Al Clark, from MLB ump to prison to author

Al Clark was on the field for a couple of the most famous moments in Yankees history.

He was one of the umpires working when Bucky Dent hit the home run that beat the Red Sox in the one-game playoff in 1978. He was also working on July 4, 1983, when Dave Righetti no-hit the Red Sox in the Bronx.

For 26 years, Clark had his dream job -- until it was taken away from him, because of one big mistake.

Clark was fired by Major League Baseball in 2001, for improperly using plane tickets in violation of his union's contract -- specifically, downgrading his MLB-provided first-class tickets to economy class in order to reap the benefits.

Three years later, Clark spent four months in prison for his role in selling baseballs that he and a memorabilia dealer falsely claimed were used in historic games.

Clark chronicles his personal rise and fall in a new book entitled "Called Out but Safe: A Baseball Umpire's Journey," written with Dan Schlossberg.

The 66-year-old Clark was born and raised in Trenton, N.J., the son of a sportswriter, Herb Clark. But he did not aspire to be an umpire as a child.

"No one grows up wanting to be an umpire," Clark said, in a phone interview Monday. "You grow up wanting to be a player. And when that hard, harsh realization sets in that you’re not good enough to be a player, you kind of set your sights elsewhere."

After college, Clark taught for a year, and then was a writer for a year, before deciding to pursue umpiring, which he had done as a summer job during his teenage years. He attended an umpire school in 1972, and four years later he was in the big leagues.

Not long after that, Clark was being chosen for some of the best assignments in MLB. In addition to that 1978 AL East one-game playoff, Clark worked the 1983 and 1989 World Series, two All-Star Games, five American League Championship Series and three AL Division Series.

He was in Baltimore when Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive games record. He was behind the plate when Randy Johnson threw his first no-hitter, and when Nolan Ryan notched his 300th win.

He was also behind the plate on Sept. 30, 1984 at Yankee Stadium, the final day of the regular season, with teammates Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield battling each other for the American League batting title.

"The game didn’t mean anything in the standings, but there was a whole lot of pressure to get a whole lot of pitches correct in certain situations in that game," Clark said. "You didn’t want to be the cause of someone winning or losing the batting title, so you just wanted to be as good and as right as you possibly could be. And fortunately it didn’t hinge on anything I did, or didn’t do. (Mattingly went 4-for-5 and won the crown with a .343 average; Winfield went 1-for-4, finishing at .340.)

Clark, who is now retired, admits that he misses baseball, and regrets the way his major-league career ended.

"Oh, absolutely I do. If I had my druthers, I’d rather have gone out of my own accord," Clark said. "No one likes to get fired after a career like I had, but it happened -- and it could have happened differently, but I made a mistake. I take full responsibility for that."

"I’m not the first guy that’s ever gotten fired from a good, high-profile, rather high-paying job, and I’m certainly not going to be the last," Clark added. "[But] that’s not going to be what defines me, nor is going to a federal lockup camp for 120 days."

While in prison, Clark organized an umpiring class, teaching fellow inmates the rules of the game. After his release, he started an Internet business that aimed to help people who were headed to jail.

"Being in prison, I learned a lot," Clark said. "I learned that not everyone who’s in prison or sentenced to serve time is a bad person or a hard-core criminal. Sometimes people just make a mistake and have to pay for it, just like I did."