Ex-umpire Clark's book a story of redemption

An MLB veteran of 25-plus years, he was imprisoned after conviction for mail fraud

Ex-umpire Clark's book a story of redemption

Sitting down with "Called Out But Safe: A Baseball Umpire's Journey" has to be a lot like sitting down over a beer with former umpire Al Clark and listening to him talk. It's a breezy, conversational read.

Clark, 66, is clearly proud of having worked in the Major Leagues for more than 25 years and calling more than 3,000 games -- including two World Series, seven playoff series and two All-Star Games. He frequently refers to the umpires as the "third team" on the field and misses no opportunity to praise their importance to the game.

In this volume, written with veteran journalist Dan Schlossberg, Clark covers a variety of topics, from being one of only three arbiters to eject Cal Ripken Jr. from a game, to the impact of being Jewish, to wearing his name "AL" on his cap before the American and National Leagues merged umpiring staffs in 2000.

What sets this book apart, though, is not the good times and amusing stories. It's the hard falls that came, first when he was fired for travel expenses irregularities in 2001, and then again three years later when he spent four months in jail and four months on house arrest after being convicted of mail fraud connected to the sale of baseball memorabilia.

"Years later I realized how ironic it was that I had been trained to make the correct decision -- and make it quickly -- but made the wrong decision when I had time to think about it," he wrote in one poignant passage.

While Clark rationalizes his downfalls to some extent -- the dismissal was basically a bookkeeping oversight, the imprisonment came about because he was simply trying to do a favor for a friend -- he owns up to what he did and concludes that he's a better person for having gone through the experience. Ultimately, the theme of the volume is redemption.

Even though he was in a minimum security prison, being incarcerated was no picnic. He writes about getting close to an inmate known as "T," who wielded enormous power. One day, Clark's folding chair disappeared. T vowed to get it back. While T was gone, another prisoner observed that T might be getting ready to create a "family reunion."

Clark looked at him quizzically.

"When are the only times families get together? Weddings and funerals. And there ain't no weddings in here," the guy explained.

Another time, an inmate was being loud and boisterous and Clark, without thinking, told him to shut up. The guy was 20 years younger and in great shape, and he came after Clark. Only at the last second was a brawl averted.

"I'm a positive person," Clark wrote. "If I can create a positive situation from a very negative one and put a spin on it that not only works for me, but someone else can also take advantage of my misfortune, that's a very positive thing."

So, while inside, Clark conducted an umpire's clinic. After he was released, he launched a website that gave advice and information to people who, like him, never expected to find themselves in jail.

His conclusion: "Not everybody who goes to jail is a bad person or a criminal. A lot of people who go to jail made a mistake and have to pay for it. But the length of their sentence … shouldn't define who they are if they've been a good person before and they're going to be a good person afterward. It was just something that happened in their lives.

"The situation was bad and the memories are tough, but being incarcerated was a tremendous learning experience."

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.