David Clyde still fights for pension fairness

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David Clyde at home in Texas, at peace with his mishandled career, but in the battle to redress pensions for short-career players between 1949 and 1980. (NGSC Sports photo.)

Hyped, mishandled, injured, finally discarded. Former Rangers pitching phenom David Clyde has long been at peace with his aborted career. He’d like to see himself and his fellow short-career players at peace, too, with even a small entry into baseball’s pension plan.

That plan was re-aligned in 1980. It now vested health benefits after one day’s major league time, granted a retirement allowance after 43 days’ major league time, but excluded players like Clyde whose major leaguer careers were short and occurred between 1949 and 1980.

When not recovering from spinal fusion surgery last winter, or continuing to coach youth baseball, Clyde continues fighting in his way to help get what he considers financial justice for those players. Once upon a time, he joined the battle for its own sake, since before his recent health issues he didn’t need the extra help himself.

“I got involved initially just because it was the right thing to do,” says Clyde, who sounds at 64 more like an amiable Texas rancher than the teenager who struck eight Twins out in his circus-like first major league start right out of high school. “I guess the biggest thing I’m disappointed in is why the [Major League Baseball] Players Association doesn’t feel like it’s . . . bound to do a dad gum thing for us.”

Legally, the players union and MLB alike aren’t bound to lift a finger on their behalf. Clyde and his fellows understand only too well. But for them it’s not a legal matter. “I think it’s beyond morally and ethically,” says Clyde, who missed his full pension vesting under the pre-1980 plan by 37 days.

“I guess what bothers me the most about it is, the Players Association—they loathe being called a union—didn’t hesitate one bit taking my dues when I was a major league player,” he says. “But as soon as you’re no longer a major league player, they basically don’t want to have anything to do with you.”

Staying engaged is one thing. But it’s a little more difficult for Clyde to press forward formally now. Not too long ago, Clyde, former Braves pitcher Gary Neibauer, and former longtime first baseman-turned-executive Eddie Robinson, three key voices on behalf of the short-career players, were removed from the Pension Services Committee of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association.

And interesting and engaging fans and major media, sports and otherwise, is an issue by itself. Douglas Gladstone—whose 2010 book A Bitter Cup of Coffee first exposed what the 1980 re-alignment didn’t mean for Clyde and his fellow short-career players—continues battling to get the major media engaged. To precious little avail.

“You tell me why people who are in a position to bring this to the public’s light on a national basis refuse to even acknowledge it exists,” Clyde says.

And he has a point. A fair number of former players have made high enough-profile second careers as baseball broadcasters. They include Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley (with the Red Sox), Joe Morgan (a longtime ESPN fixture), and John Smoltz (Fox Sports), plus former pitchers Ron Darling (with the Mets), Mike Krukow (with the Giants), and Rick Sutcliffe (ESPN); former infielders Keith Hernandez (Mets), Eric Karros (Fox Sports), Jerry Remy (the Red Sox), and Alex Rodriguez (ESPN); and, former outfielder Harold Reynolds (formerly ESPN; now MLB Network).

Clyde says he’s even tried talking to assorted Hall of Famers (he wouldn’t drop names) who agreed players such as himself should be brought back into the pension plan. They even crafted a letter to present at a mid-2000s Hall of Fame ceremony. But “at the last minute,” he continues, “the face of that letter withdrew his support.”

If that sounds jarring or alarming, Clyde won’t argue with you. “I’m still very good friends with [that] person,” he says. “I’ve never approached the subject with him, I wouldn’t want to put him on the spot of possibly harming our friendship. [But] the letter itself could be worth a retirement plan with the signatures on it.”

At that, Clyde laughs heartily. But he becomes serious again.

“I don’t know what baseball is so afraid of,” he says. “When you talk to some of the ownership side, the ownership says, ‘We can’t talk about it, the players have to bring it up.’ And when you talk to the players, ‘Well, we don’t have any legal obligation to represent them’.”

By the time Gladstone wrote A Bitter Cup of Coffee, what began as involving about 1,100 short-career players was down to 875. Almost two decades after the book first appeared (Gladstone published an updated edition earlier this year), 248 of those players passed away, leaving 627 short-career former players hoping.

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David Clyde on the mound. He wore number 32 in tribute to his boyhood hero Sandy Koufax.

“By the day, it’s getting cheaper for [baseball] if they ever decide to do it,” Clyde says wryly. “When this thing started, it was going to cost about $15 million a year to fund this thing.” Per affected player, that equals less than a single minimum major league salary per team today, he says.

“You have players today who could single-handedly fund it,” Clyde continues, referring to several of baseball’s nine-figure stars. “And I would think there would be tremendous tax benefits to it.”

But Clyde and his fellows remain left to their own devices and open to suggestions. One, tendered by former Mets pitcher Bill Denehy, might be placing cards outlining the pension struggle along with items people send former players to autograph. (Clyde says he still gets between five and ten such requests a week on average.)

“That’s a great idea,” he says, acknowledging the actual phrasing would have to be worked out. “But who are we sending them to? “Are a majority [of autograph requests] coming from card dealers, eleven-year-old kids?

“If they’re coming from kids, then they don’t have a whole lot of say-so,” he continues. “How do we know that they’d actually be getting to the people who need to know? Why does the national media not want to touch this thing with a twenty-foot pole?”

In 2011, then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-Players Association executive director Michael Weiner announced a small redress: Players frozen out of the original re-alignment would get $625 for every 43 days major league time, with the 43 days representing a quarter and a limit of sixteen quarters, good for $10,000 before taxes. The bad news: If a player dies before collecting the last of those payments, the remaining payments can’t be passed on to their widows and children.

Volumes have been written about Clyde’s baseball saga. Perhaps nobody captured it better in thumbnail than Fort Worth Star-Telegram sportswriter Mike Shropshire in 1996, in Seasons in Hell: With Billy Martin, Whitey Herzog, and “The Worst Team in Baseball History”—The 1973-1975 Texas Rangers.

“If there is anything of enduring value from the narrative of (the book),” Shropshire wrote, “it’s the David Clyde saga: the tale of the teen phenom who gets a pile of dough, gets exploited by the ownership, and ends up with a career that is shot.”

Clyde idolised Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax growing up; he wore uniform number 32 in tribute to his hero. His pitching career at Houston’s Westchester High evoked what you might have imagined Koufax in high school if baseball was his sport. A warehouse full of strikeouts. A backpack full of no-hitters. But Clyde also represented something else to then-Rangers owner Bob Short.

Short despaired of credibility for the club after moving it from Washington. He wanted and needed to goose his gate. He saw Clyde’s goose overloaded with golden eggs right out of high school and took him number one in the June 1973 draft. And, he insisted the eighteen-year-old lefthander with the live arm step right onto a major league mound, without a drop of badly needed minor league experience and maturing first.

Clyde won his first start and pitched well overall in his first two starts. He did what Short hoped he’d do—make the Rangers credible and, coincidentally, help rescue the team’s finances. Some called Clyde the franchise saviour, and still do. He denies “saving” the franchise, but he’ll agree he made the team viable in their part of Texas.

But Short reneged on a promise to manager Whitey Herzog and refused to send Clyde to the minors. When you suggest to Clyde that Herzog may have been the only man in the Rangers organisation of the time wanting to do right by him, he replies, “As far as I know, that’s the absolute truth.”

A boy among men, subsequently saddled with Billy Martin as his manager when the White Rat was canned before the end of the 1973 season, Clyde ended up a mess. Martin’s notorious lack of patience with pitching youth was magnified regarding Clyde, who’d now pitch only occasionally. Not until 1975 was he allowed to see the minors—after one start followed by a shoulder injury.

He spent three years in the minors from there, returned to the majors with the Indians in 1978. He had scattered success and less scattered failures; he was traded back to the Rangers after the 1979 season but released as “damaged goods” after more shoulder trouble. A 1981 comeback attempt in the Astros organisation came to nothing, and in spring 1982 he retired.

Clyde made a second career in the lumber business, leaving in 2003 but continuing his youth baseball coaching activities, especially pitching and the pitfalls and pratfalls that too often accompany young players to the professional game. He cautions them that the professional sports world won’t always be as honest or as upright as the values with which he and they are raised at home.

“Look out for yourself, first,” Clyde says he advises his young charges in hand with pitching knowledge. “Once you’ve used up your usefulness to them, they’re done with you. So I’ve always told my guys look out after number one first, make sure you don’t believe everything they’re telling you.

“I was in a very unique situation, a perfect Catch-22 situation, and probably, in my opinion if any other organisation beside the Rangers had drafted me, we might not be having this conversation today.”

Most writings about Clyde in recent years paint a portrait of a man with no bitterness about the way his pitching career turned out, no matter how it was compromised by forces past his control.

“I have been a blessed individual my whole life,” he says. “I’m still blessed to this day, I’m very thankful for everything the good Lord has given me. Why should I be bitter? I had my chance. Granted, a lot of people may say it was under the best of circumstances, and I can argue it was under the worst of circumstances, but I did get the chance.”

He drew an insight toward such perspective one day while working in his garage and listening to a sports radio program. The broadcaster said  “at that time there were about fifteen thousand people who ever played major league baseball, and of that fifteen thousand, roughly half of them were pitchers.

“So you have seventy-five hundred players in over a hundred years who have ever toed the rubber on a major league mound when the umpire says, ‘Play ball’,” Clyde continues. “When you narrow it down to those terms, no matter how much we sucked, we were still pretty good.”

He hopes only that for short-timers such as himself, it’s still pretty good to get them un-frozen from baseball pensions.

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