Nothing to hide
Al Clark crushes the batting-practice offerings. Hits 'em out of the park.

For nearly an hour, he weaves tales from his umpiring career. World Series assignments, no-hitters and treasured mementos. Cal Ripken's record-breaker, Bucky Dent's home run and Nolan Ryan's 300th.

Iconic baseball moments teeming with Hall of Fame characters.

Sure, the stories have been rehearsed over decades of after-dinner speeches and barstool bull sessions. But Clark's childlike enthusiasm and roof-raising laughter draw folks in.

"He steamrolled me," his wife, Cynthia, says of their courtship.

"Al is a very gregarious soul, to say the least," says Rick Reed, an umpire and longtime Clark confidant. "He will take over a room rather easily.

"He was the hit of my son's wedding. Our pastor said, 'Now that is an interesting guy.' "

For all his charisma, Clark understands that batting practice is prelude. The only issue is, when will the pitcher start throwing heat?

Clark makes it easy. He asks for it.

"I was done (umpiring) in the middle of the year in 2001," he says. "Justly or unjustly, we can talk about that, too. I don't care. That doesn't bother me in the least.

"As a matter of fact, I've got a Web site to help other people thrown into a situation that they never thought they'd be in, called '' "

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By the time he moved to Ford's Colony in 1992, Clark was an umpiring staple. The son of a Trenton, N.J., sportswriter, he earned promotion to the American League in 1976 after only four seasons in the minors.

He was 27, confident and very ambitious.

"No one grows up wanting to be an umpire," Clark says. "You grow up wanting to be a player. And when that hard, harsh realization sets in that you're not good enough to be a player, you set your sights elsewhere.

"I went to Eastern Kentucky University. I taught for a year. I didn't enjoy that. I wrote (sports) for a year. I did enjoy that. But after growing up with a sportswriter, I wanted to eat steaks instead of hamburgers the rest of my life."

Big-league umpiring afforded Clark filet mignon — he likes his medium-rare. The accommodations were first-rate, perks abundant, salary considerable — $384,000 annually plus more than $300 per diem during his final season, Clark says.

He befriended not only co-workers, but also athletes, television executives, business tycoons and adventurous women. He appeared as an extra on his favorite soap, "Santa Barbara," free-lanced in public relations for Polaroid and married a relative stranger on a boat — the annulment came a day later.

"You'd love to have a beer with him," says World Golf Hall of Famer and former Williamsburg resident Curtis Strange. "He was very friendly. He got us tickets once to Fenway, great seats, and came over and talked between every inning. You'd have never known he was working."