Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Card #40: Dave Parker

Who Can It Be Now?
David Gene Parker was born on June 9, 1951, in Grenada, Mississippi, according to Baseball Reference, or in Calhoun, Mississippi, according to Topps and Wikipedia.  The two cities aren't close -- they are three hours from one another; Calhoun is far closer to Hattiesburg, where the University of Southern Mississippi is located, and Grenada is about equidistant as the crow flies between Starkville (Mississippi State) and Oxford (Ole Miss).  Considering that even the Baseball Reference Bullpen says he was born in Calhoun City, I'm going with that as his birthplace.  

Despite his roots in the Deep South, Parker grew up in Cincinnati.  He attended Courter Technical High School -- which no longer exists, having been swallowed up by the Cincinnati State Technical and Community College.  He claimed later in life that his first love was football -- at tailback -- but that he tore up his knee his senior year.  That must have been a scary sight -- a 6'5", then 215 pound running back in 1969 coming at you?  In all seriousness, even with a knee injury, I would predict that in 2014, Dave Parker would be picking up a hat with a college football team's logo on it on national signing day.  

Instead, the only signed Parker did was with a baseball team.  The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Parker in the Fourteenth Round of the 1970 June Amateur draft, and he stayed with the Pirates through the 1983 season.  He was drafted as a catcher, but the Pirates moved him to the outfield immediately (though he did pitch one game in the Gulf Coast League in 1970).  

Parker's bat moved him up the Pirates chain rapidly.  Outside of a .228/.305/.281 Double-A showing over 30 games in 1970, Parker never hit under .310, never had an OBP of under .350, and never had a SLG lower than his .448 showing in the Gulf Coast league.  Add it all up, and in 381 games from 1970 to 1973, Parker had a minor league slash line of .315/.358/.496 with 48 Home Runs and 69 Stolen Bases in 1577 Plate Appearances.  

That showing convinced the Pirates in 1973 to call Parker up to the major leagues on July 12. It took him a while to make an impression -- he went 0 for his first 11 at-bats before picking up his first major league hit against future Hall of Famer Don Sutton on July 16, 1973

Parker finally got his hitting on track that year with a 4-for-4 performance against St. Louis on September 3 of that year.  Before the game, his average was just .218, but by year's end, he finished at .288.  He struggled for playing time in 1974.  Though he was with the team the entire year, he was the fifth outfielder behind Willie Stargell, Al Oliver, Richie Zisk, and Gene Clines.  Still, It would have been a major reach to predict what happened in 1975 -- unless, again, you calculate what Parker's Major League Equivalents from his minor league days told you about him.

1975 was when Dave Parker really rose into prominence. The Pirates moved Stargell to first base to save his 35-year-old knees, and that freed up left field for Zisk.  Parker and his absolute cannon of an arm went into right field.  Add in a break-through at the plate, and you can see why Parker finished third -- a distant third, but third nonetheless -- to deserved NL MVP Joe Morgan that year; Morgan had the benefit of having his team win the National League, while Parker's Pirates "only" won the NL East and got swept in the NLCS with Parker taking the big donut himself -- 0-for-10 with only a walk to show for his troubles.  

The 1970s was probably the second-to-last "golden era" for the Pittsburgh Pirates -- the last being in the early 1990s, of course -- but the 1970s were a period of sustained excellent teams for the Pirates.  From 1970 through 1979, the Pirates had only one losing season -- an 80-82 record the year after Roberto Clemente's tragic death.  Otherwise, from 1970 through 1979, the Pirates won two World Series, won the NL East six times, and finished second three other times.  A major factor in that was Dave Parker's performance.

Parker was an All-Star in 1977, 1979, 1980, and 1981 and then again in 1985 and 1986 with Cincinnati, and in 1990 in his single year as a Milwaukee Brewer.  He won three Gold Gloves -- from 1977 through 1979.  He won back-to-back batting titles in 1977 and 1978, led the league in SLG, OPS, and Total Bases in 1978 and, of course, he was named the National League MVP in 1978.  He was the beneficiary of 23 intentional walks that year as well.  

To give a better perspective on what baseball was like back then, the Pirates finished second in the National League East in 1978.  Despite this, the Pirates drew less than one million people, and they were not the worst team in the NL -- the Braves were -- and four teams in the American League were worse as well.  For comparison's sake, the team that drew the fewest fans to the stadium in 2013 were the Tampa Bay Rays to that ghastly dome; their attendance was 1, 510,300 people.  

After the 1978 season, Parker was a free agent.  He ended up signing with Pittsburgh after that year to a five-year, $7.5 million contract that was structured where Parker received $2.2 million over the five years and, then, starting in 1988, he would be paid out the rest of the money until 2007 -- a $5.3-million, twenty-year annuity.  The price tag was high -- the highest in American team sports as of 1979, according to Sports Illustrated -- but with the Pirates winning the World Series in 1979, it seemed worth it.

Despite the excellent seasons and the commitment to staying in Pittsburgh, Dave Parker was not universally loved.  To be clear, a story from Sports Illustrated in early 1979 was titled, "A Loudmouth and His Loud Bat" and it went downhill from there despite the fact that, if you actually read the article, it makes it clear that Parker was a thoughtful person who took advice well and listened to those who were trying to help him.  Nonetheless, Parker described himself as a bit of a bully -- a talker...a guy who picked on his teammates in jest but also to make them better in some respects.  

That plays well when you're hitting 25 home runs, playing 158 games, and winning the World Series, as the Pirates did in 1979.  But, Parker's numbers started fading -- fast.  He had off-season knee surgery after 1980 and showed up in spring training overweight.  In 1981, Parker missed nearly 40 of Pittsburgh's games.  Then, in 1982, Parker played in only 73 games.  

These issues were compounded by the fact that Parker was on cocaine.  It is well known that he testified in September of 1985 in the infamous "Pittsburgh Drug Trials" against cocaine dealer Curtis Strong.  Parker admitted that he starting snorting cocaine in 1979 and knew strong so well that Strong was invited to the Pirates' team New Year's Eve party for 1981.  

All these issues -- the huge contract, his drug use, his perceived slacking, his growing waistline, and even several illegitimate children -- did not endear Parker to the Pirates' fans. As a June 1990 article in the Pittsburgh Press put it:
Pittsburgh's perception [of Parker] is of a louse, a loser, a drug abuser.  The image is of a spoiled, arrogant and militant black who tried to worm out of paternity suits and child-support suits, who got a five-year, $5 million contract and promptly got a fat head and a fatter belly.
Despite all this, Parker played another four seasons for his hometown Cincinnati Reds from 1984 through 1987 -- even finishing second to Willie McGee in the MVP race in 1985.  The Reds traded him after the 1987 season for Tim Birtsas and Jose Rijo.  

Parker played two years for Oakland before he signed as a free agent with the Milwaukee Brewers after the 1989 season.  Even though Parker was 38, his signing was seen as a way to entice then-reining American League MVP Robin Yount to re-sign with the Brewers. Obviously that worked, since Yount played the rest of his career in Milwaukee.  

After one season in Milwaukee, the Brewers traded Parker to the California Angels.  The Angels needed a designated hitter, and they had a logjam in the outfield.  So, they sent 27-year-old Dante Bichette to Milwaukee.  Parker was released near the end of 1991 by the Angels, and played the last two weeks of his career with the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Verdict 
After handing Parker the large contract in 1978, the Pirates didn't feel like they got their money's worth from the Cobra.  After the Pittsburgh Drug Trial, anti-Dave Parker sentiment in Pittsburgh was extremely high.  As a result and in 1986, the Pirates sued Parker for fraud and breach of contract in an effort to avoid some of the extended payments under the contract.  The suit was eventually settled about two months before trial in a confidential settlement.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Parker was the Cobra -- coiled in right field and ready to throw out any runner with the temerity to try to take an extra base against him.  By 1982, though, the knee problems and the weight problems made him seem washed up.  The fact that Parker came back from that and became a good player again can be chalked up in part to getting off cocaine and getting into shape and, probably, in part to being back home in Cincinnati.  

Two items dominate my thoughts today about Parker.  The first is whether Parker should be in the Hall of Fame.  He stayed the entire 15 years that a player can stay on the BBWAA ballot without being elected.  He never got more than 24.5% of the vote and never got less than 10.3% of the vote.  Parker's candidacy is one of peak, I would imagine.  

Parker scores well in the Black Ink with 26 (leading the league in batting stats, where the average HOFer is 27), the Gray Ink category at 145 (finishing in the top 10 in stats, where the average HOFer is 144), the Hall of Fame Monitor at 124 (likely Hall of Famer is around 100) and the Hall of Fame Standards measure at 42 (average HOFer is 50).  

Parker does not do well compared to the 24 RF already in the HOF.  Certainly, you're talking about a position played by Babe Ruth, whose presence alone skews statistics -- but you're also being compared to some of the best hitters the game has ever seen.  It's not just Ruth -- it's Aaron, Musial, Ott, Frank Robinson, Clemente, Kaline, and Reggie, to name just a few. For his career, Parker has just 39.9 WAR; for comparison, J.D. Drew is at 44.9.  Parker has a peak WAR (WAR7) of 37.2.  The Average HOFer in RF is at 42.9.  And, Parker's JAWS score is at 38.6...the average HOFer in RF is 58.1.  

I mean, it's tough to say that a guy whose stats are as good as Parker's doesn't get in because he's being compared to the best steroids money could buy in the 1990s.  And, simply put, that's not why he isn't in -- it's because he doesn't compare favorably to guys like Dwight Evans and Reggie Smith.  These are Parker's contemporaries, and their careers were far more productive -- by something like 25 wins above replacement MORE than Parker.  So, I just can't see it happening.  Then again, I couldn't see Jim Rice getting in either.

The other item that is more saddening to me is the fact that Parker announced last summer that he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in February of 2012. Parker's older sister also has the disease.  Certainly, it's a disease that one can live with.  As an aside, my mother has also been diagnosed with Parkinson's; it's not progressing quickly with her, thankfully, but it is a tough thing to see.  If you are inclined to give any thanks for this blog, please consider donating to The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.

Finally, though, to close on a good note, Dave Parker and Pittsburgh have most certainly reconciled with one another.  Even though news stories still refer to his cocaine use during his last years in Pittsburgh, Parker has attended Pittsburgh Pirate "Heritage Days."  In the story about his Parkinson's diagnosis, Parker exclaimed to the interviewer, "Once a Buc, always a Buc.  And I'll always be a Buc." 

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