Franklin’s Clark realizes gold-medal dreams

The sting of being cut from the United States’ under-15 baseball team three years ago never really went away. Instead, it has continued to fuel Max Clark’s almost maniacal drive to become the best player in the country.

It also made his experiences this month that much more satisfying.

The Franklin senior not only earned a spot on Team USA for the WBSC Under-18 Baseball World Cup in Florida, but he helped lead the squad to a gold medal in the tournament, which ended with a 5-1 triumph over Chinese Taipei on Sunday.

Reality surpassed the dream in every way.

“It blew my expectations out of the water,” Clark said of his time trying out for and playing for the United States. “After getting cut my freshman 15-U year, I was dead red set on making that national team my 18-U year. Hearing your name called when they’re announcing the roster brings you to tears, and then when you step on the field that first time and hear your national anthem playing, tears start flowing. It’s ridiculous. It was the single most breathtaking, inspirational, everything coming together moment on a baseball field I’ve ever had in my life.”

Clark went through a week of tryouts in Fort Myers, Florida the first week of September to earn a spot on the team, then bused up the gulf coast to Sarasota and Bradenton, where the World Cup began on Sept. 9.

Once each of the American players put on that red, white and blue, any personal rivalries between Clark and his peers — who are battling one another for top status in the 2023 Major League Baseball draft — were set aside and replaced with a common cause.

“We had been playing as individuals the entire year,” Clark said. “Showcase ball, going out and wanting to do the best for yourself. This week, and this month with Team USA, all of that goes out the window. Everything that you can do with your game helps the team — and we were all committed to helping the team. Every single guy there is a top-ranked prospect on the draft board, potential first-round, second-round guys next year. All of that is out the window with Team USA. … Nobody was worried about draft boards that week; nobody was worried about if they went 3 for 4. The only thing we were worried about was getting a W and putting the gold around our necks.”

As it turned out, Clark did go 3 for 4 in the gold-medal game, and he certainly did his fair share throughout the tournament. In an early-round game against Canada, he came up in the sixth inning of a seven-inning game with the Americans down by two and delivered a two-run homer to tie up an emotional game that Team USA went on to win, 7-6.

“That’s a moment that every kid dreams for,” Clark said. “You’re down by two, bottom of six, two outs, runner on second, you have to have a run here. Kid leaves a change-up over the middle and you hit it a mile. Against Canada. It’s just like the United States beating Canada in hockey; the energy in those games is insane.”

In the super round against Mexico, Clark made a diving catch in the outfield with two runners on base, likely saving at least one run in what became a 7-5 USA win.

Overall, Clark batted .280 (7 for 25) in the tourney, scoring four runs and driving in three, drawing three walks and stealing a base. The numbers, though, were completely secondary to that singular team goal — and the euphoria that came when Clark and the team reached it.

“I literally felt like I was on top of the world when we won the gold,” he said. “I can remember throwing my glove up in the air, dead sprint to the pitcher’s mound and jumping on a dogpile and all of us in tears, losing our minds.”

Clark had several supporters on hand throughout the World Cup, including Franklin coach Ryan Feyerabend, who attended the last three days of the tourney with his 7-year-old son Zain — who came back to Franklin with one of Clark’s bats and a collection of game balls in his bag.

“I’ve seen a lot of baseball at different levels, and it was impressive,” Feyerabend said. “It kind of felt like watching a Triple-A game; the skill set from both teams once they got to those medal rounds … it was really, really good baseball — and it was something he can cross off his list.”

Indeed it was — but ever one to rest on his laurels, Clark arrived back home at about 1 a.m. on Tuesday and got right back to business. School in the morning, football practice in the afternoon. After missing Franklin’s last three games, he’s eager to get back onto the field with his teammates for this week’s game at Mooresville.

The wide receiver kept the rust off by running routes with some of the other Team USA members who play high school football; he also watched the Grizzly Cubs’ games via live stream on Friday nights.

Clark hated missing out on the gridiron action, but this was an opportunity that Clark had been waiting his whole life for — and the experience didn’t disappoint.

“It was the best week of my life playing baseball, for sure,” he said.