Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2007 | At this stage of Tony Clark’s baseball career, he should be called Cool Papa Clark. And not just in Arizona, where the San Diegan once better known for basketball plays for the Diamondbacks.

Cool Papa Bell, of course, was a Negro Leagues baseball legend with one of the all-time greatest sports nicknames. Satchel Paige liked to say Bell, “was so fast he can turn out the light and be in bed before the room gets dark.”

Clark isn’t that fast — the 6-foot-7, 255-pounder has only six stolen bases in 12 Major League seasons — but there are a couple of fitting reasons Clark should be permitted to borrow from the nickname.

First, the 35-year-old Clark has become a father-figure leader of a young Diamondbacks roster that has challenged the Padres for the National League West title. The Padres began a three-game series Monday at Arizona with the teams tied for first place.

“We have a good group of guys, and a leader is only as good as the people that trust and believe and are willing to follow what the leader has to say,” Clark said. “I’m fortunate to have some time in the game, and my resume dictates some respect. But more than anything else, the guys understand anything I’m trying to offer them is an effort to help us win a ballgame that night and to help them become a big leaguer for 10 or 20 years.”

That’s the Papa in Cool Papa Clark.

A second fitting reason is Clark has a special appreciation for the history of the Negro Leagues that sadly isn’t commonplace among many young ballplayers in today’s game of multi-millionaires.

Clark, however, understands the path that was paved for future African-Americans such as himself. His enlightenment came during his second season of pro ball while playing for the Detroit Tigers’ Niagara Falls affiliate. With a day off during a road trip through upstate New York, Clark visited the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

“I was looking at all the names on the plaques and thinking, ‘This is outstanding,’ ” Clark recalled. “But then I went into the Negro Leagues section dedicated to players you rarely hear about. I spent the rest of my time in that section. When I left, I made a promise to educate myself and everybody I came in contact with — especially young black ballplayers — about the opportunity we have because of the Negro Leagues.”

That’s the Cool in Cool Papa Clark.

Arizona outfielder Eric Byrnes, one of the franchise’s young stars, says a key reason the D-backs have remained in contention for the NL West title is Clark’s leadership. A year ago, with a different roster, Byrnes said the team was brought down by players that complained about playing time.

Clark is a reserve first baseman and pinch-hitter extraordinaire in his third season with the D-backs after six with the Detroit Tigers and stops with the Boston Red Sox, New York Mets and New York Yankees.

He is hitting just .237 for the year, but he has 12 home runs in only 177 at bats. He’s batting .286 off the bench and has 28 pinch-hits. He paces an Arizona bench that leads the NL in slugging percentage at .507.

Clark’s career includes 239 home runs. He hit 30 in 2005, his first season with the Diamondbacks, and had three straight 30-plus homer seasons with the Tigers from 1997-99.

The Tigers made Clark the second pick of the draft in 1990, even though he said his future was in basketball. Back then, Clark was one of the top college basketball recruits in the nation as senior at Christian High in El Cajon.

He started his career at Arizona before a back injury entered into his decision to transfer to San Diego State. But he later underwent back surgery, and when he was never the same on the court, he switched his focus to baseball.

“Everything I am today on the field and off the field — from how I govern my life, my family and my faith in Christ — is based on my time in San Diego,” said Clark, who met his wife Frances at SDSU and has three children, Kiara, 12; Jazzin, 9; and Aeneas, 5. “I’m always appreciative when I come home to play the Padres and the support I get from fans that remember my time in high school and college. I’ve had guys say they umpired me in Little League or pitched batting practice to me.”

The fans he’s met at Petco know he signs his autograph with a notation: Philippians 4:13 — “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

Clark hopes to play a couple more years with the Diamondbacks before retiring. Arizona might be a more mature clubhouse by then, but still be worthy of being called Cool Papa Clark.

Only a player with his leadership skills and his appreciation for the Negro Leagues should be permitted to borrow such a nickname.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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