Dave Parker Was, And Is, The Man

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:

dave parker salary

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:

0409_large

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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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


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Chris
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Chris
2 years 9 months ago

“Nicknamed “Cobra” because of his 6-foot-5, 230 lb. frame,”

Really? We call big guys “Cobra” now?

Dave S (the original)
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Dave S (the original)
2 years 9 months ago

I’m 6’5″… I DEFINITLY want to be called “Cobra” now!

Cobra
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Cobra
2 years 9 months ago

…there… I dub me… Cobra!

TheHeySayKid
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TheHeySayKid
2 years 9 months ago

The reference to Parker as “Cobra” is undoubtedly not a reference to his overall impressive physique but rather to a specific portion of his anatomy, which although I have never seen it myself, snake-like in apparition.

Cobra
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Cobra
2 years 9 months ago

Well. I’m 6’5″. And I’m “anatomically correct”. So, I’ll still take Cobra! LOL

Izzy
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Izzy
2 years 9 months ago

The picture of Parker holding the sledgehammer confirms TheHeySayKid’s thoughts.

Fred
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Fred
2 years 9 months ago

The following is an excerpt from a LA Times Q&A with Parker circa 1991:

He became known as the Cobra, for the threatening waver of his bat.
“At that point I held my bat real high, with like a coiling motion, a cobra before it strikes,” Parker said.

source:
http://articles.latimes.com/1991-04-07/news/ss-541_1_dave-parker

deafdumbandblindkid
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deafdumbandblindkid
2 years 9 months ago

that’s how i’ve always remembered it. his bat, coiled back around his head, and…bat head to ball, striking like a…uh…

deafdumbandblindkid
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deafdumbandblindkid
2 years 9 months ago

oh…and…cobras dont really have large penii. that’s just an urban myth.

Alexander Nevermind
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Alexander Nevermind
2 years 9 months ago
Detroit Michael
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Detroit Michael
2 years 9 months ago

Logically, taking performance-detracting drugs (which cocaine seemed to be in Parker’s case but not necessarily other players’ cases) ought to be regarded as more culpable behavior than taking performance-enhancing drugs are. Most modern day fans don’t see it that way though.

Cobra
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Cobra
2 years 9 months ago

Really? I’m not even a “modern day” fan by the normal group of people at Fangraphs… I’m “old school” (I suspect. I’m 51!).

You think people that get addicted to “recreational” or “social” drugs are more culpable than PED users?

Wow. Almost anyone can become addicted to recreational/social drugs or medications.

PED users are out to do ONE thing, and one thing only… cheat.

If you can’t see the difference there, I feel badly for you.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 9 months ago

Taking a drug that degrades your performance hurts your team.

Players do a lot of things to enhance their performance and are praised for it. There are natural things like practice and exercise, but there is also surgery, dietary supplements and drugs (like energy boosters) that cross into more of a grey area in terms of why they are seen as acceptable while steroids are not. However, as long as those things are considered acceptable, players are expected to use those methods to the maximum extent in order to help their performance and, by extension, their team.

Cobra
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Cobra
2 years 9 months ago

So… are you agreeing with Detroit Michael and saying that a person that has a legitimate health issue (addiction) is WORSE than a person that intentionally CHEATS the system in order to gain an advantage for himself (and his team).

And that’s OK by you.

Super.

And BTW, all the owners since the strike year agree with you. And this is where it got us. A place where no one can even decide who is a “hall-of-fame” player now. Is that better than dealing with some guys that have substance abuse issues (non-PED). ????

Bip
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Bip
2 years 9 months ago

Did I say any of the things you so charitably insinuated I am? I don’t see how, by framing steroids as not-the-worst-thing-in-the-world, I am somehow saying they should be totally ok. (For the record I think they should be banned)

Here’s the main thing I don’t get. How is the line between steroids and the other performance enhancers I mentioned so clearly defined with some people? How is taking steroids the equivalent of murder while taking 5-hour-energy is not even worth mentioning? And how is it so much worse, from the perspective of Major League Baseball, than other illegal drugs which actively hurt both a player’s life and his performance?

And what do you mean by “worse?” Worse by what measure? Addiction is most certainly worse for the player than taking performance enhancers.

Cobra
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Cobra
2 years 9 months ago

Kind of amazing how Parker DWARFS Rice in that picture. I always thought of Rice as a pretty big guy. (and the early 70’s was when I cut my teeth as a baseball fan, so I remember these guys)

Balthazar
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Balthazar
2 years 9 months ago

Rice was big, just not huge. Rice was, however, extremely strong. It wouldn’t surprise me if he could beat Parker in arm-wrestling—just not in wrestling-wrestling.

Parker was enormous for his time, and pretty big for any time. It meant he had a huge strike zone, and long arms also that made covering that zone more difficult, yet he covered the plate pretty well once he learned the league. He wasn’t just a hacker, he was a hitter. Wanted nothing better than knocking your pitch off the wall a long way from home. Folks believed batting average still mattered then, and Parker wasn’t going to give up thirty points for another 7-8 HRs, unlike now. Contrast him with Dave Kingman or Gorman Thomas, other big men with big power, and you’ll see how good Dave Parker actually was.

Cobra
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Cobra
2 years 9 months ago

And that video clip is terrific. Parker with a (as usual) tremendous throw, and Carter blocking the plate… in a “meaningless” all-star game. Different time.

Balthazar
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Balthazar
2 years 9 months ago

Yeah, Carter blocking the plate, just like they taught it then. Ray Fosse got his career basically ended doing that, but it was expected. Different time indeed. Brian Downing had an excellent year himself that season. Players were very aware that they had a national audience, and they were competing against the legitimately best other players in their sport; kinda like a World Cup game. You didn’t just go to collect a contract bonus, you went to show your peers something about where you rated.

I remember *watching* that All-Star Game on TV . . . .

eric_m
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eric_m
2 years 9 months ago

That was a nice article. I really enjoyed reading it.

I have a Dave Parker memory actually, one of the few big leaguers I’ve had the chance to meet. When he was with the A’s in 1989, and I was a young kid of nine years old, I met him at a spa/gym type of place on Bay Farm Island in Alameda, CA. My friend’s parents had a membership there, and, knowing that Dave Parker was also a member, and us all being big A’s fans and everything, they brought us along to possibly meet him. My friend and I each brought along something for him to autograph, not certain if he was even going to be there (my friend brought a ball I think, I had with me my 1989 Topps card). We hung out for a while waiting for him, until eventually we spotted him out by the pool. I distinctly remember being terribly nervous as we approached him, and our interaction with him is one memory that I can claim at least maybe 65-70% accuracy on, upon recollection (I’ve lost a lot of brain cells since then). He was standing out by the pool with a white tank top on and a towel around his neck, and when my friend asked him if he could autograph some stuff for us, he gladly did it… as gladly as any adult will do something for a child who is pestering them. As he was signing our items, he then went on to mention something about how, according to his contract, he wasn’t supposed to sign certain products, or certain brands of baseball cards, and that we shouldn’t tell anyone that he did this. But he signed our stuff, smiled, and we thanked him and went on our way. Now that I’m older I can totally sympathize with him if he was a little annoyed to be interrupted mid-workout by a couple of little kids, and also as an Oakland A’s player at that time, he probably got a ton of people approaching him at random, but he was nice enough to sign our items at what was probably a most inconvenient moment.

Anyway, I still have the card, and every time I look at it it brings back that memory. I’m sorry to hear about his diagnosis, and hope the best for him.

Drew
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2 years 9 months ago

Why is coke detracting?

Jason B
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Jason B
2 years 9 months ago

Must be a Pepsi man.

Bad Dude
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Bad Dude
2 years 9 months ago

I’ll never forget how Parker broke his jaw and cheekbone. It was while he was “trying to kill” John Stearns by attempting to knock the ball out of his hands at home plate after Joel Youngblood pegged it from right field to end a game.

Stearns, a former all Big Eight safety and draft choice of the Buffalo Bills, got up and spiked the baseball as Parker lay prone with Stargell Stars circling around his head.

Ben
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Ben
2 years 9 months ago

Really enjoyable article that brought back a lot of memories.

Balthazar
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Balthazar
2 years 9 months ago

Dave “Tower of Power” Parker; remember him keenly if not quite fondly, as a Pirates fan of the time. He had to share time with the gravedigger, but when he earned the starter’s spot he was something.

Parker was abrasive, yes. Had that ego. And he did get hooked on coke (not the first guy nor the last) and it hurt his career and his team. And hurt his Hall chances, legitimately; one has to figure that in. (While I don’t look nearly as hard at rec drugs as PEDs, cocaine was a bit diferent. There was a performance enhancement aspect for some guys, yes. And users tended to get other people, and other players, on the stuff; that was a big part of the Pittsburgh drug situation. Not pretty, when you add it all up, though what we have these days is much worse.) Yet Parker _was_ an intelligent guy. He brought game to the field, and walked his talk; maybe too hard, but that’s how the game was played, then; especially in the National League. I was really glad to read that quote from the Pittsburgh paper earlier this week and again here, as it sounds Parker is at peace with his life, which is a great place to be.

He was a massively good hitter, it’s ridiculous to think how much money he’d make today. He earned his way to the ‘first million dollar man.’ He had the body type you knew his knees were going to go, though; a lot like Ken Griffey, Jr. Watching him shuffle in pain in his later career was painful in and of itself, and losing his speed and defense took a lot out of his presence; and his interest in the game, to be frank.

My personal favorite moment of Parker was also in an All-Star Game, the same one in 1979, IIRC, though not that admittedly outstanding and typcally ‘Parker’ play to the plate. It was a medium deep high fly ball to right center, with Garry Maddux of the Phillies in center and Parker in right. It was Maddux’s ball of course—but this is national TV!, and Parker has that ego, and the Pirates and Phillies hated each other. So they both close on the ball; and close on the ball; and settle under the ball up close and personal; and then were practically in each other’s jersey. And five inches taller with much longer arms, and, well *Dave Parker* Parker would NOT give way but caught the ball directly above Maddux’s perfectly up-stretched glove. And Maddux did not like that a bit, but couldn’t do a thing as they both jogged in. Parker had that kind of ego, but he backed it up all the way, and you had to respect that aspect of his performance.

Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio
2 years 9 months ago

what did Joe Morgan complain about? Parker’s hockey style face mask? That’s pretty lame on Joe Morgan.

That Guy
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That Guy
2 years 9 months ago

There was a book written about the incident, but Morgan claims he never read the book.

nod
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nod
2 years 9 months ago

Morgan said that if he were Dave Parker he wouldn’r write that book.

Jason B
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Jason B
2 years 9 months ago

He was just not consistent enough for Joe’s liking.

Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio
2 years 9 months ago

Also, kind of surprised to see Bjorn Borg listed among the top 10 highest paid TEAM sports athletes. Wikipedia says Borg did play 167 doubles matches, but that’s definitely not where he made the bulk of his money.

Darien
Member
2 years 9 months ago

I have a friend called Dave Parker, as a matter of fact. He’s not the same guy, though he is pretty big and plays (amateur) baseball. So I guess my point is: suck it, Chuck Tanner.

John C
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John C
2 years 9 months ago

Parker would be in the Hall of Fame today if not for the drug scandal. Tony Perez and Andre Dawson got in with very similar numbers in the same era, and Parker at his peak was a better player than either. In fact, he was the best player in baseball for a sustained period of time. Most, if not all, players who have been the consensus best player in baseball for a decent amount of time end up in the Hall of Fame.

His Hall of Fame case doesn’t look as good as it did 20 years ago because of the big-hitting era that began right after his retirement. But I suspect the Veteran’s Committee, especially as it takes on more and more of his contemporaries, may look more favorably on Parker.

Patrick
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Patrick
2 years 9 months ago

Dave Parker vs. Dwight Evans would be a really cool discussion.

Omnibarn
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Omnibarn
2 years 9 months ago

My favorite Parker story is he taking the field during batting practice wearing a garbage can over his legs. Shen he would run the can would make a hell of a lot of noise and someone asked him what he was doing.

He said he couldn’t find his glove so he borrowed Phil Garner’s. ZING!

lex logan
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lex logan
2 years 9 months ago

One of my favorite memories was of a fly ball hit toward right-center, caught by Omar Moreno, with a runner on third and less than two outs. Moreno had to run away from the plate to make the catch, and had a notoriously weak arm. The runner tagged up for an easy score — but as Moreno caught the ball, he flipped it to Parker (straight from the glove IIRC) who was running toward the plate and gunned the runner out. I believe this happened in a playoff game (as I would otherwise rarely be watching the Pirates) but I haven’t been able to pin down the date.

Bryan
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Bryan
2 years 9 months ago

Thanks for the article! I started watching baseball in 88, when I was 7, so I only knew Parker as an old (but very memorable) DH. He is one of those players that sticks on your mind. One of a kind. I had no idea his prime years were that good in the 70s. That was surprising to me.

dave
Guest
dave
1 year 11 months ago

Dave parker was a great ball player and good guy.I am 60 years old and a pirate fan from 1979 thanks to guys like dave parker.willie.scrapiron,madlock,teke and the rest.if parker was playing today just think what he could do for a team. God bless you dave.a fan forever.

ray
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ray
1 year 12 days ago

Dave Parker was called the cobra because of his large manhood and once at a party he pulled it out and stirred potato salad with it! Believe it or not, I ain’t shitting you!

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