General : : Professional
Saturday, April 19, 2014

'PG pioneer' calls it a career

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

The noticeable lack of background noise was somewhat puzzling during a recent telephone conversation with former big league ballplayer Jeff Clement, a native Iowan who today resides in Ankeny, Iowa. Clement, you see, shares a home with his wife Lindsay and their four children, the oldest of which will be 5 years old next week with the youngest checking in at a very young 6 weeks old.

“It’s a lot of very young ones in a short amount of time; we didn’t waste any time filling our house up,” he said with a laugh.

The kids were being exceptionally quiet on this day while the 30-year-old Clement chatted with Perfect Game about a baseball career that came to an end with last month’s announcement of his retirement. He was never able to reach the heights professionally that he achieved during a record-setting amateur career, and when the right opportunity failed to knock on his door this spring, he decided it was time to find another path.

“There were a lot of factors that ended up ultimately proving to be big when the final decision (to retire) was made,” Clement said. “How I felt physically, the lack of opportunities to continue … and we just had our fourth (child) on March 4 and that would have been the first week of spring training. All of those things ended up contributing to making the final decision.”

After being selected by the Seattle Mariners with the No. 3 overall pick in the first round of the 2005 MLB amateur draft out of the University of Southern California, Clement went on to play all or parts of nine minor league seasons and parts of four seasons (2007, ’08, ’10, ‘12) in the majors with the Mariners and the Pittsburgh Pirates. A left-handed hitting catcher, the oft-injured Clement hit .218 with 14 home runs and 39 RBI in 152 big-league games.

Those numbers do nothing to diminish the career the power-hitting Clement enjoyed during his four years (1999-2002) playing at Marshalltown (Iowa) High School, as a true trailblazer for Perfect Game from 1998 through 2002, and as a collegiate All-American at USC. His name found a spot in several record books, and he holds one high school career mark that may never be broken.

Perfect Game founder and president Jerry Ford doesn't hesitate when it comes to Clement's contributions to the game in general and to Perfect Game in particular.

"Jeff is easy to describe: extremely talented, hard-working, intelligent, tough, very humble and a great teammate," Ford said. "He's one of the most high-class players Perfect Game has ever been around. I don't know what his plans are, but I hope it involves baseball because he definitely has great leadership qualities."

IT SEEMS AS IF CLEMENT WAS DESTINED TO PLAY ON THE BIGGEST STAGES his entire baseball career. He starred on the Marshalltown team that advanced to the 1996 Little League World Series, a team coached by his father, Brad Clement, a retired educator and coach who today is Perfect Game’s Vice President of Development.

Clement was a national headline-grabber during his four-year career at Marshalltown High, setting several national hitting records that still stand today. The 75 home runs he belted in four seasons wearing a Bobcats uniform ranks first all-time and may always stand due to a change in bat rules. The 214 career walks he drew rank first nationally and he was walked 72 times during the 2002 season, a single-season national record. His 240 career hits rank eighth all-time.

“Looking back now that my career is over and I’m 30 years old, I would say those high school years – if they weren’t the most fond memories I had playing baseball they were right up there with the most fond memories,” Clement said.

He was also among a core group of Iowa high school prospects that helped get the now-established Perfect Game Fall and Spring Wood Bat Leagues off the ground in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Others in that group included future big-leaguers and Iowa natives Joel Hanrahan, Ryan Sweeney, Brad Nelson, Matt Macri and Pat Neshek.

 “It felt like it was a really special group with a lot of individuals that had a lot of ability, but you never really know until you look back right now and realize it was a pretty high number of players (from Iowa) that reached the major league level,” Clement said.

“I started playing with Perfect Game when I was in eighth-grade; it just gave me a lot of extra repetition, a lot of extra games and got me more comfortable with the wooden bats, which never hurts. I know that it helped as far as exposure and just getting out there and being able to play in front of people at the professional level and the collegiate level, as well.”

A fixture in those early years, Clement played in four Iowa Fall League seasons (1998-2001) and four Iowa Spring League campaigns (1999-2002), and used those years to further establish himself in the minds of the nation’s scouting community. He also played in the 2nd annual PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in 2000, an event that has grown into one of the most heavily scouted and highly regarded amateur tournaments in the world.

“I think when you go to the big tournaments and you're playing with and against the best kids that are the same age from all over the country, you can kind of see where you stack up at that point,” Clement said.

He became even more of a PG pioneer when he attended the 2001 Perfect Game National Showcase at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. – the inaugural PG National. Clement was among 16 future first round draft picks at the event, including Prince Fielder, Alex Gordon, Scott Kazmir and B.J. Upton.

He said his most enduring memory from the 2001 PG National Showcase came when he was at bat during a game and hit a hard ground ball in the hole between first and second base.

“I thought it was a base-hit for sure,” he said, chuckling at the memory. “And then some really large 18-year-old or 17-year-old went over and made a play in the hole; it was Prince Fielder. I remember thinking he was way too agile to be that size and to be able to move like that. Now you see what he’s able to do at the major league level and it makes more sense.”

He also remembered catching Kazmir in game-action at the event. “It’s funny to recollect the different things that were going through your head at the time and the different memories you create by being able to travel and playing with and against the best,” he

CLEMENT SAID HE REALLY DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT HEADING into the 2002 draft, simply because he had been told so many different things by so many different people. He recalls not performing well at the 2002 Perfect Game Pre-Draft Showcase on Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids, Iowa – the fourth time he attended that showcase – and he subsequently dropped to the 12th round where he was selected by the Minnesota Twins.

“They didn’t really make too much of an effort to sign me,” he said. “We exchanged numbers a couple of times and it was clear we were way too far away as far as the amount for me to sign, so I went to USC and obviously that worked out great. … There are definitely no regrets not signing out of high school even though that’s really what I wanted to do.”

At the time, of course, there was apprehension, not unlike the apprehension any kid feels leaving the comforts of home to go far away to attend college. This situation just seemed much more amplified.

“I really had no clue. I was 17 or 18 years old going from Marshalltown, Iowa, to Los Angeles, California, and that’s quite a culture shock,” Clement said with a laugh. “Those two environments were so completely different, going from a small town in Iowa to the second biggest city in the country, but I was so busy between school and baseball that I didn’t really have the chance to get involved in too much else.

“I was just pretty focused on wanting to be the best baseball player I could be and between that and class, that really took up most of my time,” he continued. “You get thrown into a situation like that it’s going to be sink or swim and you find out what you’re made of.”

By the time Clement’s three-year career at USC came to a close after the 2005 season, he had firmly established his legacy as one of the finest players in the program’s storied history.

Recognized as a three-season all-American by several organizations, Clement hit .314 (200-for-636) with 46 home runs, 37 doubles, 150 RBI and 141 runs scored in 171 games wearing a Trojans’ uniform. The 46 home runs are second on the school’s all-time career list behind Mark McGwire’s 54, and his 150 career RBI are tied for seventh with McGwire.

In his junior season (2005), he hit .348 with 15 home runs, 17 doubles, 54 RBI and 52 runs, was named a first-team all-American by four separate organizations and won the Johnny Bench Award as the nation’s top catcher. In the summer before his junior year, Clement played on the U.S. National Team, won a gold medal at the FISU II World University Baseball Championship and was named the MVP for Team USA at the 33rd annual USA vs. Japan Collegiate All-Star Series.

THE FIRST ROUND OF THE 2005 MLB AMATEUR DRAFT TURNED OUT to be a star-studded affair with 2004 Perfect Game All-American Justin Upton going No. 1 overall to the Arizona Diamondbacks and Alex Gordon – who was at the 2001 PG National Showcase at Tropicana Field with Clement – going No. 2 right in front of Clement.

Ryan Zimmerman (Nationals), Ryan Braun (Brewers), Ricardo Romero (Blue Jays), Troy Tulowitzki (Rockies) and Wade Townsend (Rays) went 4 through 9 before Cameron Maybin (Tigers) and Andrew McCutchen (Pirates) were taken with the 10th and 11th picks. Maybin and McCutchen joined Upton at the 2004 Perfect Game All-American Classic.

It was an elite compilation of talent, to be sure, and Clement was right at the top of it. His professional career path didn’t proceed along the lines of some of the others but there are no regrets.

Clement was preparing during this past offseason to play this season but ultimately reached the decision to retire due to the lack of an acceptable opportunity. He had also dealt with a number of injuries throughout his career – most notably a left knee injury that resulted in three surgeries including the last one for treatment of a micro-fracture.

The knee injury forced him to give up catching and move to first base, which further limited his opportunities. He played in 123 games for Triple-A Rochester (Twins) at first base and as a DH and hit .220 with 25 doubles, 16 home runs and 70 RBI.

“If you can catch and you swing left-handed, you’ve got a shot, but once I made the move to first you really have to hit over there, and I had a down year last year so that was a huge contributing factor to my lack of good opportunities to play this year,” he said.

Clement plans to obtain his communications degree – he figures he has about a year of coursework to complete – but won’t finish it at USC. He would also like to help out as a student-coach at the collegiate level, perhaps following his brother Mike to Kansas State, where he is the Wildcats’ second-year hitting coach.

Jeff Clement will always enjoy a special place in Perfect Game’s history and he has enjoyed watching PG grow and prosper.

“It’s amazing how the company has evolved,” he said. “It’s clear that it’s baseball people running the company and when you’re in it for the right reasons, companies and people tend to succeed. It’s clear that Perfect Game has taken off and has continually grown, and its success is based on who the people are that are involved.

“During those four years that I was involved I got to know everybody that’s running the company very well … and just to know them it is not surprising that it’s grown the way it has and it won’t be surprising as it continues to grow, either.”

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