Jeff Clement moves past MLB career with new Iowa role

Chad Leistikow

Iowa infielder Nick Roscetti fist-bumps volunteer assistant coach Jeff Clement on April 17 at Duane Banks Field. Clement works with the Hawkeye hitters, catchers and provides scouting reports.

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Iowa baseball players didn't have to twist their first-year volunteer coach's arm earlier this month when they urged him to take batting practice for the first time at Duane Banks Field.

So Jeff Clement, the Iowa-born former slugging sensation, stepped into the batter's box.

Yep, he's still got it.

"I can still get it out of the park," Clement, 31, said. "If I hadn't gotten one out, I'd have been disappointed, to be honest with you."

How Clement, one of the nation's all-time great home run hitters for Marshalltown High School and then Southern California, went from earning millions as a can't-miss big league prospect to a comparative pittance could be viewed as a huge disappointment.

But that's not how he looks at it. Although Clement's not-so-distant past took him to places like Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field, he wears a big smile as he talks about Iowa City, the latest stop on his unexpected journey.

"I've really enjoyed the coaching," he said. "It's been a great experience."

Clement signed with the Seattle Mariners for $3.4 million as the No. 3 overall pick in the 2005 Major League Baseball Draft. Ten years later, he might be juggling more than he ever did as a ball player, setting the groundwork for the rest of his life.

Clement rents a house in Iowa City with his wife and four children — two boys, two girls, ranging from ages 1 to 6 — while finishing his degree in Interdisciplinary Studies online. Meanwhile, he assembles scouting reports, studies video and coaches catchers and hitters for second-year Hawkeye head coach Rick Heller.

"He's really burning the candle at both ends," Heller said. "From our point of view, it's been amazing to have Jeff with us, and for him to be around our kids and give them all the wisdom that he has — being one of the great college players and a player that's made it to the big leagues."

Clement officially retired from baseball early last year. He spent the 2013 season with the Minnesota Twins' triple-A team, but never got a final call-up to the big leagues, where he hit 14 homers and batted .218 in sporadic stints with the Mariners and Pittsburgh Pirates between 2007 and 2012.

The comeback door, he said, is closed — even if his smooth left-handed swing can still launch baseballs over the outfield fence.

"Yeah, I don't think there's too many professional clubs looking for a 31-year-old who hasn't played in two years," Clement said with a laugh. "I think that ship has sailed for sure."

Clement doesn't know where he'll be a few months from now. His permanent home remains in Ankeny, but to him it was worth the financial hit to get a feel for coaching.

"I wasn't going to know on the coaching side unless I did it," he said.

Iowa provided an ideal situation for Clement, who grew up a Hawkeye fan. The opportunity was born in the friendship between Iowa assistant Marty Sutherland and Mississippi hitting coach Mike Clement — Jeff's brother.

Here, Clement's been part of a stirring Iowa baseball turnaround. The Hawkeyes are nationally ranked and 31-11, posting back-to-back 30-win seasons for the first time since 1989-90, well before Clement led Marshalltown to the 1996 Little League World Series at age 12.

In the Hawkeye dugout, Clement brings insight and credibility. He is No. 2 all-time in USC's storied program with 46 home runs in three seasons, trailing only Mark McGwire. His 75 home runs at Marshalltown still stand as a national high school record.

What could have been? Nah.

For Clement, it's more like "what's next?"

"At this point, you learn from the good and the bad," he said. "Obviously when I signed 10 years ago almost now, I thought I'd still be playing at this point, but it didn't work out that way.

"I have no doubt that this is where I'm supposed to be right now."