By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
Things haven’t always gone according to plan for Tristan Clarke, but whatever direction life has taken him, the 20-year-old outfielder has embraced each twist and turn in the road and enjoyed the ride along the way.
Four years ago, when Clarke was attending Fletcher Meadows Secondary School, in his hometown of Brampton, Ont., he couldn’t have known that a brand-new baseball program was unfolding a couple of hours down the road in London.
When he joined the Great Lake Canadians in his senior year of high school after spending time with the Brampton Royals program, the athletic outfielder quickly made an impression and got a chance with the Canadian Junior National Team, aiding him in preparing for his next steps.
“They did a great job of getting me ready for college,” Clarke said. “That experience of going on the road, and being away from family, and playing baseball in different countries for extended periods of time, it was great. They did a great job. I was only there for my last year in high school, and I took what they gave and held onto it, and made sure that moving forward I did everything that I thought was right.”
Exploring his options for the future, Clarke was set on heading to Howard College in Big Spring, Texas, out of high school, but as he prepared to make his way there, the plans fell through. He was thankful when one of his former coaches, Mike Ambrose, used a two-decade-old connection to help him get a chance at Eastern Oklahoma State College, where he landed for two successful seasons with the Mountaineers.
“I did well at Eastern Oklahoma,” Clarke said. “I wasn’t very big coming out of high school, 160 [pounds], 170 maybe. Then I started working out and focusing on getting some weight, and I realized that I could start hitting balls, and I hit them pretty well. After my first year, I focused on gaining weight and making sure that I was taking good approaches at the plate, focusing on the little stuff instead of the big picture.
“Then I took that into summer ball in 2015 [with the East Texas Pump Jacks] and into my next year of junior college, and made sure that I stayed consistent and positive no matter what happened. I had some success, failed a little bit here and there, and that’s baseball. Then I brought that same mentality here to New Orleans.”
Before his arrival in Louisiana, where he had committed play for the University of New Orleans Privateers, Clarke hit a fork in the road. While living in Wilburton, Okla., the young hitter met Skyler LeFors, a former volleyball player and native of nearby McAllister, who would soon become his girlfriend.
Two summers ago, a then-18-year-old LeFors learned she was pregnant, and the young couple’s lifestyle had to undergo some changes. Instead of pursuing her goal of obtaining a nursing degree at home, LeFors headed to New Orleans with Clarke, where the two could parent together as he continued to play and she took online courses.
“It wasn’t something that had been planned or done on purpose,” Clarke said. “But once we knew what had happened, it was a blessing. It was something I looked at knowing I would have to be successful in baseball because I’m not just doing it for me and my family anymore, but for someone who I’ve brought into this world…
“Skyler has been supporting me, so as soon as it’s time for her, regardless of where I’m at, I’m going to support her in any way I can as she gets her nursing degree, so she can do what she loves to do and whatever she wants to do in life. She moved down here with me and is supporting a sport she didn’t really even know. She’s learned a lot, and I really appreciate everything that she’s done.”
Not even two months after baby Kian was born, Clarke was selected by the Washington Nationals in the 30th round of the 2016 draft. As much as the new father had been looking forward to a life of professional baseball one day, he passed and joined the Privateers, where he made a quick impression and an immediate impact.
“He came across as a guy with some serious tools, needing developing,” UNO head coach Blake Dean said. “The power was there, the arm’s pretty good, and he just needed some extra work to get stronger, more developed, and that’s exactly what we got. We got a guy who could come in and hit, and he’s getting better. Every day he gets better.
“He’s figuring out how to become a hitter, but at times he still looks really raw. He’s gotten stronger, he’s gotten more physical, he’s just trying to learn to work himself through at-bats, how to set pitchers up and do different things throughout the course of a game where it’s going to be in his favour…I’ve seen him mature as a hitter and each day he’s starting to figure it out a little bit more.”
After a successful fall campaign with his new team, Clarke felt some pressure as he struggled early in the season this year. Through some ups and downs on the field, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound outfielder hit .293/.372/.521 with 10 home runs, 13 doubles, three triples, 36 runs scored and 43 driven in over his 57 games for the Privateers.
“I was off to a good start, and then I struggled a little bit, and then I kind of got back on track where I needed to be,” he said. “We have great coaches here, and the players are awesome. They’re always there to pick me up, and I can’t ask any more than what they’ve given me. It’s really up to me to give it back…
“When you have a group like this, you have comfort and confidence and you’ve got to want to get up there and be aggressive. That’s why I appreciate the guys here, because they pump that into us every day – have energy, be aggressive, don’t let him dictate what you’re going to swing at, and make the situation what you want it. That’s why I’ve had so much success, just staying aggressive.”
With an eye on the draft each June since he was preparing to leave high school, Clarke will be playing for the Wisconsin Woodchucks in the collegiate Northwoods League as the countdown to the selection process begins this year, hoping to once again hear his name and looking to potentially pursue his professional dream sooner than later.
“When I came out of high school, I was excited for the draft,” Clarke said. “I looked at the board and I knew I wasn’t going to be drafted on the first day, but looking at it made me want to be on the board the first day. It made me want to push and be one of those people…I’m definitely excited, but I’ve been excited for it the past three years too.
“Anything can happen. I’ve learned that when someone says a guy is supposed to go first overall, he can go 15th at the last second because of something. There are no guarantees until the name is called. I’m not worried about it or focused on it, but I’ll be excited for when it comes, regardless of where I go, because it’s an exciting thing.”
While some scouts have immediately called Clarke’s makeup into question upon learning of his parental status, both he and the Privateers skipper believe that becoming a young father has helped him mature quickly and turned him into a better player than he might have been otherwise.
“If he didn’t have a kid, he might be out there partying in New Orleans and having a good time and missing out on some extra swings or extra reps that he would take,” Dean said. “Sometimes I’ll go up to the office at nine or 10 o’clock at night, and I’ll see his car up there. He’s hitting, because he’s not at a bar. He’s got a son at home to take care of. It’s always either his son or baseball [taking his time] so that makes him a little more focused.”
Added Clarke: “I’m more responsible, more on top of things, I have to pay attention. Skyler does a great job of helping me do that, because it’s not easy playing baseball, going to school, having a son, with whatever pressure may or may not be there. It’s a blessing for all of us. My whole family has been supportive. Skyler is with me in New Orleans, we have an apartment there, and it’s been great…
“It drives me forward and I get a sense of excitement knowing that regardless of what happens at the end of the day, I get to see him, and it puts a smile on my face. Whether I do good or bad, I look forward to seeing Kian. I always have him in the back of my mind. It almost gives you a new mentality of the pitcher is trying to take food off the plate, from my son. I have to be successful now, by any means necessary, get the job done.”
Clarke admits that there are sacrifices to be made with a now 13-month-old baby boy at home, but he doesn’t look at them that way, and the experience of having a young son has made him increasingly grateful for everything his parents Jeff and Apryl have done to help him get to where he is.
“It’s something I want to do, something I expect to do, something my mom and dad did for me,” he said. “Whether my mom was taking me to baseball, my dad was driving me to London through blizzards when he got off work for practices, or my mom going on long road trips and driving through the States because my dad had to work.
“That’s something that’s been taught to me and built in to me, so it’s not difficult. I want to do it. Obviously it would be easier if I could just do whatever I wanted, but sacrificing certain things is not a problem. And Instead of worrying about the little things now, I can worry about that later when I’m watching Kian go play baseball. I can have fun then. Right now, playing baseball is fun for me, and I’m going to work as hard as I can doing that, taking care of him, and then enjoy the rest of my life however I want after baseball is done.”