Detroit Tigers’ Lance Parrish never wanted to leave in ’86, but wanted fair treatment

Detroit Free Press

Bill Dow |  Special to Detroit Free Press

Free Press special writer Bill Dow continues his “where are they now” series about former Detroit Tigers players.

Today’s profile is on Lance Parrish:

How we remember him

“The Big Wheel” was one of the best catchers in the major leagues in the 1980s and served as the cleanup hitter for the 1984 World Series champions. That season, he hit 33 homers with 98 RBIs. The eight-time All-Star and six-time Silver Slugger won the Gold Glove Award three times in his 19-year career. The California native turned down a full ride to play football at UCLA to sign with the Tigers, who drafted him in the first round in 1974. After making his major league debut at age 21, he became the Tigers’ full-time catcher from 1979-1986. In 1982, he set the American League record for home runs in a season by a catcher with 32, the same year he set an All-Star record by throwing out three baserunners. From 1982 to 1985, he averaged 30 homers and just under 100 RBIs per season and led AL catchers twice in baserunners caught stealing. He ranks sixth in MLB history for career home runs by a catcher (324); in his 10 seasons with the Tigers, he had 212 homers and 700 RBIs.

After the Tigers

Unable to reach an agreement with the Tigers after the 1986 season, he signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Phillies. He played there for two years before finishing his career with the Angels, Mariners, Indians, Pirates and Blue Jays and retiring in 1995. He later coached in the minors for the Royals and Dodgers, before serving two stints as a coach with the Tigers (1999-2001, 2003-05). In 2006, he managed the Dodgers’ minor league affiliate, the Ogden Raptors, and served as the first manager of the Great Lakes Loons in 2007. He later managed at Double-A Erie from 2014 to 2017 and Single-A  West Michigan in 2018-19.

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In November, he became a special assistant to Tigers GM Al Avila. Parrish, 64, lives in Michigan with Arlyne, his wife of 41 years. They have three children and eleven grandchildren.

Choosing baseball over football

“In my first year of Little League, no one wanted to catch so I volunteered and then became a big Johnny Bench fan. As a football player in high school, I played a number of positions on both sides of the ball, kicked, punted and in my senior year I was the quarterback. I was recruited heavily by several schools to play football and baseball. At Nebraska on a recruiting trip, I met coach Tom Osborne and stood on the sidelines for a game against Kansas. They were hitting so hard I thought, ‘Come on, I don’t know if this is something I really want to do.’ I was offered a full scholarship to play football at UCLA, but baseball was my first love. I was told to not sign a baseball contract for less than $100,000 as a first-round pick. The Tiger scout came to my house and met with my dad and me and offered $60,000. I told him that I would have to think about it. My dad, who was a L.A. deputy sheriff, took me into a bedroom, closed the door, and said, ‘$60,000! Do you know how much money that is?’ I ended up signing a couple of days later for $67,500.”

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His development as catcher

“The Tigers drafted me as a third baseman and that was a mystery to me because I only played third as a senior because we didn’t have a third baseman. My two strongest positions were catching and pitching. I played third base my first year at Bristol in the Rookie League but then the farm director, Hoot Evers, said he wanted me to catch and switch hit because of the short right field porch at Tiger Stadium. I had never switched hit in my life! They wore me out in the low minors with breaking balls. With the numbers I had, in today’s day and age where everything is geared to statistics, I may never have left A-ball. They finally had me drop the switch-hitting experiment. If it wasn’t for Les Moss, my manager at Double-A and Triple-A, I never would have made it. When I struggled, he had me hit a million baseballs in extra batting practice and had me practice blocking balls behind the plate. Later, Sparky Anderson brought Bill Freehan to spring training to fine-tune my catching mechanics and footwork. Bill was a huge help and I enjoyed every minute being around him.”

Catching the Jack Morris no-hitter

“That day (April 7, 1984), Jack’s split-finger fastball was off the charts and it was as good as I’ve ever seen it. Durwood Merrill was the home plate umpire and he called six walks on Jack. It was very frustrating because the pitches were right there. I felt like turning around and choking him. I felt a big part of that no-hitter, and it was a medal of honor to be part of it. After the game, (Tigers president) Jim Campbell called the clubhouse and said that he was giving me a bonus. I was pumped because very rarely does the catcher get credit. He thought he was talking to Jack, and when he realized it was me, he started yelling and said, ‘No, I meant Jack, get him on the phone.’ I didn’t get anything but it was great to be part of it. I also caught a combined no-hitter with the Angels and nearly caught a perfect game from Milt Wilcox the year before in Chicago, but Jerry Hairston hit a pinch-hit single with two outs in the ninth. I had called for a split-finger because I knew Hairston was a first-pitch fastball hitter, but Milt shook me off and threw the fastball. Whenever I see Milt, I razz him, and say, ‘If you hadn’t shaken me off, you would have had a perfect game.’ It’s a running joke, but I don’t think he likes hearing it anymore. But he pitched just a tremendous game.”

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Being a catcher

“I always called my own game based on the hitters and what was and was not working for my pitcher, but obviously the pitcher has the last say. Trying to stay healthy is the key. I don’t think catchers get enough credit for how beat up we get behind the plate. It’s hard enough to hit when you feel good, but when you’ve been smoked on the wrist or forearm or your fingers are jammed it makes hitting more difficult. If you want to be a catcher, you have to be able to wear it. I took a lot of heat from Sparky Anderson for weightlifting but I attribute a lot of my success to playing through injuries because of that and my exercise routine.”

His HR off of Goose Gossage in Game 5 of ’84 World Series

“I didn’t have a lot of success off of Goose, not a lot of people did. He would just try to throw that ball by you, although he had a pretty good slider. When I came to the plate the crowd was yelling ‘Goosebusters’ to the ‘Ghostbusters’ movie theme song. I thought it was hilarious. The fans at Tiger Stadium were amazing with the wave and everything else. The whole stadium was yelling it and I was trying to stay focused. I was pumped, but I was even more pumped when the ball went out so quickly. It was a huge thrill to hit that homer under those circumstances and for what it meant to the team.”


On being the kiss victim of Morganna in 1985

“The game was on national television at Tiger Stadium against the Angles and there was talk that she was in town and was going to go after (Kirk Gibson). When I came to the plate, my head was down and I was digging my little spot in the batter’s box when suddenly I heard the crowd erupt. I looked at Bob Boone, the catcher, and he had this smirk on his face. I look up and Morganna is running at me. It was like, ‘OK, do your thing and let’s get on with it.’ I was in shock and really didn’t know what to do. She gave me a hug, a peck on the cheek and ran back to the stands where the ushers grabbed her. My only worry was that Fred Lynn went 3-for-40 after she got him. Years later, when I was managing in San Antonio for the Dodgers, she ran out and got me again when I was coaching third base. I knew she was coming this time because the team signed her up for an appearance. She was good-hearted with it all.”

Leaving the Tigers in 1986

“In 1980, I pulled into the Tiger Stadium lot and the guard said Jim Campbell wanted to see me. I’m in his office and he pulls out a stack of papers and says, ‘I’m offering you a seven-year deal, sign it right now, or it is off the table.’ I said, ‘I can’t sign this now, I need to speak with my agent and my wife.’ He says, ‘Why do you have to speak with your wife?’ I walked out and he was pissed. I ended up signing for six years for $2 million-plus. Over those six years, salaries had escalated and I was underpaid based upon my value, but I honored my contract. In my last year, I was substantially underpaid compared to my counterpart, Gary Carter. I thought the time would come I could sign another deal and be properly compensated. We had reached an agreement in principal during spring training, but suddenly they pulled it off the table. I had hurt my back after that, and I still had a good year, but they only offered a one-year deal for the same amount I made in ’86. A lot of people thought that I wanted to leave the Tigers but that was never the case. I just wanted to be treated fairly. I had played very well, kept my nose clean and represented the organization well, and that’s how you’re treated? I told Campbell how disappointed I was with him. I will also never forgive Peter Ueberroth who as commissioner put together the owners’ collusion game plan.”

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His role as special adviser to Avila

“I’m going to enjoy being an adviser to Al Avila, but I loved managing and I will miss it a lot. It’s been a very strange season and it has limited everyone’s duties. The plan is that I’ll evaluate players at spring training, help out with instructing catchers, rotate to different minor league cities, file reports and participate at different Comerica Park functions. I’ve watched the games on TV and stopped by Comerica Park and Toledo but there hasn’t been a whole lot I could really do. I’m glad we could at least play some games this year, allow younger players to hone their skills and see what we have. I feel bad for all the minor leaguers who didn’t get to play this year but I’m encouraged with the talent we’ve obtained. It is all starting to take shape.”

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