Parker's Parkinson revelation sad, shocking
Hulking All-Star was arguably the most dominant player of late 1970s
Dave Parker revealed recently that he has Parkinson's Disease.
I'm sorry, but I have to pause, because that does not compute in so many ways. The man they call "Cobra" spent much of his nearly two decades in the Major Leagues as an indestructible force at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds.
Then there is the current world around his native Cincinnati, where Parker has been a striking role model since the early 1990s.
I'll share a personal story in a moment. For now, let's return to this Parkinson's Disease revelation that Parker gave out of nowhere this week to a Pittsburgh newspaper. This also is jarring, because it comes during the renaissance of a Pirates franchise that Parker helped make famous.
While his Pittsburgh teams scared opponents, the recent ones scared only themselves for their ineptness. They began 2013 with an ongoing record among North American pro franchises with 20 consecutive losing season. More specifically, they haven't been anything worth mentioning since that safe call at home plate at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for a sliding Sid Bream of the Braves kept the Pirates out of the 1992 World Series.
Now the Pirates are vibrant again. They enter this weekend with baseball's best record, and to show how far they've come, they had more players in the All-Star Game this summer (five) than any Bucs team since the 1972 National League squad featured Roberto Clemente, Al Oliver, Willie Stargell, Manny Sanguillen and Steve Blass.
Parker joined the Pirates the next season.
He was as potent in right field for the franchise during the 1970s as Clemente was during the 1960s. Plus, with apologies to Steve Garvey, Mike Schmidt and a slew of those on Cincinnati's Big Red Machine, you could make the case that Parker was baseball's most prolific player during the latter part of the '70s. There was his 1978 NL MVP Award and two league batting titles while becoming an All-Star Game regular.
Parker won three Gold Gloves during that stretch. He helped lead the Pirates to their surprising "We are Family" World Series championship in 1979. He once hit a ball so hard that he ripped off its cover -- literally. He also despised missing games so much that he wore a facemask during a stretch to protect his fractured jaw and cheekbone.
About those three Gold Gloves … Parker's defensive prowess went further than that. His arm was legendary. During the 1979 All-Star Game, he earned the game's MVP Award courtesy of a throw and then The Throw, and they both came from right field at old Kingdome in Seattle. The latter throw ranks among the greatest ever.
After Parker rifled a shot to third base to nail Jim Rice earlier in the night, he delivered a perfect strike to catcher Gary Carter blocking home plate to keep Brian Downing from helping the American League rally.
Parkinson's Disease? Say it ain't so, Dave.
It is so.
"There's no fear," Parker told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which first broke the story about the left-handed slugger who made a bat resemble a toothpick in his hands. "I've had a great life. I always dreamt of playing baseball, and I played. I'm 62 years old and fortunate to make it to this point. I have some beautiful kids that I got to watch grow up and become adults. My fingerprints are on the baseball industry. I feel good about that. I have nothing to feel bad about."
No question there. In fact, Parker worked to improve as a player and as a person despite everything -- ranging from fans angry over his unprecedented $1 million per year contract to his struggles with weight to his involvement in the Pittsburgh Drug Trials of the early 1980s, when he and others were disciplined by MLB for their use of cocaine. After the latter, for instance, Parker had a couple of his best seasons. In 1985 with the hometown Reds, he hit .312 with 34 home runs and 125 RBIs to finish second in the NL MVP Award voting. Later, in '88 and '89, he did enough as a designated hitter for the A's to assist in their back-to-back trips to the World Series, and he grabbed his second World Series ring in '89.
Then, after Parker's bad knees couldn't even work well enough as a DH, he left the game to become a successful business owner of several Popeyes chicken franchises in Cincinnati. In addition, he turned into a motivational force for youth throughout the community.
Which brings me to my personal story about Parker.
Youth baseball is huge in Cincinnati, and its version of Little League is called Knothole League. My two brothers and I used to play in the league decades ago, and my nephew, Sam, was in the league until recently, when he passed the age limit. No program is more active in the Cincinnati area than the one in a northern suburb called Forest Park. Every year for that league, opening day begins with a mile or so parade that features police vehicles, a fire truck, convertibles carrying local politicians, players throwing candy to kids lining the streets and a mighty ceremony at Field No. 1.
After the raising of the American flag and the singing of the national anthem by a student from one of the local schools, the guest speaker for years was Parker, who always spoke with passion about dedication, teamwork and giving 100 percent before a crowd ranging between 2,000 to 3,000 folks.
"The amazing thing is that Dave had no connection with the league, and he wasn't from the area, but I called him up one day to see if he would be interested in speaking one year, and he did it for seven years," said Sherman Kinney, a former president of the Forest Park Baseball Association. "He was very inspirational, and he even would stick around to watch some of the games before heading off to complete the rest of his day."
Said my nephew, Sam, describing his thoughts after the first time he joined other players in getting Parker's autograph at one of the events: "He was huge. Huge. He was really huge."
Just like Parker's legacy.