FRANKLIN – Franklin senior Max Clark is chasing the ball down, outrunning it, flashing one of the five tools that will make him the first high school player selected in the 2023 Major League Baseball draft, perhaps the No. 1 overall pick, period. But that’s not a baseball he’s chasing. It’s a football, it’s Friday night, and this is where he wants to be.
Never mind the flight in the morning. He’ll head to Phoenix on Saturday, about nine hours after this game ends. First he’ll go home late Friday night, find his bed somewhere in that pigsty he calls a room, and sleep a few hours before flying to Phoenix for the Perfect Game All-American Classic at Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
It’ll make for a long weekend, but Max Clark wants to be on this field Friday night, with his friends, helping the 2-0 Grizzly Cubs defeat Mt. Vernon 20-17. He finishes with three catches for 65 yards, including two huge plays in the first half, one a leaping catch of 14 yards at the sideline, where he taps one foot inbounds before getting drilled by two Mt. Vernon defenders. The other is a 40-yard reception on a deep ball where he runs it down and hauls it in over the shoulder, like Willie Mays back in the day.
But enough with the baseball references. This is football, and Max Clark is one of the best players on the field, though the visiting crowd is trying not to be impressed. Across the way, Mt. Vernon’s fans are chanting at Clark:
Over here, on the Franklin side, where I’m sitting with Clark’s mom and stepdad, the crowd bursts into laughter. Overrated? Max Clark?
“We hear it everywhere,” says Max’s stepdad, Ron Ankney. “Sometimes we’ll chant back: ‘Let’s play baseball, let’s play baseball.’”
Now I’m bursting into laughter. This is a fun story, the chronicles of Max Clark, the country’s best high school baseball prospect in years and a great football player and not a bad student, either. He has a 4.0 GPA, plays the piano, helps coach a local youth baseball team of 10-year-olds, and on occasion gets invited to a little kid’s birthday party, which is cute.
Even cuter? Clark will show up.
“The kids around here just love him,” says Max’s mom, Angela Ankney.
So do the Major League scouts. And the baseball agents. And the financial advisors. Everyone wants a piece of Max Clark. And all that kid wants to do is what’s in front of him today, a football game with his buddies.
MLB Draft for Max Clark, or Vanderbilt?
But seriously, his bedroom. It’s a mess.
For a prospect as good as Max Clark, MLB scouts stop looking at what’s right, and start looking for what’s wrong. It’s the nature of the business, with millions of dollars at stake, and MLB scouts haven’t found a thing wrong with Clark yet. He’s a straight-A student, humble, comfortable talking to adults, talented on the piano, and with a Bible verse – 2 Corinthians 12:19 – on his outfielder’s glove.
So what’s wrong with him? His room. You should see that thing at the end of every summer, after Clark has traveled the country for various baseball showcases and Team USA tryouts.
“There’s little piles everywhere,” his mom’s telling me between plays of the football game. “There’s a pile from California, a pile from Georgia, a pile from Alabama, a pile from…”
Angela Ankney trails off.
“His room’s a problem,” she says.
Well, good. Because otherwise Max Clark might just be perfect, and that’s no fun. He also makes a mess of the mirror in his bathroom, but that’s a good thing. It’s something Max has been doing throughout high school, something he doesn’t talk about, just does. He grabs one of those vis-à-vis whiteboard pens and jots down goals: Bench press this much, have this many RBIs in a game, go 4-for-4, go 5-for-5.
“He loves the process,” Angela says. “And when he reaches a goal, he’ll erase it and write something new up there.”
Clark has never written a thing about the 2023 MLB Draft. First overall pick? Is that a goal? Nobody knows. It’s a topic the family doesn’t discuss as much as you’d think.
Clark has committed to play baseball at Vanderbilt, and while he likes the idea of patrolling the outfield and throwing the occasional inning for the Commodores – his fastball has been clocked at 96 mph – he and his family don’t discuss the choice coming in July, when even MLB.com says Clark will be one of the first players picked. That means a signing bonus in the range of $8 million. That means a difficult choice: Vanderbilt, or professional baseball.
Or maybe it won’t be difficult. Who knows? They don’t talk about it much.
“I don’t want him to be just a baseball player,” his mom is saying. “I want him to have life experiences, friendships, all of that. It makes him happy to play with his friends, but he’s also into music and fashion. All of that is good, you know?”
He could be a receiver in college, too
Across the country, Max Clark’s dad is waiting in Phoenix. He’s drawn the assignment out West, leaving before this Friday night football game to be there when Max arrives on Saturday. Everyone gets along – Richard Clark and his ex-wife, Angela, even Richard (the dad) and Ron (the stepdad).
Max spends most of his time with his mom and Ron, in their home in the Johnson Country countryside, with cornfields across the street. Max has launched many a baseball over the street and into those cornfields, just fooling around in the yard with his family, taking an occasional cut and losing another ball.
“When it rains,” Ron says, “it’s like an Easter egg hunt. You can see all the balls in the field then.”
Richard Clark is in Phoenix on Friday night, so he doesn’t see the catch near the sideline or the deep ball over the shoulder. He doesn’t hear the Mt. Vernon crowd calling his son “overrated.” Richard’s on the phone, telling me how Max has been preparing for this showcase in Arizona – competition against the best high school players in the country, an event that could impact his draft stock – even as he’s been preparing for Grizzly Cubs football season.
“Between football and schoolwork and everything else, he hits about every night,” Richard’s saying, noting that Max goes to the Powerhouse Athletics gym in Franklin for batting practice. “He’ll hit until he feels he’s got his timing where he wants to be. Sometimes it’s a half-hour, sometimes two hours. He’ll put his phone on a tripod and send me video.”
The swing is good, and it travels. Using a wood bat, Clark has hit a ball into the second level at Tropicana Field, home of the Rays. He has homered 12 rows deep at Dodger Stadium. The best ball he ever hit, though, was probably during his junior season at Franklin. Using an aluminum bat, which really doesn’t seem fair for this kid, Clark hit a home run to right center against Southport. The football building is back there, but no problem – the ball went over the building, landing on the track.
Someone measured the drive at 457 feet. He was 16 years old.
The victory against Mt. Vernon could be Clark’s last football game for a month. From Phoenix he’ll head to Fort Myers, Fla., for Team USA tryouts for the Under-18 Baseball World Cup. If he makes the team – he’ll probably start in center field and bat in the middle of the lineup – Clark will be playing games deep into September. He’ll take Franklin classes online, maintaining that 4.0 GPA.
“School was always first,” Richard Clark says, noting that Max’s mom, Angela, is a retired teacher in the Franklin school system.
School, then, baseball, then football. Clark’s been playing with this group of kids since he was 6, the quarterback before his baseball schedule became too hectic, keeping him away from summer football drills. As a freshman, Clark was Franklin’s backup quarterback. Now he’s a receiver, and college football coaches know all about him.
Says Richard Clark: “We’ve gotten a few exploratory emails from football coaches: ‘Hey, if this baseball thing doesn’t work out, we’d love to see you over here paying football.’”
If this baseball thing doesn’t work out, Clark has other plans.
Other interests: piano, cyber law
Just before kickoff Friday night, the Franklin Grizzly Cubs come storming out of the inflated tunnel flanking their locker room.
Max Clark is one of the first ones out, wearing No. 7 and carrying the team’s sledgehammer. He sets the hammer down gently, then goes onto the field and starts bouncing off Mt. Vernon players. The 6-1, 195-pounder is running routes, getting hit, and blocking Mt. Vernon defensive back Jaden Gibson so hard, Gibson offers a hand to slap after one play. Respect.
This is something everyone has just accepted, Max Clark’s insistence on playing the most violent sport possible, less than a year from a possible $8 million payday.
"Being out here with my guys has meant the world to me ever since I was 5 or 6," Clark told our preps insider Akeem Glaspie last month. "This is kind of my last go-around with my guys before we all go our separate ways. I was pretty much begging to get back out on the field with these guys.”
Everyone involved understands, probably because everyone involved has done the same thing. Clark’s personal hitting coach is Mike Shirley, who happens to be the Chicago White Sox’s director of amateur scouting. Before that Shirley was a baseball and football standout at Pendleton Heights, a receiver like Clark.
Clark’s advisor for the draft, Sam Samardzija of the Wasserman Media Group, was a baseball and football standout at Valparaiso High, a receiver like Clark. Name ring a bell, Samardzija? Sam’s younger brother is longtime MLB pitcher Jeff Samardzija, a baseball and football standout at Notre Dame. A receiver, like Clark.
Just because everyone involved understands, it doesn’t mean they’re not nervous. Last week against Danville, a 42-14 victory for Franklin, Clark had four catches for 111 yards and two touchdowns. One of his two non-scoring plays was a pass over the middle where he got popped hard.
“It was one of those passes that makes a linebacker’s eyes light up: ‘This dude’s coming across middle, and I’m going to plow him,’” his dad says. “Max jumped right up and ran to the huddle. I just sit there and say a little prayer and hope for the best.”
Around the area:Scores, highlights, statistics from Week 2
The morning after the Danville game, Max was still in bed when Angela called upstairs:
“Are you sore?”
Came the reply: “Yes.”
Max jokes with his parents that he expects his advisor, Sam Samardzija, to start texting him on Saturday mornings: “U alive?”
It’s funny because it’s true. We’ve all seen the money they’re making in professional baseball, with Mariners outfielder Julio Rodriguez just getting an extension that could be worth $470 million. Nobody’s saying Max Clark could be that good, but nobody would dare say he couldn’t. Although Clark chose Samardzija as his advisor long ago, the occasional agent will still call, playing dumb and offering his services.
Oh, Max already has an agent?
“It’s hard to know if they’re sincere,” Ron Ankney says. “The financial advisors are the worst. We get a call every other week or so, and one guy in particular is really persistent.”
Everyone wants a piece of Clark, but all he wants is this last football season with his buddies. And to sit alone at the piano, teaching himself to play Hans Zimmer’s theme song to the 2014 movie “Interstellar.” Or to visit his older brother and sister-in-law, Mason and Tiffany, and hang out with their baby boy. People all over Franklin look up to Max Clark, but he looks up to Mason, an attorney who specializes in cyber law.
“That’s what Max wants to do someday,” his mom is telling me during Franklin’s win over Mt. Vernon.
I start laughing, because it’s preposterous. If things just go decently for your son, I’m telling Max Clark’s mom, he could retire with $100 million in the bank.
“Huh,” Angela says, and gazes out onto the field, where her son is playing football with his buddies. “I guess I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
She’s serious. Believe me, she knows what the scouts are saying about her son. Everyone in the family knows. But they’re trying not to talk about it, or even think too much about it. Not yet. Tomorrow is coming, starting with that 8 a.m. flight to Phoenix, but Max Clark and his family choose to focus on today.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Franklin's Max Clark has high school football today, MLB cash tomorrow