What do you want for Christmas this year?
I still remember December of 1993, my first holiday season as a baseball fan. The Orioles had just come off of back-to-back seasons in which they were competitive in the American League East but had fallen short. With a solid nucleus that included catcher Chris Hoiles, shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr., outfielder Brady Anderson, and young pitchers Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina, the team and the fans sensed that they were just a few players away from the postseason.
As the Hot Stove talk commenced, it became clear that Baltimore's primary target was a power-hitting first baseman. There happened to be two such free agents on the market. The first was none other than 29-year-old Will "the Thrill" Clark, whose pedigree included five All Star selections, a Gold Glove award, a .299 career batting average, and a .373 on-base percentage. That was the guy I wanted. I was still a baseball novice, and he was the big name.
The other guy was Rafael Palmeiro, Clark's teammate at Mississippi State University. He was a year younger and not as flashy as the Thrill: no cool nickname, no playoff experience, only two All-Star nods. But he was probably the better player at that time, having come off of a career year (.295-37 HR-105 RBI) and starting to look more durable. He'd played at least 152 games in each of the previous six years, whereas Clark played a few less games with each passing season (he'd missed 30 in 1993) and topped 20 home runs only once in his four most recent efforts.
It wasn't clear to me which player was most coveted by the O's, but I remember my frustration upon hearing that the Rangers had snagged Clark on November 22. Regardless of which first baseman the Birds preferred, Texas had done them a favor. Having just been displaced by his ex-teammate, Raffy signed with the Orioles three weeks later - December 12, to be exact. It was a five-year deal that eventually paid him $27.5 million - slightly more than Clark's own five-year deal.
As it turned out, Christmas had come a bit early in Baltimore. Though the first two years of Palmeiro's Birdland tenure were marred by the baseball strike and a bit of team-wide underachievement, he was a consistent force in the middle of the lineup (and in the field) for the O's. He was a leader on the clubs that made back-to-back ALCS appearances in 1996-1997, and he hit .292 with an average of 41 home runs and 122 RBI per 162 games during his first five years in orange and black. Moreover, he had quickly become one of my favorite players.
In the meantime, the Rangers got what they probably should have expected from Will Clark. He totaled 127 less games than Palmeiro between 1994 and 1998, and while his percentages were strong (.308 AVG, .395 OBP), he was clearly outslugged by Raffy (182 HR to 77). Texas reached the postseason twice but failed to advance past the Division Series both times.
So what happened when both players' contracts were up? Baltimore owner Peter Angelos failed to resign Palmeiro quickly, allowing the slugger to return to Texas on December 4 after careful deliberation. He was even more productive over the next five years than he had been in Charm City, bashing 214 home runs in Arlington. In need of a new first baseman, the O's turned to...an old first baseman. Signed on December 7, Will Clark lasted a year and a half in Baltimore, hitting .302 with a .404 on-base percentage but playing only 156 games due to injuries. He hit 19 homers and drove in 57 in the equivalent of a full season's work. The Orioles began to circle the drain.
But no worries. They brought back Raffy in 2004, and that turned out just fi...oh. Never mind.
I hope your upcoming Christmas is full of Palmeiro-in-1993 gifts, and not Clark-in-1998 or Palmeiro-in-2004 gifts.