Editor’s note: MLBbro.com has exclusive access to missing chapters from the newly published memoir of baseball legend Dave Parker. Cobra: A Life of Baseball and Brotherhood recounts Parker’s 19-year career.
The prolific outfielder won baseball’s MVP award in 1978, and the World Series title in 1979 with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
He led the National League in slugging percentage (1975 and 1978) and won three Gold Glove awards (1977-79). This three-part series “Cobra: The DH Years,” highlights Parker’s journey through the American League.
Read the following chapter, “My Prerogative”, from the 1989 season, where Parker confronts the re-acquired Rickey Henderson about the team-first attitude of the Oakland A’s; and Parker’s first-hand account of the 1989 San Fran Earthquake.
By Dave Parker & Dave Jordan
April 22, 1989. I was hitting .246 early on, in a 2-for-20 slump that seemed to be getting worse. Only had two dingers on the year at that point.
We were playing the Angels, a solid ballclub that thought they could punch with us, even if we were a little beat up. Canseco suffered a broken left wrist swinging a bat in March – no real guess when he was coming back. I was seeing nothing but inside heat and off-speed junk. Making adjustments on the fly.
Bottom of the seventh, two outs. I stepped up to the plate and dug in. The Angels starter was hanging in tough, down by a run, 4-3, but keeping the game close. He was thrilled to tears to be playing without worry of a double-switch or a pitching change. It was his game to lose.
Yep, ol’ Dutch, my man from the Buccos of yesteryear, was still dealing. 38 years old, finally landed at his preferred baseball oasis – Anaheim, close to where he grew up. Blyleven’s known for being born in Amsterdam almost as much as his legendary curveball. I enjoyed a nice relationship with Blyleven, gettin’ him all sorts of worked up and pissed before he started big games, but that’s a story for another day.
I had a little success off Blyleven in 1988 when he was with the Twins, 6-for-13 with a few RBIs, but then he was brought over to get California back into the postseason. From 60 feet away, I gave him a grin, visually begging him for the gas. Didn’t know if he was shaking off the catcher or disapproving my attitude. Dutch set, I waggled.
Swing and a miss. Curveball? Really? You ain’t gonna play the game, son, I asked him with my eyes, stepping out of the box.
Second pitch? Swing and a miss. Curveball. Ok, if that’s how it’s gonna be, I know you gonna try to sneak that elderly fastball by me this time. I know you. I lost a lot of things in 10 years, but my memory ain’t one of ‘em. Here we go. Here comes the heat…
Swing and a miss. Curveball. Strike three. Dutch used his glove to cover his laugh, having a time at my expense. I walked back to the dugout, glaring at Blyleven, sending a “You gonna pay for that shit” look, and my troubles in 1989 continued.
* * * * *
My average at the end of April was around .194. Hadn’t hit a dinger in weeks. The reporters started getting on my manager, Tony La Russa. “What will you do with Parker?” “Is Sandy looking around the league for a bat?” “How much time are you going to give him to turn it around?”
I had ears. Knew where the clock was in the room.
“How long will you start Parker?” La Russa didn’t bat an eye.
“September 1. That’s my answer.” The man stuck with me through the depths of my slump. And it wasn’t like the A’s were dominating, either. Going into May 1st, Oakland was a game behind the Angels. The A’s had been predicted to bulldoze the AL West with Jose, McGwire, Hendu, me, and that pitching staff, especially after Sandy went out and got this Seattle starter Mike Moore, a 9-15 tough-luck cat who Tony and Duncan thought was way better than the record suggested.
More of the math-based thinking that hardly anyone else even knew existed. Lesser managers would’ve panicked, made lineup switches, clubhouse meetings, maybe even sat me down for a cold one, a real-world talk at the hotel bar. Tony and Sandy had a process and they were gonna see it through.
That’s not to say that Sandy wasn’t doing some diligence on what was around the league in terms of lefty-swinging power. He had a thing for this one dude on the Yankees, Ken Phelps, a slugger who managed to walk all the time when he wasn’t hitting dingers. A lot of late nights studying the ceiling, wondering when Tony was gonna pull the plug, regardless of what he told the San Jose Mercury. Seen skippers do worse to cats with better numbers than mine.
Two weeks later, home against the Brew Crew, Chris Bosio tried a sneak a hanging curve by me on a 2-1 count. That shit hung up there just long enough for me to blast away, my first dinger in over a month. We won that game 4-3 and I felt like I was ready again.
“That’s the first time I back-legged a ball in three weeks,” I told some dude at the San Francisco Examiner, “Usually when you’re in a slump there’s one thing that puts you back on track.” The other reporters started getting cute with me, asking for my comment on the Phelps rumors. “That left-hand power hitter might have some competition, you know what I mean?” I gave them all a shit-eating grin. “In view of what’s been written, I thought maybe I should hit some home runs.”
Over the next 30 games, I remembered to use my back leg more and I batted .336 with seven dingers and 23 RBIs, carrying the offense, waiting for Canseco, who still hadn’t returned to us. It felt nice to reward Tony’s support, even if we could’ve used one more cat to get us over the top. The AL West lead was flipping back and forth. We were better than the Angels, but Sandy got wind of a legendary thief who was willing to steal his way back home.
Well, close to home.
* * * * *
Rickey Henderson established himself as a superstar outfielder with Oakland in the earlier part of the decade, at one point leading the team from the depths of the last place-last days of Charlie Finley to a playoff berth in the strike year of 1981. He broke the single-season stolen base record the following year with 130 swipes.
Couple of seasons later, Sandy wasn’t sure that Oakland could afford him and shipped Rickey off to the Yankees. He enjoyed a few strong years in New York, but during 1989, the Yankees were headed for their first losing season in a couple of decades. Rickey was set to become a free agent but kept asking the Yanks for a three-year deal.
His average was sitting a little under .250, he only stole about 23 bases to that point in the season and some of Steinbrenner’s famous “baseball people” said that Rickey’s skills were beginning to erode at age 30.
That’s when Alderson reached out to George and offered a menu of players of his own. A little back-and-forth dance – “We want Polonia, we want Greg Caderet, not Gene Nelson” – and 72 hours later, entering the clubhouse from a shadow of popping camera bulbs and beat reporter voices….
Rickey was home.
* ** * *
We were all glad when Rickey Henderson returned to the team that summer, but no one was happier than Stew about it. The two of them grew up about a year apart in Oakland, played in American Legion and Connie Mack leagues. It was all hugs and love when Rickey showed up. Tony Phillips, too. He was one of a handful of dudes who had been teammates with Henderson on Oakland when he left after the ’84 season. Once all the greetings ended that day, I made my way over to him.
“You know, this is a different team than last time,” I told him, “There are no lead singers here. We’re a supergroup now.” Rickey slowly looked up at me, then stood once he was done lacing his spikes. He just grunted a laugh.
“The Cobra,” he said to me. It was a showdown in the Old West. 60 seconds of silence.
“You like shoppin’?” I asked Rickey.
“Who don’t like shoppin’?”
“Next road trip, you and me, we hit the stores.”
And that was that. It was a couple of months before we finally got out into the malls across America – Rickey loved his suits! – but the charter flights were even more lively. Playing cards with Henderson was a trip, especially when it came up aces for the “Man of Steal.”
“Awww, Rickey wins again,” he’d say, playfully taunting me, collecting all the dollar bills in an exaggerated grasp. He really didn’t refer to himself in the third person as much as people think, but every so often, just for fun. After I was done losing, I’d stand up in the aisle. Yeah, this happened a few times.
“We goin’ out!” I yelled to my teammates. “Meet me and Stew in the hotel bar. Rickey’s buyin’!” All the fellas would hoot and holler but we took the crew with us most nights on the road. The 4-star spots in Minneapolis, the BBQ joints in K.C., of course, the steakhouses in Chicago and once we hit Manhattan, it was a quick bite in the hotel and then Stew would be all like, “Who’s comin’ to the China Club?” and off we went.
I grabbed us a big car and we cruised across town, blasting some Bobby Brown until we pulled up in front of the club. This joint was like a late ‘80s kind of Studio 54 – the long lines, velvet ropes, and celebrities – I had a much different experience at these type of New York clubs a decade earlier, but that’s a story for another day.
We entered the joint, which was housed in the basement of the Hotel Beacon on New York’s Upper West Side. It was a club where you yelled to talk with the cat right beside you, rock stars chillin’ out in the back offices of the club, of all places. At this stage of my life, I wasn’t there for the ladies, wasn’t there for party favors, just three drinks and a dozen laughs with Stew, Rickey, Hendu and Phillips.
This was the year where I just didn’t care about anything except family and baseball. Didn’t care about everyone talkin’ all stuff about me, I knew that if I kept my numbers, I could make my own decisions about my baseball future. I could do what I wanted to do, and in the middle of all this, the A’s started pulling away from the pack.
Wanna know my favorite baseball moment from the 1989 regular season? Heh-heh, that one’s easy.
Sunday, about a week later, August 13. At the Big A.
* * * * *
Bert Blyleven was back on the mound. The Angels were breathing down our necks, two games off our pace. Top of the first. Rickey smacked a 1-0 slider to Tony Armas in right for the out. Carney went down looking at his dazzling curveball.
Blyleven was having a time in ’89, 11-2 on the season, ERA under 2.50, 38 years old, feelin’ real good about himself. Then I stepped to the plate. The cat was grinning at me again. Been waitin’ four months to get a piece of his ass. I didn’t care who won the game and, on some level, Dutch didn’t, either. This was two old men in a baseball street fight. He got me waiting on the gas last time, laughing at me as I walked back to the dugout. Three off-speed pitches. He thinks I’m expecting the curve,” I thought to myself. “This dude thinks he’s smarter than me. He ain’t gonna get cute this time. He’s gonna try to challenge my ass. So c’mon, Dutch. Gimme whatcha got, son. Gimme your shitty heat.”
I coiled the bat. Blyleven set.
I launched that 91-MPH mother fucker into the California sun. You got no idea how much I savored that home run trot. I wasn’t thinking pennant race, playoff implications. Shit, I don’t even remember what the final score was. But I remember the expression on ‘ol Dutch’s face when the ball met the bat.
You see, this is why we did it, this was why cats like me played into our late 30’s, early 40s. Dutch, too, this was why we put up with front office politics, agent meetings, living out of Samsonite half the year, just for that matchup. Okay, reason number one was the green, of course, but, man, the pitcher-hitter showdown, that’s a real sweet silver medal.
* * * * *
We took two-of-three from California, two-of-three from Cleveland and then two-of-three from the Twins. It was a summer of taking three steps forward and then another three forward. Canseco was back hitting dingers and McGwire was swinging the bat again.
Rickey not only stabilized the top of the order but seemed revitalized being home, having some quality chill time with Stew, it almost felt like prime Buccos-level happiness. There were three or four boom boxes set up in the clubhouse, so the kids got their hard rock, me and the fellas got our R&B, some of the boys even got a little country goin’, too.
We were a good crew together. I was starting to have talks with Kellye about extending our time in California. Maybe selling the house back home in Cincinnati. Then one morning in August, the phone rang. It was my brother James.
“Daddy passed away last night,” he said to me in a broken voice. He went into the details of what happened. My father, Richard Parker, was retired on disability from work for many years, went into the hospital for a minor procedure and we lost him in the middle of the night. All my good-natured spirit and love of life came from the man. He didn’t talk much but his eyes gave me attention, gave me strength, gave me the soul to accomplish great things in this world. Kellye, the kids and I got a flight home the next afternoon to take care of the arrangements for Mama and my siblings.
The funeral was held at Mama’s church. My Daddy didn’t socialize all that much, but he was beloved. Even my old man’s barber showed up to pay his respects. Kellye coordinated the arrangements for Mama. We invited everyone back to my house afterwards. Three days later, I talked with La Russa, who called me asking if I needed anything.
“How you fellas doin’?” I asked back.
“We’re winning, but the clubhouse isn’t the same without you.”
“Want me to meet y’all in K.C.?”
“Can you join us in Texas? The batting practice may do you some good before the series.” I hung up the phone feeling real touched about Tony reaching out to check in. I was extremely blessed with some great skippers over my career, Danny Murtaugh, Chuck Tanner, and yeah, Pete.
Some were fair, some were nice, some were my friends. La Russa was brilliant. I went to bed hours later eager to rejoin the fellas but as I said goodnight to Kellye, I realized how much I loved my hometown, my Queen City. When you have a life event like that, it puts things into perspective. My job was to drive in runs
That’s what I got paid for. Cincinnati was my home. Thinking about the team – Rickey was having a comeback season and he was gonna get paid. Canseco was the biggest star in the game. The moment for him to knock on Sandy’s door was approaching with every passing day. I knew there was another year for me in Oakland if I wanted it, but I wasn’t about to uproot my life for a single season.
I boarded the plane the next morning with peace of mind. There was a real good chance that this would be my final month in Oakland. Wasn’t about to say anything, why mess with my leverage, right? My prerogative.
When I met up with the fellas in the visiting clubhouse at Arlington, many of them offered condolences for my father’s passing. Stew gave me a heartfelt hug.
“Anything I can do, man?” Stew asked me.
“Yeah,” I nodded. “Let’s go win this shit.”
Everything from that moment forward was focused on one thing.
Division crown. Go get that sip.
*** * *
After losing two of three games in Kansas City, we grabbed two wins going through New York, including a 19-5 thrashing of the Yankees, took two more in Milwaukee against the Brewers, then two-of-three from the Red Sox and the Bombers again once we got home.
I turned around and we were four-and-a-half in front of the Royals. Stew led the way for us on the mound, winning six of seven decisions. Carney kept the batting order rolling with his .365 average and .400 on-base over the final month. Rickey was getting on base and messing with the pitchers, stealing 16-of-18 over the same time period.
Finally, September 27th, Mike Moore pitched seven innings of one-hit ball to clinch the division at home. Moore was the craziest cat in the clubhouse celebration, pouring bubbly over everyone’s head – La Russa, Canseco, mine.
It was his first winning season after seven years of losing with the Mariners franchise. Rickey had his bottle spraying – he hadn’t been back to the dance in almost eight years. I think I heard him say “I’m so happy to be home” like a half-dozen times. Hendu was on the Red Sox in ’86 and the Giants in ’87.
He grabbed me for a special, personal toast inside the trainer’s room. Carney and Steinbach kicked back with beers. Canseco was offering second and third helpings of the champagne to the beat reporters. It was a stadium-wide celebration. You know what else might surprise you? The Oakland A’s were second in attendance in the American League in 1989 – fifth overall – 2.6 million folks came out to see us.
Think about that. We had a few more games to prepare for the ALCS, still not certain who we were facing, either the Orioles or the Blue Jays. Toronto came out on top and gave us fits in the playoffs, but we managed to win it in five. Rickey got himself the series MVP.
I remember telling Joan Ryan of the San Francisco Examiner that “This was NBC’s Rickey Henderson Show as far as I’m concerned. His performance was the best I’ve ever seen. He turned it up two notches.” My man did everything. Stolen bases (8), got on base (14 of 23 plate appearances), scored runs (8 of the 24 we scored as a team, which was a LCS record at that time.) The cat even hit two dingers. I hit a couple myself.
Stew got two wins and Eck got three saves. Carney quietly hit .455 and McGwire batted close to .400 as well. Contributions from so many of us, but seeing Rickey bring his A+ game was a real tribute to the job Sandy did bolstering the ballclubs after the Canseco and McGwire injuries. We were headed back to the Fall Classic for a second year in a row and our trip to first pitch was less than an album side away.
* * * * *
“The Giants one-dimensional offense can’t manufacture runs and their defense isn’t special. They have no profound motivation unless the A’s tick them off. The Giants pitching staff has been a MASH unit all season. And it still is.”
Baseball writer Tom Boswell wrote that thing on the day of Game 1. We heard a lot of that over the five-day layoff before the series began. San Francisco was next-to-last in batting but second in runs scored and dingers. They barely made 60% of their stolen-base attempts. We led the American League in ERA, third in least home runs allowed and fourth in strikeouts. We went into the ’88 series real confident and even though I felt that this would be easier than when we played the Dodgers, La Russa wasn’t having any of that this time around.
“Remember what happened last year.” Tony told us in the clubhouse the day before Game 1. “I don’t want anyone taking anything for granted. No letting up. Got that?” La Russa made sure we were all on the same page mentally. What we didn’t know was that nature would work in a chapter of her own.
We got off to a strong start in Game 1 against the NL ERA champ Scotty Garrelts, a dude with good stuff who knew how to mix his pitches. I came up in the third inning after we scored three in the second. He started me off with a high fastball that I laid off for a ball. Came in the same spot for ball two. I knew what was coming. He needed to throw me one down in the zone. Garrelts delivered and I hit it about 420 feet into the right field seats. World Series dinger. That was all that Stew would need, tossing a five-hit shutout, six K’s, one walk. Pretty easy night for us.
Man, Mike Moore was on a mission that postseason. Seven innings, three hits, one run in a win against the Jays, then seven innings, four hits and seven strikeouts against San Fran in Game 2. Their starter was Rick Reuschel. Heh-heh, ‘ol Reuschel. I couldn’t wait to face him – I kinda got my rocks off dunking on “Big Daddy,” but that’s a story for another day. The Giants also still had my former Pirates teammate “Country Boy” Don Robinson (whom they started calling “Caveman” at that point) on the team from those trades San Francisco made with Pittsburgh in ’87.
Not gonna lie, I’m still annoyed that the Reds didn’t get one of those cats during the pennant race, but anyway. The score was tied at one when Big Daddy walked Canseco in front of me after Jose fouled off five straight pitches. Reuschel was a low-ball pitcher and after he threw me a high fastball, he tried going low and I was waiting for him, hitting the ball off the top of the right field wall, inside the foul line, scoring Jose to take the lead. Rick Honeycutt and Eck went six and out to lock down the win. We were looking forward to Game 3 and heading to the ‘Stick with a commanding lead. The next day would be known for everything except baseball.
* * * * *
I left our townhome in Alameda around noon. Kellye told me she was gonna drive over a few hours later. I got to the ballpark in San Francisco and chilled out with Rickey and Stew in the clubhouse. I taped up my knees, did some stretching just like any other early evening game. I was in the bathroom with Eckersley when we felt it. Sure, I lived in the Bay Area for two seasons, been traveling to the West Coast for over 15 years but I never experienced shaking urinals and sinks. I turned to Eck.
“Is this what I think it is?” Dennis was born and raised in California.
“Yep.” The first thing I thought about?
Kellye. I ran through the clubhouse toward the dugout, popping my head outside looking for my wife. I found Kellye in the stands and we quickly walked out to the middle of the field. 42 people died when the extension to the Bay Bridge collapsed. Amazingly, no one was hurt at the ballpark. Matter of fact, the crowd started cheering when the trembling ceased until we all heard about what happened on the bridge.
The game was finally cancelled and the players’ families waited in the parking lot for hours. We couldn’t travel on the bridges, ground-only, so it took us like half the night to get home. Once we entered the townhouse, all of our things on the kitchen counter were broken and scattered across the floor. Never seen anything like it, which was nothing compared to the human cost that afternoon on the bridge but I remember that night holding Kellye a little tighter, upset for those who lost lives and thankful for her safety.
Considering all the damage to the Bay Bridge, MLB commissioner Fay Vincent decided that the World Series needed to continue. Tony made a good point. “If restaurants were opening, why shouldn’t we be playing?” Alderson made the decision to have us work out in Phoenix. We played a couple of intra-squad games to prepare for Game 3.
I got some swings in against Eck. We charged $5 per person and gave the proceeds to earthquake relief. When we returned to San Fran to resume the series, something occurred to us. We could pitch Stew in Game 3, and he came through in a big way, tossing seven innings, eight strikeouts while giving up just three runs.
We were up 13-3 going into the bottom of the ninth. San Fran put up a fight, scoring four times in the ninth but Todd Burns came in and got Kevin Mitchell to fly deep to Rickey, ending the game. Because the games were in the National League, no DH, which meant that I didn’t play, but I was getting eager for that closing sip of the season. La Russa decided that a typical champagne shower would be in poor form so there was no overt celebrating if we were to win.
Game 4 we took an 8-0 lead into the sixth, but the Giants showed some life, scoring two in the bottom of the inning, then lighting things up for four more in the seventh. We increased our lead when Terry Steinbach was walked with the bases loaded to give us another run. I was sitting on the bench with Stew, getting some in-game QT. Wasn’t sure how many more minutes I would have with him.
“You comin’ back?” Stew asked me. I could tell in his voice some hope that my answer would be yes.
“I dunno, Smoke,” I replied, using his other nickname, “But if I’m out there against you next year, in Boston, New York or California, I’m just gonna tattoo your ass.” I never saw the man laugh so loud, followed by half a hug and a wrist shake.
“That’s a bet.” Soon Tony Phillips made a spectacular play, past a diving McGwire, tossing to Eck to win the game 9-6, winning the Series and completing the sweep. It was rowdy in the clubhouse afterwards, just no alcohol. Except in my mobile chest. I called over Stew, Hendu, Rickey and Tony Phillips, dragged them into the trainer’s room. I saluted my Oakland fellas, embraced them all one more time. Phillips was also a free agent and I knew he was gone, too.
And it didn’t bother me none. It was a business, and I don’t say that with any bitterness. They just brought back the icon of the franchise. Of course, they needed to pay Rickey. Canseco needed to get his, just like I got mine in ’79 with the Buccos.
I did the dance with Sandy for a couple of months. He offered to bring me back for the 1990 season, but after I went through some personal issues, which is a story for another day, I still needed to fortify my retirement and Alderson was honest with me. There just wasn’t enough money there to sign everyone.
La Russa’s patience with Tony Phillips eventually paid off, except it was the Detroit Tigers that reaped the benefits, where he became the most underrated player in the major leagues for the next decade. As for me, well, after I cleaned out my locker at the Coliseum, I threw my junk into the back of the Porsche. Driving away from Paradise City, I turned on the radio and heard some of that Guns & Roses music one more time, but it meant more to me leaving.
Whenever I see that green and gold, it takes me away to that special place, the lifelong friendships I made with Stew, Rickey, Hendu, Carney, Phillips, Groove Baylor and the work we did offering our experience to Canseco, McGwire, Walt Weiss, and especially Tony La Russa, who believed in me in ’89 even when things weren’t lookin’ so good. When I see Oakland A’s fans today and they ask me about my time there, I tell them the truth.
I really enjoyed your company. Sorry that it couldn’t have been a touch longer.
But it was on to the next stop and as that sweet song asked me….
Where do we go now?
NOTE: The following is a link to a list of those that we lost in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. May the memory of their lives remain with us.