We gnash our teeth when our idols decline; but we never really think of them as they are at the end.
We remember Willie Mays in a Mets uniform or Elvis in a spangled jumpsuit because we like them too much to forget anything about them. But when we stop to reminisce, the feats of Polo Grounds Willie and Sun Records Elvis dominate the discussion, not the embarrassments of their final years.
We’re not usually as kind to the runners-up and the also-rans. We’re more likely to remember them broke or divorced or stumbling.
But maybe we should extend them the same courtesy we give to stars and heroes. At a certain basic level, they deserve it.
Here, then, a portrait of a young man at the top of his game.
It is a few minutes after 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 15, 1974, and David Eugene Clyde is the real deal.
Clyde has just finished pitching a 6-1 victory for the Texas Rangers over the California Angels, outpitching Angels star Nolan Ryan in the process.
The game itself is no masterpiece of the pitcher’s art. Clyde scatters nine hits and six walks, and only manages a single one-two-three inning. But working out of jams is part of a pitcher’s job description, and Clyde manages to do it inning after inning, yielding only one harmless run at the end.
The win — his second straight complete-game victory — brings the left-hander’s record to 3-0 and his earned-run average to 2.43.
The young man with three first names is less than a month past his 19th birthday.
His first half-season in the major leagues, fresh from high school, had been rocky at best. But the night of May 15th finds the Rangers only a game out of first place and their future star putting together some impressive starts against big-league competition.
David Clyde, it seems, has arrived.
Baseball fans know that true success was only an illusion for David Clyde.
They know the story of how the Rangers couldn’t resist rushing the hard-throwing high-schooler straight to the big leagues in June 1973 … and then couldn’t resist keeping him there for the rest of the year as a gate attraction, rather than farming him out to the minors for some experience outside the spotlight.
They know, if they’re stat-heads, that Clyde followed up his win on May 15, 1974, with five straight starts in which he failed to get through the fifth inning.
They know that Clyde, his arm aching and his confidence shot, was out of the Rangers’ starting rotation by the end of July. They know he made only one big-league appearance in 1975 — the year he turned 20 and, by rights, should still have been blossoming into a star — and spent all of ’76 and ’77 in the minors, fighting arm trouble and wildness.
And they know that, after 37 games with the lowly Indians in 1978 and ’79, David Clyde’s big-league career was over.
Today, David Clyde is one of baseball’s great cautionary tales. He is mostly remembered as an example of what can happen when a young pitcher is rushed to The Show too quickly, and when a young player’s popularity with fans is allowed to outweigh his developmental needs on the field.
But there was a time when Clyde was not a novelty, nor a curiosity, nor a burnout case, nor a synonym for dashed dreams.
He was an up-and-coming power pitcher capable of shutting down big-league hitters.
And at his best — for a few weeks in April and May 1974 — he must have seemed more than just up-and-coming; he must have seemed well on his way to full-fledged.
Looking at David Clyde’s pitching lines for the first few weeks of that season tells a different story than most of us know.
I bet Clyde has never forgotten what it felt like to face a Hall-of-Famer like Frank Robinson and get him to ground harmlessly into an infield out — as he did twice on the night of May 15, 1974.
When we look at our own lives, we would rather focus on the joy of achievement than the sting of disappointment.
It is David Clyde’s misfortune that his narrative seems so permanently bound to the latter. Perhaps there is still a chance to restore equal time to the former.