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.
(Read the first installment Paradise City, from the 1988 season here).
(Read the second installment My Prerogative, from the 1989 season here).
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.
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.
(Read the first installment “Paradise City” from the 1988 season here).
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.
List of Fatalities in San Francisco Earthquake (apnews.com)