Not everyone liked Dave Parker. Certainly the fans who threw things at him in the Pittsburgh outfield, slashed the roof of his convertible and even threatened his life could be counted in this camp. Pundits who may have poured cold water on Parker’s Hall of Fame candidacy thanks to his involvement in the Pittsburgh Drug Trials might also find themselves in this camp. But whether you loved him or hated him, Parker was always one of the game’s most entertaining and best players, and his recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease shouldn’t overshadow that fact.
“You can go through life and not find another Dave Parker.” — Chuck Tanner
Nicknamed “Cobra” because of his 6-foot-5, 230 lb. frame, Parker very nearly became known to the nation as a football player. As a senior, when he was a slimmer 210 lbs., he received letters of interest from 60 colleges. Sixty. But he injured his knee that season, and was smart enough to realize that his future was in baseball. Baseball teams either didn’t know this or didn’t want to know it, and he wasn’t selected until the 14th round (if the Rockies were around back then, they probably would have popped him a lot sooner, but alas Parker came before their time).
He didn’t reach the majors right away, but in each of his four minor league seasons, he hit at least .300 with an .800 OPS. When he was called up in 1973, it was with the weighty expectation that he would replace the immortal Roberto Clemente, who had died tragically the previous winter. He didn’t get the gig all to himself right away — he had to share right field with Richie Zisk in ’73 and ’74 — but when he claimed it he quickly became one of the most productive players in the game. In his first five years with right field all to himself, he posted 30.3 WAR — only George Foster, George Brett and Mike Schmidt accumulated a higher total, and Foster only just barely eclipsed Parker.
“When the leaves turn brown, I’ll be wearing the batting crown.”
Of course, Parker was second to none in the confidence department which this quote, from the 1978 season, clearly illustrates. Not that he was lying. Parker did indeed win the batting crown that season, leading the majors with a .334 average. It wasn’t his best season from a WAR perspective, but it was the year in which he took home the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award, and handily at that. He took 21 of the 24 first-place votes, with the other three going to Larry Bowa. Nothing could stop Parker that season, not even a broken jaw and cheekbone. He would play the latter half of the season in various hockey and football-inspired masks. Except of course, when someone complained. The seasoned reader will not be surprised to learn that one of the chief complainers was Joe Morgan. Parker deferred to Morgan, but that didn’t mean he took it easy on him. Describing the first time he reached base after Morgan’s complaint, Parker said:
“It just so happened that the next batter hit a ball to the shortstop, Dave Concepcion, which is just what I was hoping would happen, because Morgan had to cover second for the double play … Well, of course I tried to kill him, because of the complaining. He jumped up and started yelling, ‘Did you see that? He tried to kill me, he tried to kill me!'”
Morgan wasn’t exactly in an exclusive club, either. By his own admission, Parker was reserved off the field, but once he walked in the clubhouse, he put people on notice. As he said in the above-linked Ebony profile, “Some meditate, I verbalize.” What he also did was hit. The Pirates missed the playoffs by a game and a half in ’78, but Parker was still the one for whom everyone voted. He set career highs in homers, stolen bases, walk rate, isolate power, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, wOBA and wRC+.
For his career, Parker stands 62nd all-time in hits with 2,712, and 39th since the color barrier was broken in 1947 (with two more hits, Ichiro Suzuki will bump him back to 63rd and 40th, respectively). And while his deteriorating knees were a death blow to his fielding and baserunning in the ’80’s, in the ’70’s he was the total package. Though he never repeated it, his 25 Fld mark in ’77 was one of the three best outfielder marks of the decade, and he averaged 19 stolen bases a year for the decade’s final four seasons. As a result, in ’79, he became the most handsomely paid man in team sports:
Parker had the big salary, but he also had the chops to back it up, which likely made all the more polarizing. When the 1979 season opened, Sports Illustrated posed the question, “Who’s best?” There were only two players on the cover:
He didn’t disappoint. While he would only finish 10th in the MVP voting, but he went 20-20 again, collected his third and final Gold Glove, and finished in the NL’s top 10 in all three triple-slash stats, as well as wOBA and wRC+. He also gave fans one of the more memorable moments in All-Star Game history when he gunned down Brian Downing:
Oh yes, and he was a big part of the “We Are Family” Pirates team that took home the World Series crown. Willie Stargell overshadowed him in the Fall Classic, but Parker was still instrumental. His RBI single in the seventh inning of Game Six proved to be the only run Pittsburgh would need to knot things at three games apiece.
Such moments of glory helped punctuate an incredibly long career — 19 years in total. It was almost 18, as commissioner Peter Ueberroth initially suspended him for the 1986 season in retaliation for his participation in the Pittsburgh Drug Trials, but Parker and the other suspended players were able to reach a settlement with baseball.
Cocaine may have ruined Parker’s chances at a hall of fame career. A quick comparison to Jim Rice finds Parker 9.7 WAR behind the recently-inducted Red Sox slugger. If Parker had been able to finish the final four seasons of his Pirates’ tenure in any way like he started it, he would have reached that 50 WAR plateau. His knees and his addiction have always been blamed for the drop in production, and while it’s impossible to know how much weight to give to each one, Parker certainly wasn’t the same after his age-28 season.
He would rebound in 1985, and it helped him extend his career as a DH, but he needed to do more damage in his final years in Pittsburgh to strengthen his case. Had he done so, he might even have had a leg up on Rice. They were both MVP’s, but Parker also two World Series titles on his side of the ledger, as well as three Gold Gloves. The same “fearsome” arguments that worked for Rice certainly would have been trumpeted for Parker as well. I mean, the man literally swung a sledgehammer in the on-deck circle. That’s not to say that Rice is a model hall of famer, but a couple more good seasons of play clearly would have burgeoned Parker’s case. As it is, he never received more than a quarter of the vote. He is eligible for veteran’s committee election starting this year though, and it will be interesting to see if he garners any additional support from them.
Still, while cocaine may have ruined his hall of fame chances, it didn’t ruin him as a person. Reading his comments in Ebony on race, it’s clear that he he has always been intelligent, and while it is fun to revel in his boppin’ days, it’s clear that Parker is much more than a caricature. Anecdotes like the one Barry Larkin told in his hall of fame induction speech or quotes like he gave to the Pittsburgh Post-Tribune this week are telling:
“There’s no fear … 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.”
In the article, it is also revealed that even as he battles a disease for which there is no cure, Parker is taking time to tutor teenagers on hitting.
No objective metric paints Dave Parker as a hall of famer, and in fact you could make the argument that his career should serve more as cautionary tale than beacon of excellence, but when he was right Parker was a force of nature in both stature and statistics. And while the game has seen its fair share of outstanding and outlandish players since, it may be some time before there’s someone quite like Dave Parker.
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