David Clyde’s story is still a cautionary tale 50 years after his MLB debut at age 18

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David Clyde cautionary tale
Former Texas Rangers pitcher David Clyde, right, meets Detroit Tigers pitcher Mason Englert before a baseball game between the Tigers and the Rangers in Arlington, Texas, Tuesday, June 27, 2023. The Tigers pitcher, a rookie from Forney, Texas, broke some of Clyde's Texas high school records. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — David Clyde was a Texas prep phenom, a big left-hander with a blazing fastball and a nasty curve when he made his major league debut.

A half-century later, the story of the No. 1 overall draft pick remains a cautionary tale instead of a reflection on a career that had seemed destined to be filled with lots of wins and strikeouts.

Clyde was just 18, only a few weeks out of high school and that draft in 1973, when he got thrust into the majors by the original Texas Rangers owner desperate to generate interest — and, most importantly, ticket sales — for the financially strapped team that had moved from Washington the previous season.

“The biggest thing, and I think baseball has learned from it, is let’s not do that again,” Clyde said Tuesday, the 50th anniversary of his debut. “Out of my career, I would hope that they learned that let’s not rush talent, let’s develop it. Let’s look to the future, not just today.”

While fans filled the stadium when he pitched that first season, there was little instruction given to the young power pitcher who was in his third pro season before even going to the minors. Then came shoulder surgery and a trade to Cleveland, where he had his best season at 8-11 in 1978, a year before his last pitch in the majors at age 24. He finished 18-33 with a 4.63 ERA in 84 games.

Texas had its first sellout crowd ever on the night of Clyde’s debut, with 35,698 at a stadium that was demolished long ago several hundred yards from the team’s second ballpark since. Clyde struck out eight and walked seven over five innings, getting a victory over the Minnesota Twins.

The AL West-leading Rangers recognized Clyde before their game against Detroit on Tuesday night. The 68-year-old Clyde was unable to throw out a ceremonial first pitch — he’s recovering from a fifth shoulder surgery just two months ago. So Bill Gogolewski, who got a four-inning save that night 50 years ago, threw the pitch instead.

Clyde said he is very grateful for the opportunities the Rangers have provided him through the years.

Asked how he avoids the “What if” questions about how different his career could have been, Clyde said he doesn’t try to avoid them.

“Well, if you believe what everybody said, I mean, I’m the next coming of (Sandy) Koufax, which is just a fantastic gentleman to be mentioned in the same book with him, let alone in the same sentence,” Clyde said.

“But it’s hard to say. Any number of things could have happened to me. I could have still hurt my arm for the first time in ’76. It’s just hard to say. There’s just so many variables that go into it,” he said. “But yes, I think it could have been a lot more successful. But I had my chance, and not many guys can say that.”

As a senior at Houston’s Westchester High, Clyde was 18-0 and allowed only three earned runs in 148 1/3 innings (0.18 ERA). He struck out 328 batters — exactly 100 more than he would in the majors — with just 18 walks and five no-hitters, two of them perfect games.

Since Clyde, only two other pitchers have made the jump from high school to the major leagues: Mike Morgan and Tim Conroy, both for Oakland in 1978. No prep players at any position have made gone directly to the big leagues since then.

It was only 66 days after his 18th birthday when Clyde made his debut, and 22 days after being drafted first overall ahead of future Hall of Fame players Robin Young (third) and Dave Winfield (fourth). There have been no younger debuts since, and the last of nine 18-year-olds to debut in that span was Alex Rodriguez for Seattle in 1994, less than three weeks before his 19th birthday.

Tigers rookie pitcher Mason Englert met Clyde for the first time on the field before the game. Englert is from nearby Forney, Texas, where as a prep senior in 2018 he threw 55 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings to break one of Clyde’s Texas high school records.

Englert was a fourth-round draft pick by the Rangers that summer, and acquired by Detroit in the Rule 5 draft last offseason. He made his big league debut this season, and couldn’t imagine pitching in the majors as an 18-year-old fresh out of high school.

“My head would have blown up. It would have been crazy,” Englert said. “It would have been way too much.”

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