Tokyo 2020 baseball: Why Mexico's Matt Clark wants to say thank you to Japan
The American-born first baseman spent parts of two seasons playing in the Olympic Games host country, and will return in 2021 for the baseball tournament.
That is the California-born Matt Clark, a former Major League Baseball player who spent parts of two seasons playing in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB).
Clark, who received Mexican citizenship through his Mexican grandmother in 2019, first moved to play in Mexico in 2016 with the Vaqueros Laguna. But he revealed to Kyodo News he owes Japan a debt.
"I learned more from my first full season in Japan with the [Chunichi] Dragons," Clark said. "It taught me a great deal; I will never forget that."
Clark was first drafted in the 28th round of the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2007, but he turned down their contract offer to attend Louisiana State University.
A year later, he was selected in the 12th round by the San Diego Padres, and he began his professional career in the minor leagues.
While he did slowly work his way through the ranks to reach triple-A – the level just under MLB – Clark decided to give something else a go.
He signed with the Dragons, appearing in 132 games and recording 97 hits in 407 at-bats (.238) with 25 home runs in 2013.
"I think that propelled me into having a better career now," the 34-year-old reflected to Kyodo.
"I think I'm (now) 10 times the hitter I was that year, physically, mentally, strength-wise. It's a whole different thing. I learned more about myself, and myself as a hitter that year."
That season, coupled with a stint in the Milwaukee Brewers' double-A and triple-A systems hitting .304 the following year, saw him called up by the Brewers in September 2014 when the MLB rosters expanded.
While he would only appear in 16 games and never return to the majors, Clark did hit three home runs in three consecutive games during his spell with Milwaukee.
"Those 16 games in the big leagues definitely don't define what I've done as a player," Clark insisted. "It's one little tidbit of a long story."
Eliminating Team USA
While Clark now plays for Mexico, he actually represented his birth country back in 2011, when he was with San Diego's triple-A affiliate Tucson Padres.
At that year's Guadalajara Pan American Games, he was part of the American team that won a silver medal, playing alongside current Major Leaguers James McCann, AJ Pollock, Matt Shoemaker and Drew Smyly.
Eight years later, he would find himself on the national team of his grandmother's home country, facing the U.S. in the bronze-medal playoff at the 2019 WBSC Premier12.
As the top-placed team from the Americas at the Premier12 would qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Games, the winner of that match would secure the spot.
Clark played a vital role, tying the game twice – once in the bottom of the ninth inning – before Mexico walked it off in extra innings.
Team USA still has two chances to qualify, once at the WBSC Americas Qualifier in Florida at the end of this month, then at the final qualifier to be held next month in Chinese Taipei.
Returning to Japan
With Mexico already qualified alongside hosts Japan, Israel, and South Korea, all eyes will be on those two tournaments as the last two spots are confirmed.
"It's going to be really fun this summer, and I'm interested to see who else qualifies," Clark added.
"Because it's only six teams, so technically you have a 50 percent chance of medalling."
Clark will return to play in Japan for the first time since 2016, when he appeared in 47 games for the Orix Buffaloes in both NPB and the Japanese minor league.
"It's almost like coming home again going back to play there," he said.
"The friendships you make there last a long time. I think it's because you are so far away from home that they become your family and you never forget them."