, so technically you have a 50% chance of medaling. The main focus this year is get the season going and get ready for the Olympics.”
“Japan’s the favorite. I still follow all the games (in Japan) daily. And I know who’s doing well, who’s pitching. The friendships you make there last a long time. I think it’s because you are so far away from home that they become your family and you never forget them. So, I go out of my way when I run into a Japanese player, and I try to treat them the way I was treated and try to help them just to try and return the favor.”
If returning that favor involves Clark showing the world what an education in Japanese baseball is worth, then so much the better.
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