By: Brian Frank
Ernie Clement is the newest Toronto Blue Jay. The Bisons shortstop was called up to the big leagues on Tuesday after a torrid stretch of hitting for the Herd. He spoke with The Herd Chronicles just a few days before joining the parent club.
Clement grew up in Rochester, New York, and starred at Brighton High School. He was one of the best players in Division V history. He was named to the All-New York State Team three times, All-Conference and All-Greater Rochester three times, Rochester City Athletic Conference Player of the Year twice, and was league MVP both his junior and senior seasons. He still holds Brighton’s career records for plate appearances (329), batting average (.464), singles (87), doubles (34) and stolen bases (38). He also holds the school’s single-season record for batting average (.560) and runs scored (28).
“Most of them are positive,” he said of what memories stand out about his time playing for Brighton, “but the first thing I think about is my last game at Frontier Field playing against Pittsford Sutherland in the Central Final. I think that being my last memory is probably what makes it stick out the most. That one stung a little bit.”
Playing shortstop at Sahlen Field. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
He also played hockey and starred for a team consisting of players from Brighton, Honeoye Falls, and East Rochester. Although he started playing hockey at a young age, he didn’t immediately take to it.
“I was around six years old,” he said. “I was horrible. I could barely skate and I wanted to quit really bad. And my dad said ‘Alright, you’ve got to go to four practices. After your fourth practice, you can quit. But you’ve got to stick it out for four.’ I ended up loving it. It was my second favorite sport growing up. I had such a blast and met so many awesome people playing hockey. It’s always cool to be able to say I played hockey in high school. It was just a lot of fun.”
He led his team in scoring his junior and senior seasons – and led the league in scoring his senior year. He was twice named to the Bowman Cup Team which is awarded to the best hockey players from Rochester and Buffalo areas and was named to the All-Greater Rochester team his senior season.
After graduating from high school, he attended the University of Virginia on a baseball scholarship.
“It was always kind of my reach school,” he said. “I knew they had great academics and knew how prestigious their baseball team was. It was kind of like a dream – and I kind of thought that would be where it ended. I had a good tournament down in Virginia and they offered me a scholarship. I just loved my time there. I loved my coaches and loved the people I met. I’m very fortunate that they gave me that opportunity.”
His freshman season with Virginia turned out to be a dream season. The Cavaliers hosted a Super Regional in Charlottesville – and won it to advance to the College World Series.
“A lot of things had to go our way for that to happen,” Clement said. “It kind of all fell in to place. We played so well down the stretch that we really earned that spot in Omaha.”
In the final game of the Super Regional, Clement hit a two-run walk-off single to defeat Maryland and send the Cavaliers to the College World Series in Omaha.
“I was just a little kid back then,” he said. “It’s so funny. I was watching their (Maryland’s) game in a hotel room with my roommate, Thomas Woodruff. I was watching their game against UCLA when they won – and the guy who was pitching just kept throwing curveball after curveball – and we were talking about it. I came up in that situation, I was kind of looking for that curveball and I got it. I was just glad to come through for the team.”
Virginia kept winning in Omaha. They ended up defeating traditional powerhouse Vanderbilt in the finals to become NCAA Champions for the first time in program history.
“That was amazing,” he remembered. “We had such a blast. Our coaches just told us to enjoy it because it’s so hard to get there. There are so many good college baseball programs. So when we got there they just said enjoy it, have fun. There was no pressure. We played really, really well. To win a national championship – still looking back – is just crazy.”
“To win a national championship your freshman year,” he added with a chuckle, “it’s kind of tough because it’s all downhill from there. That’s as good as it gets.”
Clement had an incredible tournament, going 11-for-42 with seven RBIs. He recorded the go-ahead hit in three of UVA’s 10 tournament wins. He went 7-for-24 (.292) in Omaha and was named to the All-College World Series Team.
Clement had a .921 OPS in 35 games for Buffalo. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
After playing in the Northwoods League during the summer, Clement returned to Virginia for his sophomore season, and slashed .353/.383/.446. He ranked third in the ACC in hits and runs and was named third-team All-ACC at second base.
In the summer of 2016, he played for the Harwich Mariners in the prestigious Cape Cod League. He slashed .353/.400/.395 in 40 games and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player.
“That’s like one of the best summers of my life,” he remembered. “It was just wild. I met a bunch of awesome people there. I just had a couple good weeks of baseball, that’s all it was and I just really enjoyed it. I didn’t even think about that I happened to be playing myself into getting drafted because I was just enjoying it so much and just having so much fun that the baseball was just kind of second nature at that point. I just had such a blast and loved every second of it.”
He slashed .315/.345/.366 during his junior season at UVA and was named third-team All-ACC at shortstop. That spring, he was selected by Cleveland in the fourth round of the 2017 Major League Baseball June Amateur Draft. He was at his grandparents’ house in Rochester when he received the news.
“I was with my family,” he said. “I thought I was going to get taken, but I was just at the point where I was like – I hope somebody takes me so I can get this process over with and just get to work. I just want to play so bad. Fortunately, Cleveland took a chance on me and I can’t thank them enough for that opportunity. That was a great organization to be with and I loved my time there. I didn’t even care about the money. I just wanted to get drafted and start playing. That was all I wanted. They gave me every opportunity to play and I just really enjoyed it.”
He worked his way up through Cleveland’s farm system and made his major-league debut in June 2021. After striking out while pinch-hitting in his first at-bat, he received his first start, facing the Baltimore Orioles and former Bisons starter Matt Harvey. Clement singled in his first at-bat against Harvey, bringing home Josh Naylor, who’d doubled ahead of him.
“I was just looking forward to getting that start,” Clement remembered. “I had two strikes on me and I just kind of battled and competed and found a way to get a hit up the middle. I made my way all the way around the bases to third because they overthrew somebody and it was just a crazy play. As soon as you hit that ball, you want to enjoy it – but I turned into a baserunner.”
He came home when the next batter, Bradley Zimmer singled, to score his first big-league run.
After playing in 103 games for the Guardians over two seasons, and a brief stint with the Oakland A’s, Clement signed with the Blue Jays organization last March.
One of his highlights this season was returning to Rochester this April to play for the Bisons against the Red Wings. Family friends, and fans turned out en masse to cheer on their hero.
“I had such a blast,” he said. “Anytime I can have family come out it means so much to me. The support from the Rochester community has been amazing over the last few years. Even in college it was awesome. I really do appreciate that and I love playing in front of my family.”
Visiting with fans in Rochester. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
“We used to go all the time (to Red Wings games), me and my buddies growing up. It was always nice when the summer came around, it was something to do outside, and I love the game of baseball. It was really fun to go watch those guys. I always thought those guys were gods, watching them play. I was just so star struck anytime they’d sign a ball or anything. To be playing against them is really cool.”
Anyone who’s ever been to a game at Innovative Field (formerly Frontier Field) in Rochester, knows that the Taco Bell K-Man is a big deal to the fans there. If a visiting player, selected before the game, strikes out at any point during the game, all fans receive a free taco. Clement was selected as the K-Man for the Bisons’ Sunday afternoon game in Rochester. Not only did he not strike out, but he drilled a two-run home run.
“It’s hilarious,” he chuckled. “I know the GM of the Red Wings and I know the owners pretty well, so I thought they were messing with me. I thought it was hilarious. I guess it was just a coincidence. I’m glad I could do my best to not strike out.”
Besides being close to home, another bonus for Clement in playing for Buffalo – he grew up an big Bills and Sabres fan.
“Huge Bills fan,” he said. “I’ve always loved them. They were really bad growing up. I’m glad I stuck through it all because now they’re unbelievable to watch now. I try to go to a couple games a year. Yeah, I’m a huge Bills guy.”
He also enjoys tailgating at Highmark Stadium.
“Absolutely,” he smiled. “I try not to smash too many tables – but it’s a great time.”
As for the Sabres, Clement said, “I actually had a recent rekindling of my love for the Sabres. I used to watch (Daniel) Briére (Chris) Drury, (Maxim) Afinogenov growing up and I used to love watching those guys. I kind of lost touch with it for a little while – but being back here, I actually went to a game this offseason. We went to a game when we first got here. I definitely am going to be following them a lot more going forward.”
He’s also an avid golfer and is a member at Oak Hill Country Club, host of the recent PGA championship. He was able to take time to check out some of the PGA Championship activities last week.
“I always played a little bit growing up, but I really didn’t start getting into it seriously until around COVID. I played pretty much every day during COVID because it was pretty much all there was to do. I still am so addicted to the game. I think it’s so much fun to be outside and playing with your buddies and just enjoying the nice weather. It’s awesome. Or enjoying the not so nice weather – because in Rochester and Buffalo, you never know. But I’ll go out there any day. I just love being outside and playing that game.”
Clement has been right in the middle of the Bisons offensive resurgence. He was a central figure in their amazing ‘Walk-Off Week’ they had against Syracuse – when Buffalo had four walk-off wins in five games. In that series, he went 11-for-24 (.458) with three home runs and 10 RBIs.
“That’s a testament to how we battle,” he said of the team’s numerous walk-off wins. “We started the year really slow. We had to make a conscious decision that we were going to start fighting back when things didn’t go right – and we’ve really done that. I’m really proud of the guys for fighting back and turning that mindset around. It’s been really fun the last couple weeks.”
Clement has been red hot all season for the Bisons. He was slashing .328/.409/.512 through 35 games, when he received the news he was being called up to Toronto.
“It’s just awesome to be playing again,” he said of his time with the Herd. “To play four or five games a week is huge. The last couple years I’ve not played as much as I would’ve liked. But if you don’t like it, you’ve got to play better – and these guys have given me an awesome opportunity to play and try to help this team win. It’s such an awesome group of guys. I’ve really enjoyed it here and am just so thankful for the opportunity.”