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, “Brother’s Gonna Work it Out“, from the 1990 season, where Parker is asked by Bud Selig to come to Milwaukee and mentor the team’s wild young talent Gary Sheffield. Selig ultimately betrays Parker. Dave is happy to tell this story. The title is based on the Public Enemy rap song of the same name.
Brother’s Gonna Work It Out
By Dave Parker & Dave Jordan
“Toronto? Canada’s closer than California. Wonder what the money exchange is like these days. Cito’s got a lot of DHs up there. Am I gonna get my at-bats? Baltimore’s almost a reasonable drive from home. I could see myself there. Maybe they might just need someone like me to put them over the top.”
I was laying on my couch at home in Cincinnati, about to have some flapjacks and bacon for breakfast as my kids played on the floor half-watching The Smurfs. As expected, Sandy offered me a one-year thing but couldn’t go for a second. Rickey was about to get his extension and Jose’s agent started light conversations about a long-term job. I laid there flipping channels on the TV and flipping franchises in my mind.
“National League? Nope. I never liked left field and no one’s gonna pay me what I want to re-learn first base, though that would be fun. Boston? Shit, I could play for Joe Morgan. I could light up that wall.
Man, I could still smack 50 doubles against The Monster. New York? Money might be good, but if Winnie can’t play for that dude, I want no part of him. But I remember what Tom said over and over – always good to have George Steinbrenner in the mix of teams. They’re goin’ the wrong way, though. Milwaukee? I dunno, man.
There’s only like three brothers over there and they don’t sign free agents. Cleveland? It’s in-state, but I heard they’re trying to trade Joe Carter. They’re just treading water. Tigers ain’t spending. Neither’s Minnesota. Seattle’s got ‘Hac-Man’ (that was what we called Jeff Leonard) – no room at the inn. Texas? Baines is there. Next? California? Brian Downing, he’s gettin’ old and I ain’t platooning. KC? I could do real good there, I know It’s about the green and all, but I feel funny jumping into the fountain after we fought them for two years. An overwhelming offer, that’s one thing, but I ain’t goin’ there on a one-year deal. They gotta set me up for life to get me there, or at least, bank the college fund.”
Not gonna lie, there was a good week back then when I was thinking of just taking that one-year deal and returning to Oakland. It would’ve been fine, chillin’ with Stew and Rickey for another year, getting after a real good chance at another sip. Later that afternoon, my reps hit me up.
“Harry Dalton keeps calling me,” he said. “The Brewers want some left-handed power.” Barry Meister was my agent Tom Reich’s young assistant for most of the 1980s. Just a few years out of law school, we grew close as he handled much the legwork on the ground as Tom was flying around the country, representing hundreds of other athletes.
“Milwaukee?” I asked him. County Stadium was a cool, little place. The town reminded me a little of Cincinnati, but I had my reservations. “What do you think?”
“I think they want you. I think they’ll give us that second year and an option for a third.”
“Yeah, what makes you say that?” Barry was very excited.
“Wait until you hear this story…”
* * * * *
So, Robin Yount, as some of you know, was like Mr. Brewer. A two-time MVP, Robin spent his whole 16-year career in Milwaukee. Beloved by the fans. Yount’s contract was up and he was unhappy with the mood of the Brewers’s clubhouse. He made it clear to the GM, Harry Dalton, that the team had two weeks to show him they were committed to putting a winning team on the field or else he was gonna split. Remember, this was 1990, if an iconic franchise player left for greener pastures the fan base was gonna go batshit crazy. The other issue was that Yount held land interests in Arizona and was seeking some guidance in managing the portfolio, and the wife of Gene Autry, longtime owner for the California Angels, was known to be a real-estate whiz and the Autrys were only too happy to help Yount, who also grew up in Southern Cal. The Angels offered Yount a huge deal for the time. Most men would’ve jumped at it. Yount, in a very classy way, gave the Brewers last look. Milwaukee’s owner was a man named Bud Selig. The Brewers hadn’t signed a big-deal free agent in years, not since Larry Hisle in 1978 and to a lesser degree, Roy Howell, in 1980. So Yount had them over a barrel.
Couple weeks later, Barry had me fly into the winter meetings in Nashville for the day to meet with the Brewers brass. I kind of made a spectacle of myself the last time I attended the meetings in the Music City, but that’s a story for another day. No fancy clothes, just me coolin’ out with my comfortable tracksuit. I told Dalton I’d be happy to bring my leadership skills to the ballclub and help him maybe get a division crown in the weak AL East.
“I’m glad you mentioned leadership,” Dalton told me as Barry reviewed the offer. “We’re gonna need your help with another matter.”
* * * * *
In 1986, the Brewers drafted one of the top high school players in America. His name was Gary Sheffield. Growing up in Tampa, his mother’s brother was Dwight Gooden, only four years older. Gooden let his nephew pal around with him through his early childhood, teaching him baseball. Gary quickly became a star athlete in high school, but after witnessing police brutality in his younger years, “Sheff” was extremely suspicious of white men and the Brewers really had no idea how to handle him.
Dalton had heard about my work with young players like Eric Davis, Barry Larkin and Kal Daniels and was hoping I could be a positive influence on Sheffield. Milwaukee offered me a raise, a nice signing bonus, two years guaranteed and an option for a third with a buyout. As we left the room, Barry was very excited. He did a nice job managing the situation. Once we got in the elevator, I took him a little by surprise.
“Check with Alderson one more time,” I told Barry.
“The money’s not there,” he replied.
“I know, but I’ll feel better knowing I gave them every chance.” Barry reached out to Sandy, who was honest and just told us that he couldn’t go to a second year. It was a pain in the ass traveling back and forth across the country, but I can’t stress enough how much I loved Stew, Rickey, Hendu, Eck and La Russa.
Not gonna lie, back then there was a world’s difference between $1.2 million and $3 million plus the option, but my heart almost made me take Oakland’s offer. I had a hunch that Milwaukee might mess up that kid. My upbringing wasn’t completely the same as Sheff’s, but I was as close as anyone was gonna get. I could guide him better than anyone in that organization. I wanted to be there for him. I cooled out in the Jack Daniel’s bar at Opryland while Barry tracked down Alderson. About an hour later, he came back and sat down. Barry just shook his head.
“Damn,” I said quietly, slapping my thigh in frustration. After a few moments sitting there listening to Barry, I was like, “Fuck it, make the deal with Milwaukee.” Barry kind of laughed.
“It’s an awesome deal, Dave-“
“Naw, you did a great job, man. It’s the right move. Gonna miss my boys though.” It was a quick press conference, I said a few things about being excited to join the Brewers, my respect for Yount and Paul Molitor, their other longtime star player. Couple of the smarter reporters asked me about Sheff.
“I had a chance to talk with Sheffield several times,” I told the Associated Press at the announcement of the deal. “He’s a phenomenal talent. He was in a tough situation. If there’s anything I can say or do in any situation to help, I’m there.” Soon as the reporters scattered back into the lobby of the hotel, I turned to Barry.
“I’m outta here.” I didn’t stick around. I just hopped in a cab for the next flight home to Cincy to prepare for my season with Yount, Molitor and the rest of the Happy Days gang in Milwaukee.
* * * * *
There was a lockout in 1990. The collective bargaining agreement expired in December of ’89. The game was getting into better economic shape, especially after that television contract with CBS. Attendance was up, teams were making money again but some of the owners wanted to stem the tide of rising salaries. The players’ union wanted to lower arbitration eligibility from three years of service to two. They actually considered adding a salary cap, similar to what you see in the NBA today. That wasn’t happening.
After the owners shut down spring training for about a month, finally the union leadership won arbitration enhancements for most of the players as well as an increase in the minimum salary to $100,000, re-establishing the number of players on the roster to 25 starting in 1991 and added additional annual pension payments from the broadcast revenues.
They also began talks of expanding the National League to additional cities. The one point deep in the fine print of the settlement was that either side, the owners or the players, could re-open the contract on any major issue after three years, so they really just kicked the can down the labor road. But camp was opened, so it was time for me to throw on the new cap.
I arrived in Mesa, Arizona on March 21st. Before the first workout, I met the Brewers’ new hitting coach.
Baylor. Gave Groove a welcoming hug.
“We back at it!” I told him.
“Looks like we have another job to do,” he replied with a smile. Baylor had been hired in 1989 as a special assistant to Harry Dalton but wanted to put the uniform on again. I knew how he felt. The locker room was my second home, too. Baylor walked me through the organization, what the clubhouse was like the year before and their expectations for everyone. Later on that morning, the team’s legendary player arrived, walking toward us on the fields at the Brewers complex. Six foot, around 170 pounds or so, golden locks of hair bouncing off his shoulders with a bushy mustache.
“And here comes General Custer right now,” I laughed to Baylor, who nearly spit up his coffee. That was my nickname for Robin Yount that season, for his resemblance to the Civil War general we all learned about in high school history class. Robin was a cool dude and happy that the ballclub brought me on board. Later that week, I met with the owner of the team, whose attention the fellas told me was getting more and more distracted.
Bud Selig was a Milwaukee-based local car dealership owner who brought baseball back to the town in 1970 after the Braves left for Atlanta in ‘65. The Seattle Pilots franchise had not been a raging success during its first season in 1969, but a lawsuit emerged from the move that led to a promise from Major League Baseball that the city of Seattle got next dibs when another franchise would be added to the league, which was the Mariners in the winter of ’76. Had a talk with Selig, expressed my appreciation for joining the club. A tall, thin dude, Bud spoke slowly but there was authority in his voice.
“We’re really excited about what you can bring to our family,” Bud said to me in an office at the complex.
“I’m excited to be in the family.” Bud made continued reference to the young, Black players on the club – Glenn Braggs, Greg Vaughn, and especially the prize possession of the organization.
Once I had a chance to cool out at a Mesa restaurant and just have a drink and a steak, it all made sense. Me and Baylor were there to lead Sheffield to great things. It became clear with every passing day what my role was. The manager, Tom Trebelhorn, was having problems communicating with Gary. The front office placed my locker right next to Gary in the spring and once we got to Milwaukee.
Coming from an area like Tampa where my boys get neglected unless you can smack a batted ball 370 feet, run through defensive lines or dunk on the court, and even then, you feel like a commodity, like no one cares about the you inside your soul. Guys like Sheff were defensive because no one ever wanted to know the person inside him. I wanted to know everything about him, his town, his boys, his family. I wanted the kid to make the very best of himself, in all ways. Gary had an agent but didn’t think he needed one.
“I could do this myself,” he would tell me and the kid was smart.
“Maybe you could,” I replied, “After your first contract. Just get that first one under your belt, son. The first deal sets up your thirties. The next contract sets up your life.” When the season started, I made it my mission not to lead Gary in a conventional way, but just to love him for who he was and set an example of the mindset that the sky was the limit for talented men in our world. That meant showing him on the field, first and foremost.
* * * * *
Every time I came to bat those first two months, I thought about Gary. By the end of May, I was batting .335, among the league leaders. Gary was hitting close to .320 and getting on base. The Brewers were battling for first place and our bats were keeping us in the fight. Our defense was killing us, though. 55 errors in our first 44 games. And our pitching was all over the place. We were losing games 8-7, 11-5, 13-5, 10-9. By the end of June, the Brewers were in fifth, seven games under .500. At the All-Star break, I was third in the league in hitting at .315, third in RBIs with 56, fourth in hits with 95. At one point, I was leading the majors in sacrifice flies. All about run production. Trebelhorn tapped me on the shoulder.
“Tony called,” he said to me, “Congratulations. You’ve been invited to the All-Star Game.” The Tony he was referring to was La Russa. I would be the 43rd player of all time to that point to be selected to the Midsummer Classic in both leagues. I would be just the 30th player in baseball history to be selected to play in the All-Star Game past their 39th birthday.
I saw all the Oakland boys at the workouts in Wrigley Field. Had some laughs with Eck about his long hair (“Oh, my pretty pony has returned!”), joked with Rickey at the luncheon and congratulated Canseco on getting his payday. I thanked Tony for inviting me to the party. Almost made up for Walter Alston’s snub back in ’75 – almost, but that’s a whole other story. We beat the National League 2-0. I didn’t play and I gave La Russa a little good-natured shit about that. You wanna know what really bothered me? The after-party back at the Hyatt Regency ended close to 3 a.m. I remember from the 70’s, there’d be women a dozen deep waiting to chill with the fellas. That was my youth. I was heading up the escalator ready to go to bed when I came across groupies of a much different kind.
“That’s Dave Parker!” Some 12-year-old and five of his school-age friends started bookin’ towards me with bubble gum cards in plastic sheets. “Dave? Mr. Parker? Dave! Dave!!” I signed all the stuff and it was my pleasure to do so but they all had doubles and triples of the same card. Even something as innocent as my bubble gum cards were becoming auction items rather than something that sat on your shelf at home.
Once I got to my room and started studying the ceiling, it reminded of something I noticed on the field, at the luncheon talking with some of the coaches who were my baseball contemporaries. “Where’s Rice, man?” I thought to myself, as irrational as it may be. “Where’s Reggie? Where’s Schmitty? Where’s Garvey? Where’s Pete? Where’d all my baseball friends go?” And that’s not to say I moped or anything – I was congenial, jovial, life of the party-level presence with some of the younger fellas. I had a nice time.
I was just an old man in a kids’ game.
* * * * *
All season there had been some music in the clubhouse. Not a whole lot, but much of it was rap. You had your “dance rap,” like Rob Base and E-Z Rock with “It Takes Two,” Tone-Loc with “Wild Thing,” and of course, my man MC Hammer “Can’t Touch This.” I met Hammer a couple times at Oakland games – he was actually Charlie Finley’s vice president of operations as a teenager in Oakland during the ‘70s and I could write a whole chapter on that story. I listened to LL Cool J a few times getting excited about my arrival with the A’s. You heard some of this but the younger guys were also listening to Chuck D and Public Enemy. My man and his boys were just on another level.
These brothers brought the urban plight to the forefront better than any recording artist since The Temptations and their psychedelic funk stage. The album I heard a lot about was Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet.” Rap wasn’t my music but I wanted to hear the messages that my younger brothers were getting.
One song that meant something to me had Sheff on my mind. He was just 21 years old, and like the song said, the kid had an indestructible soul. My job was to condition his condition. The season was quickly becoming a lost cause and Trebelhorn wasn’t reaching Gary.
By August 1st, the Brewers were 10 1/2 games out and 13 under .500. Toronto was running away from the pack and it was getting to the point where anything me and Baylor was losing impact because we weren’t getting support from the manager. Some cats are easier to reach than others, and some cats come from more difficult circumstances than others.
Gary had a cop pull his car over during spring training and shove a gun in his face. He was hardened by the institutional racism around him in Florida. I did everything I could to show him love and support.
In September, Sheffield was taken to a hospital during a road trip against Texas. Dizziness and exhaustion, very similar to what Al Oliver experienced with the Pirates down in Houston back in ’76. The heat there can just bear down on you, especially if you’re feeling some jet lag. Sheff stayed in the hospital for a week, then with less than seven days to go in the season, had a disagreement with Trebelhorn and left the team.
He was all, “If I’m not playing the rest of the season, I should go home and rest.” Two hours later, guess who got a phone call at his apartment near the ballpark? Better yet, guess who called?
“Dave, what’s going on with Sheffield?” Bud Selig asked, kind of blaming me for Gary’s sudden absence.
“He left?” I replied.
“You don’t know?” Bud said it as if I wasn’t living up to my job requirements.
“Nah, I’m heading to the park in a few minutes.”
“Dave, we brought you on the team for things like this-“
“I was under the impression that you just wanted the best DH in the league and I think I’ve provided that. And I spend a lotta time with that kid.”
“Will you just go get him? Please?” Was kind of a direct order from the top. I was quiet. No one in baseball ever spoke to me like that. Sounded like he caught himself in a bossy moment.
“Just take care of this for us. I won’t forget it.”
“You won’t forget it?” He knew what I meant by my response.
“Yes. We’ll remember your help.” I hung up the phone and called Gary, who answered instantly.
“Yo, Sheff, what you into?” I asked him.
“So they sent you to bring me home?” Gary replied defensively.
“They wanna help you, man, they just dunno how.”
“They don’t give a shit about me. They just want my ability.” I told the kid the truth.
“You’re right. Those dumb, clumsy asses don’t know you and don’t even care. But you got responsibilities and the only way you gonna be able to manage those responsibilities is with a bat, a ball and a glove. Look at me, I almost got fuck you money. Didn’t quite get it. You’re different. You got the chance to get fuck you money. Just do the dance a little bit and you’ll never have to worry about responsibilities. Just dance with ‘em.”
“I gotta go.” Sheff hung up the phone quickly. He was back in the clubhouse later that afternoon.
Sheff finished with a .295 average, 25 stolen bases, but here was the revealing stat – he only struck out 41 times in 567 times to the plate. Unheard of discipline for a 21-year-old player. That might be some kind of record. Oh, Sheff was gonna be one of the great ones. Toward the end of the year, Gary told the media that he wanted a shot to play short in spring training. One of the beat guys relayed this to Trebelhorn, who shut it down with a public response.
“Tough shit,” the manager replied to the writer about a sensitive young player. Still shakin’ my damn head.
* * * * *
I won my second consecutive Designated Hitter of the Year Award for 1990. The Brewers lost 88 games – had no answer for their shoddy defense or lack of starting pitching. Both Yount and Molitor had some bumps and bruises, playing with pain for much of the season. My agent began asking for an extension on my contract. My work with Gary wasn’t done.
In my heart, I needed to spend another year alongside him and he would be great. I was also having continued knee issues into the final month of the season. I would undergo my third arthroscopic knee surgery in 10 years. As Barry went and back forth with Bud, I failed to realize there was a roster problem.
The ballclub now had two full-time DHs: me and Paul Molitor.
* * * * *
I got to spring training, 1991 down in Arizona, still trying to get that extra year. The knee continued to bother me but I was getting around. I was happy to see an old face at camp. The Brewers brought in Rick Dempsey, catcher for the Baltimore Orioles during the ’79 series and probably the most underrated catcher of my generation. We exchanged some good-natured jokes about that incredible series and then it was like I flew further down into the time warp.
Willie Randolph walked into the clubhouse. As a rookie, his Pirates nickname was “Slick,” but that’s another fun story. Milwaukee took all the measures in the world to shore up the defense, even kicking the tires on ol’ Randolph to see what he had left. I was thrilled to see him. Before Sheff, before Canseco and McGwire, before Eric Davis, Larkin and Kal Daniels, Randolph was the first rookie I hung out with.
Slick became one of the best second basemen in baseball over those 15 years in between ‘The Burgh and this moment. Even became a Yankee captain for a little while. He was everything I hoped he’d become. Seeing my man in that clubhouse revitalized me. We spent some time together over that next week, steak dinners with Baylor in Scottsdale after workouts. I was looking forward to a season of being with Randolph and Groove Baylor, doing everything we could to get Sheffield to the baseball-promised land.
After dinner, I got back to the hotel, took off my watch and the room phone rang instantly. I knew it wasn’t good and the one thing I learned in this baseball life was that when you’re on the road, good news can wait until the morning. Bad news comes knocking on your door like unwelcome room service. The minute I heard Barry’s voice I knew to start packing my bags.
I was goin’ back to Cali.
The Brewers shipped my ass out West, to the Angels, trading me for a young player they didn’t know what to do with named Dante Bichette, the kind of kid I would’ve mentored if they chose someone else to send in the deal. The trade really made no sense on either side. The Angels didn’t really need more home-run power from the left side and Milwaukee didn’t need another outfielder. This was all about Selig reneging on the spiritual deal we had for mentoring Gary. Sheff, by the way, flipped the fuck out after he heard the news. The relationship between him and the Brewers went to pieces from there. Sheff was upset the whole season and Selig never figured him out, trading Gary to San Diego, where the following year he batted .330 and hit over 30 dingers in a much bigger ballpark. Sheff would become one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game.
Funny point about Sheffield, he played for the Padres, the Marlins, the Dodgers, Atlanta, Yankees, Detroit, before wrapping up his career with the Mets. Nearly 2700 career hits and 500 dingers in the toughest Major League ballparks for right-handed batters. The brother was gonna work it out.
As for me, at least I’d be with Dave Winfield. You know how some of y’all have summer vacation friends, folks you hang out with just for July and August? Winnie was like my All-Star Game buddy. We always cooled out at the Midsummer Classic. 1991 would be a season filled with gentleman cocktails alongside my old contemporary, petty front office politics, subjective baseball thinking and a lifeline from another old friend…. but all that, like so many other tales, is a story for another day.