June 19, 2012

HOVG Heroes: Dave Parker


DAN EPSTEIN on DAVE PARKER

In my mind, Dave Parker has always been a badass.

I became aware of his existence in April 1976, when I opened my first-ever Topps wax pack, which I received as a party favor at a friend’s 10th birthday sleepover.

My friend’s parents took us all to see “The Bad News Bears” that night. In retrospect, you could pinpoint this as one of the most momentous evenings of my life: I was just about to turn 10 myself, and knew almost nothing about baseball at the time; but thanks to the cosmic forces set in motion by that birthday sleepover, I would soon trade in my obsession with military history (the American Revolution, the Civil War and World War II being my particular “jams”) for an even more consuming obsession with baseball history.

By the time I turned 11, I could wax even more eloquently on the subject of Johnny Bench versus Thurman Munson than I could on the subject of Robert E. Lee versus Ulysses S. Grant.

But back to that original wax pack.

It contained a few cards of players that I’d actually heard of, like home run king Hank Aaron and burgeoning star Ron LeFlore — the latter of whom I knew about, because he played for the nearby Detroit Tigers. Most of the players in the pack meant nothing to me, however; and as I hadn’t learned yet how to read the numbers on the back of their cards, I had no way of knowing if these guys were any good.

All I could tell was if they looked cool or not — and this Dave Parker cat looked the coolest of them all. Eyes locked confidently on the flight of the ball, right foot cocked arrogantly at the sky, right hand casually poised to discard a piece of lumber that looked as long as his leg, handsome face thick with fuzz and a muscled neck ornamented by a string of beads (pooka shells, maybe?)… this was clearly one baaaad dude.

A few days later, once my father had taught me how to read baseball stats, I realized that my initial impressions were correct: During his first full season in the Pirates’ lineup, Parker had hit .308 with 35 doubles, 10 triples, 25 home runs and 101 RBI. This was some solid production, to say the least — good enough to place Dave third in the NL MVP voting, albeit far behind Joe Morgan, who quite deservedly ran away with it that year.

But Dave’s time to really shine would soon be at hand.

I’ve never loved baseball more intensely than I did from 1976 through 1979; I still love the game now, obviously, but back then I was completely consumed with it. I read every baseball book and magazine I could get my hands on, memorized every box score and statistic that appeared in the papers, and spent countless hours working my way through the imagined lineups of various teams on the automatic pitch back in my backyard.

When it came time to face Dave Parker, I would rear back and throw as hard as I could, just to see how far the ball would fly.  After all, “The Cobra” (as he was known) was the most feared hitter in the National League in those days — even on my fantasy diamond, I figured I had no hope of ever striking him out.

Generally listed at somewhere around six-foot-five and 230 pounds, the dude was like a massive tree trunk come to life as a five-tool player. Posing with Jim Rice on the April 9, 1979 cover of Sports Illustrated, Parker — who’d won the 1978 NL MVP award — practically dwarfed his AL MVP counterpart. “Who’s Best?” asked the headline, and quite a few people in those days believed Parker was the better of the two; sure, Rice put up some undeniably fearsome offensive numbers from ’77 through ’79, but Parker was the complete package, bringing speed on the base paths (he averaged 19 swipes a season from 1976 through 1979), range in the outfield, and an absolute cannon of an arm into the equation.

In 1977, Parker led the NL in batting (.338), hits (215) and doubles (44) while scoring 107 runs, knocking 21 round-trippers, and racking up a .397 OBP… and he cut down a whopping 26 runners with throws from the outfield. Nobody in either league came within 10 of that total.

Though he’d never notch that many assists again in a season — NL base runners having generally taken the hint — “The Cobra” got a chance to uncoil two extremely memorable throws in the 1979 All-Star Game, nailing the aforementioned Mr. Rice at third base in the 7th as he tried to stretch a double into a triple, and throwing Brian Downing out at the plate as he tried to score from second on a Graig Nettles single in the 8th. The Downing throw in particular was a thing of frightening beauty, a no-bounce laser beam that almost took Gary Carter’s hand off.

Don’t fuck with “The Cobra”, man.

Even scarier than that All-Star Game bullet were the images of Parker in the various protective masks he wore during the 1978 and early '79 seasons, following the seismic collision with Mets catcher John Stearns that shattered his cheekbone.

Imagine how intimidating it would have been to be playing third base or catcher, and suddenly see all six and a half feet of Dave Parker barreling towards you, wearing a batting helmet outfitted with a football face guard? Or how about that hockey mask he briefly wore before the Pirates’ trainers came up with the football/baseball combo helmet, which foreshadowed Jason Voorhees’ murderous look by several months?

Ozzie Smith, who was playing shortstop for the Padres the day Parker first pinch-ran in the hockey mask, probably still has nightmares about it.

Just as Voorhees was a pitiless, unstoppable killing machine, Parker was equally relentless with the bat during the last two months of the 1978 season.

Hitting .316 when his June 30 collision with Stearns put him out of action for two weeks, he struggled after returning to the lineup in mid-July, his average eventually dwindling to .288. But then, during a three-day series against the Cubs in early August, he went 10-for-14 with a homer, three doubles and four RBI… and pretty much didn’t stop hitting from there until the end of the season, finishing with a league-leading .334 batting average, a .394 OBP, 32 doubles, 12 triples, 30 homers, 117 RBI and 102 runs scored, and very nearly leading the Pirates to the NL East title in the process.

His numbers slipped slightly in 1979 — he “only” batted .310 with a .380 OBP, 25 homers and 94 RBI — but he once again turned on the jets down the stretch, going 21-for-39 over the last nine games of the season as the “We Are Family” Pirates wrestled the NL East flag away from the Montreal Expos.

He then hit .333 against the Reds in the NLCS, and .345 against the Orioles with three doubles and four RBI in the World Series, including an RBI double that helped break Game 5 open. Jim Rice got a reputation for not producing when the game or the season was on the line; nobody could ever say that about “The Cobra”.

1979 also saw Parker sign what was then the biggest contract in Major League history; though Nolan Ryan is often credited with being MLB’s first “million dollar man,” Parker signed a million-a-year contract nearly a year before “The Ryan Express” did — though the Pirates (not wanting to be seen as the first team to break the million-dollar mark) structured the deal with various incentives and deferred payments in order to downplay the fact.

While Parker certainly deserved to be in the upper echelon of baseball salaries at the time, that contract also effectively served to put a target on his back. The idea of a supremely confident, intelligent, outspoken black man who wore jewelry on the field (including a gold Star of David, “because my name is David, and I’m a star”) having the highest salary in baseball didn’t sit too well with some baseball “traditionalists,” as it was — and when his weight, injuries and cocaine usage got the better of Parker in the early 80s, the high salary became a talking point for disgruntled Pittsburgh fans, who were only too happy to let him know that they weren’t getting their money’s worth.

There’s a famous photo of Parker from April 1976, where he’s wearing a custom-made t-shirt emblazoned with, “If you hear any noise it’s just me and the boys boppin’,” a slight paraphrasing of a lyric from Parliament’s late ’75 jam “Mothership Connection”.

While Parker wasn’t exactly the baseball version of P-Funk leader George Clinton, their career arcs do have some similarities. Both burned extremely hot early on, and their brilliant output fostered what were perhaps unreasonable expectations among their respective fans. Both men succumbed to a combination of overwork and cocaine abuse; and when both staged impressive comebacks — Clinton with “Atomic Dog,” Parker with the mid-80s Reds — the general reaction wasn’t so much of a celebratory “Welcome back!” as a shrugged, “Hey, you were supposed to be doing this all along!”

Having abandoned baseball for punk rock by then, I wasn’t paying much attention in 1985, the year Parker’s gifts (at least in the hitting department) suddenly seemed to return to him at the age of 34. I didn’t watch him play for the Reds, or see him win his second World Series ring in 1989 as a member of the Oakland A’s.

I know he had some unhappy times in Pittsburgh, but he’ll always be a Pirate to me, part of the Bucs’ two-decade run of brilliant and proud dark-skinned players that included Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Dock Ellis.

Frankly, seeing him in any uniform other than one of the Pirates’ 36 combinations of black, gold and white seems somehow wrong and off-putting to me, like Curtis Mayfield wearing a Spuds McKenzie t-shirt.

Dave Parker’s one of my all-time favorite players, and he posted some very good numbers indeed over the course of his 19-year career — finishing with a .290 batting average, 339 homers and1493 RBI — but I’m probably not the most reliable or convincing advocate for his Hall of Fame induction, since I only really saw him play in the 1970s, back when he oozed greatness from every pore.

And I know that there are many folks out there who’ve crunched his numbers and declared him to be less than Cooperstown material, as well as those who think his drug use and defiant attitude rendered him unworthy of inclusion in such an august institution. All I can say to them, and to you, is this: If there was a way to measure sheer swaggering badassery, and the backing up thereof, Dave Parker would be up there on the all-time leader board… and that alone qualifies him for enshrinement in my personal Hall of Fame.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Dan Epstein is an award-winning journalist, writer, editor, raconteur and renaissance man, whose acclaimed book Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ‘70s, is now out in paperback, and whose rock n’ roll baseball column “High and Tight” appears weekly on RollingStone.com.

You can find him on the web at http://www.bighairplasticgrass.com/ and http://www.lavieenrobe.com/, follow him on Twitter at @BigHairPlasGras, and join in the swingin’ 70s fun over on Facebook. He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Katie and his cat Oscar Claudell.


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