Parker worthy of Cooperstown consideration

Strong case can be made for Modern Era ballot candidate

November 28th, 2017

If you had taken bets at the end of the 1980 MLB season, two players on this year's Modern Era Committee Hall of Fame ballot would have been huge favorites to be elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. One of them is Steve Garvey, and we will talk about him at some length in a few days. The other is Dave Parker.

Now, let's explain again what we are doing here: We are going player by player though the Modern Era ballot that a special Hall of Fame committee will be voting on at next month's Winter Meetings. There are nine players on the ballot, along with former labor union president Marvin Miller. Parker is the third player we've talked about, after Ted Simmons and Luis Tiant.

Because I am writing about each of the players -- and each of them was great in his own way -- there has been a sense that I'm actually pushing these players for the Hall of Fame. But I'm not. The chances of any of the players on the ballot getting elected is pretty slim. These Hall of Fame committees have been meeting annually for a decade now, and in that time, they have elected one -- count them, one -- modern player. That was Ron Santo, and that was an emotional vote; it happened almost exactly a year after Santo died.

So let's not kid anybody: There is an outside chance that one player will get elected off this ballot. If things get really crazy and the stars align, maybe two get elected. But there's also a very real chance that none of these players will get elected, because, obviously, none of them has a slam-dunk Hall of Fame case. All of them have been studied by the Baseball Writers' Association of America voters -- most of them over 15 years -- and they could not get a 75-percent consensus.

In other words -- not to spoil the ending -- there is almost no chance that Parker will be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Modern Era Committee (Simmons and Tiant are in the same boat).

But Parker was a truly great baseball player. When he was 30, there were people already calling him "Future Hall of Famer Parker." Unfortunately, Parker's career took a detour. He did steady himself and put up a couple of wonderful seasons before he retired.

Parker was a big man with a big personality. He was born in Mississippi but raised in Cincinnati, down the street from Crosley Field. He grew up idolizing Frank Robinson, but he mainly grew up playing football. He was 6-foot-5, weighed 225 pounds, and he just ran over defenders. Parker was a heavily recruited running back until a knee injury ended his football career. Baseball came easily to him.

Parker was drafted by the Pirates in 1970, and at that point, he had everything. His arm was so strong that as a 19-year-old in Rookie ball, the Bucs tried him out as a pitcher. Parker was also blazing fast. He hit, and hit with power. As a 20-year-old, Parker hit .358 in Class A ball. The next season, he hit .310 with 22 homers and 38 stolen bases in the Minors. That got Parker his first call to the big leagues, where he more than held his own, hitting .288 and slugging .453 in 54 games in 1973.

There probably has not been a player who faced exactly the kind of pressure that Parker faced because when he was 25, Pittsburgh made him its everyday right fielder. As you might imagine, there were ghosts involved; Roberto Clemente had been the Pirates' right fielder until his tragic death after the 1972 season. Now here was a young man with a great arm, good speed, some power playing the same position as the great Clemente.

"I'm not another Clemente," Parker said. "There will never be another Clemente."

But in his first full season in 1975, Parker hit .308 with 35 doubles, 10 triples, 25 homers and 101 RBIs, and he finished third in National League MVP Award voting. He sure seemed like a familiar favorite in Pittsburgh.

"There never is another player of that caliber," Parker insisted. "I have my style and I play my game."

In 1976, Parker hit .313 with 51 extra-base hits and 19 stolen bases.

The year after that, The Cobra, as he was called, won his first NL batting title, hitting .338 with a NL-leading 215 hits and 44 doubles. Parker belted 21 home runs, scored 100 runs for the first time in his career, won his first NL Gold Glove Award and made his first All-Star team.

Then came 1978, and Parker had a season for the ages. He led the Majors in hitting with a .338 average, and led the NL with a .585 slugging percentage and 340 total bases. Parker scored 102 runs and drove in 117. He won another NL Gold Glove Award and he won the NL MVP Award.

"There's only one thing bigger than me," Parker said. "And that's my ego."

And then: "Take Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente and match their first five years against mine, and they don't compare with me. When I have trouble with a girlfriend or there's something else I need to push aside, I say, 'Wait 35 years and see if anybody comes along like me.'"

Crazy big words, yes, but Parker was good. His 1979 season was fantastic again (.310 average, 327 total bases, 45 doubles, 109 runs scored), but there was trouble brewing. He had signed a big contract and many in Pittsburgh resented him. Parker's big words were getting him in trouble. And he was getting mixed up in some bad things off the field. When the Pirates won the World Series that October, Parker skipped the championship parade.

"Why should I?" Parker asked. "Where were they when I needed them?"

The next four years were nightmarish. Parker had injuries. He had off-the-field issues. He put on a lot of weight. He admitted to heavily using cocaine between 1979-82, just as his play went off the rails.

"My game was slipping," Parker told the courts. "I felt it played a part in it."

From 1980, when Parker's performance dropped but he still managed to be somewhat productive, to '83, his last season in Pittsburgh, Parker hit .280 and slugged .439, huge drop-offs from his prime. He also missed a lot of games, and his reputation was wrecked.

Returning home to Cincinnati to play for the Reds in 1984 revitalized Parker's career. In '85, at age 34, he batted .312, hit a career-high 34 home runs and led the NL in doubles (42), RBIs (125) and total bases (350). Parker finished second in the NL MVP Award voting to Willie McGee. The next season, he played all 162 games and again led the NL in total bases with 304.

Parker put up some impressive numbers late in his career -- he managed 1,000 hits and 157 home runs after he turned 34. When the career ended, he had borderline Hall of Fame numbers. Parker hit .290, had 2,712 hits and finished top 60 all-time in total bases, doubles and RBIs. He lasted all 15 years on the BBWAA ballot, but never quite got 25 percent of the vote. There is absolutely a Hall of Fame case to be made for Parker even with the trouble he had in the middle of his career. But with Parker, so much is thinking about how amazing the young Cobra was and what might have been.