By Brendan Nordstrom
Derek Clark’s eyes were shadowed by the brim of his white and red Firebirds cap.
He hid the ball in his black glove with the gold accents, rolling the baseball through his fingers to find the perfect grip.
After two straight pitches in the dirt, he locked eyes with catcher Henry Hunter.
Clark kicked his right leg high, letting out a large exhale as he delivered a fastball that kissed the outer edge of the zone for strike three.
It’s not a fastball that could light a match or break speedometers — like teammate Greysen Carter’s can — but Clark’s four-pitch mix and understanding of how his pitches work makes it just as effective. As assistant coach Cole Cook put it, catching for him is “annoying.”
“It’s awesome pitching against all these Power 5 guys and proving to people that I can do it,” Clark, who spent three years at Division II Northwood University, said.
With the sun’s rays stretching through the impressionist clouds, Clark walked off the mound cool and confident in front of a sea of over 3,000 Firebirds fans.
The symphony of praise validates Clark’s performance today — and all season. However, he only looked forward into the dugout, dialed in on the next Wareham batter he will face with an unwavering focus on the next out.
“Everybody up here is special in some way,” Hunter said. “The dudes that have that special mentality are the ones that really stand out from everybody else.”
Clark’s numbers this summer are dominant — he owns the third-lowest ERA in the league with 35 strikeouts in 33 innings.
If one were to look at a stat sheet, they might envision a man that mimics the titans of the mound — the behemoth Randy “The Big Unit” Johnson, the 6-foot-4 Triple Crown winner Clayton Kershaw, even Cy Young himself cleared the six-foot threshold.
However, if you look just a little further left on that stat sheet, you’ll read something quite different.
“I’m only 5-foot-8, 185 pounds, so I’m not the specimen or the perfect baseball body, but I know what I can do, and I just love to compete,” Clark said, sitting with perfect posture.
“It’s definitely been a challenge being undersized in the baseball world, but I love being the underdog and proving to everyone that it doesn’t matter how big you are, you can succeed in this game.”
It’s evident at every level Clark has performed at. The left-handed pitcher was underrecruited out of high school with only a handful of offers — none from a Division I program.
It draws parallels to a Firebirds alum — the 5-foot-8 Chicago Cubs pitcher Marcus Stroman, who was inducted into the Cape Cod League Hall of Fame this past offseason. Stroman’s signature phrase “Height Doesn’t Measure Heart” appears on the upper chest of Firebirds jerseys, and it underscores why Clark has found so much success.
“The question we should be asking is, if he’s 5-foot-8 and having that amount of success in this league, among the people that we generally consider to be the top amateur talent in the world,” Cook said, “do we misunderstand what a pitcher is supposed to look like?”
Clark’s story begins in, fittingly, the smallest city in Michigan. Located in the Mitten’s southeast corner, Petersburg was where Clark first picked up a baseball.
“It’s a small community, but everybody’s together, and that’s what I’ve learned is sticking close to the people that you really trust,” Clark said.
By age four, Clark stood at home plate for the first step in what would become his life’s passion. In fact, the lifelong outfielder always imagined himself as a hitter in college until he “found a love for pitching” late in his career at Summerfield High School.
Clark then spent three years at Northwood — an opportunity he will forever be grateful for — collecting accolade upon accolade. The Timberwolves pitcher holds the program record for wins, strikeouts and innings pitched with a career 3.38 ERA.
With Northwood head coach Jake Sabol taking a job at Central Michigan University this offseason, Clark decided he was ready to bet on himself. Entering the transfer portal, Clark elected to attend West Virginia due to their “winning culture.”
Trying to gain an advantage any way he can, Clark focuses on the little things — constant work in the weight room, a healthy sleep schedule and a strong desire to best learn how to improve. Those may seem minuscule in practice, but it goes a long way, and it’s noticed by almost everyone.
“He’s gonna know that you think he’s a little, and he wants you to think that, so it gives him an advantage,” Hunter said. “It’s no secret to any of those guys in the clubhouse just what a competitor he is … and when he’s in that mode, get out of the way, he will run you over.”
Cook was given a piece of advice when beginning his coaching career: If you’re watching a player work across the baseball field, you should know what they’re working on.
“I always know what Derek’s working on. He never tells me and I never told him to do it,” Cook said. “That’s how you make a pitcher.”
Cook, standing at six-and-a-half feet tall, is a former pitcher and was an “uber prospect” throughout his career, pitching for the Firebirds in 2009 and working his way up to Triple-A in the Cleveland farm system.
“If Derek Clark got the shot I got, he would be in The Show, and that’s us misrepresenting talent,” Cook said. “He is everything that’s excellent about baseball. He just happens to be a different size than me.”
Clark, who was originally on a 10-day temporary contract with the Firebirds, earned the extension as one of the team’s most consistent arms. But outside of baseball, he has enjoyed the Cape because it’s a tight-knit community just like Petersburg.
Getting to know his teammates who hail everywhere from Tennessee to California and discovering the best lobster rolls, Clark’s time in Orleans is quickly coming to a close. He will soon ship off to West Virginia to continue his success, and then, he is hoping to get drafted or earn a free agency contract.
But Clark isn’t worried about that. Maybe he’ll start watching “Suits” on Netflix — a recommendation from reliever Chase Lummus — or preparing for what should be an exciting season for his Detroit Lions. Right now, Clark is only worried about the present.
And, if one thing is for certain, Clark is not an underdog.
“Prescribing him that moniker over and over again is short-sighted or buying into this pervasive nonsense. He’s not an underdog. He’s a killer, and he’s one of the best pitchers on Cape Cod,” Cook said. “How does that possibly make him an underdog?”