Comstock Park – He turns 62 on Friday, which doesn’t seem right to those of us who remember when he first arrived in Detroit, 41 years ago, looking like a Roman soldier tucked within catching gear.
Lance Parrish became as integral to those great Tigers teams from the 1980s as Trammell, Whitaker, Gibson, Morris, Petry, etc.
Now, it's four decades later and all this Tigers lineage yet flows from a man who on Monday was sitting behind a desk in the manager’s office at Fifth Third Ballpark. There was a laptop in place, a flat-screen TV overhead, a beverage cooler in the back, and a cushy brown chair to his left.
There also was a game to be played later Monday night, against the South Bend Cubs.
Parrish manages the Single A West Michigan Whitecaps, which is not the worst place to be working as a minor-league skipper. Folks in and around Grand Rapids adore the Whitecaps. Consider that Monday evening crowd – Monday – at Fifth Third Field: 6,840. The ‘Caps are quite the draw at a ballpark rimmed by maple trees and tucked in a hollow along US-131.
“It’s a fun place to be,” said Parrish, who was wearing a black Tigers T-shirt a couple of hours before he would change into white-and-blue Whitecaps togs and oversee Tigers pitcher Jordan Zimmerman’s rehab start.
“At this level, you have to be a little more patient,” he said, explaining what it’s like to tutor kids at the low Single A rung. “If I pulled out one hair every time there was a mistake, I wouldn’t have any hair left.”
Thinking the game
He talked about his lunch a few hours earlier. He was sitting with his wife of 40-plus years, Arlyne, who has been such a stalwart during his time as a player, coach, and manager, understanding the game’s blessings and its strains.
“I was saying that the difference with this game is that it’s really a cerebral game,” Parrish recalled. “You have to be able to figure things out.
“There’s a lot to this game you have to be knowledgeable about. If I can put it in a poetic (diplomatic) tone, there are a lot of guys here with skills. It’s consistency that moves you forward.”
A few things to know, or that bear repeating, about Parrish.
Sparky Anderson once paid him, during an office chat when Anderson was running those great Tigers teams, perhaps the finest tribute a skipper could have lavished on a player.
“Managing Lance Parrish,” Anderson said, “has been one of my great privileges.”
This wasn’t one of those notorious Anderson embellishments. Sparky was referring, directly, to the man Lance Parrish. He was paying tribute to character, to integrity, to unfailing decency in a gentleman who also happened to be a hammering hitter and catcher who could win the Tigers a game in sundry ways.
Then it ended, abruptly. And painfully.
When you have woven within you a sense of honor that’s inviolate you expect the same from other parties when trust is the framework for relationships.
Parrish was a free agent at the end of the 1986 season. He expected to be paid accordingly after having been tied to a six-year contract that was Tigers-friendly. The team’s president, Jim Campbell, was tight with his dollars and tight with Commissioner Peter Ueberroth. When the commish told teams to stay clear of long free-agent contracts, the Tigers yanked a multi-year extension that had been waiting for Parrish’s signature.
Their one-year counteroffer to Parrish for the 1987 season was for the same cash as he was paid in 1986: $850,000. Parrish was enraged at what he viewed as a betrayal.
He left a town and team he loved, signing with the Phillies. He soon was miserable and permanently scarred by a move he had brought upon himself, and upon Arlyne and his family.
It was a moment summed up later by Sonny Eliot, the late, great Detroit weathercaster and comedian, and man of brilliance, who in an off-handed review of Parrish’s move said with a pained grin:
“He confused business with principle.”
Except it wasn’t that simple. Baseball’s owners and the commissioner were later found to have colluded against that year’s free agents. Parrish, along with players who had been conspired against, got a compensation check, albeit nothing that matched what had been lost.
“I’ve played that decision back in my mind, a few hundred times, I guess,” Parrish said, “and I mean all things considered, I wish I’d have made a different decision.
“It wasn’t like I wanted to leave. And it wasn’t like I was getting paid any substantial amount of money to leave the Tigers ($150,000 raise). I feel like Jim Campbell backed me into a corner, he and Peter Ueberroth, and I told them: If you’re going to treat me this way, I’m leaving.
“I felt I’d dedicated myself to the organization and performed for the organization and that I was being vastly underpaid, comparatively speaking, and at the end of the year I wasn’t even being offered a $1 raise.”
What you knew even then about Parrish and the Tigers is that they would reunite. It was certain when the love was deep and mutual. He later returned, after his 19 years in the big leagues and 39.5 wins above replacement, as a Tigers bullpen and third-base coach, and then as a farm manager, spending the past four seasons at Double A Erie before he was handed the Whitecaps job.
Note that this was a move from Double A to Single A. It does not come off as a promotion, and it wasn’t, which was made clearer when Triple-A Toledo had an opening and the Tigers chose Doug Mientkiewicz.
Parrish doesn’t speculate about possible reasons, and neither does the club explain its personnel thoughts, except to say Parrish is as honorable as men can aspire to be, otherwise they wouldn’t have asked him to run the Whitecaps.
So, it’s back to being philosophical, and grateful for the job at West Michigan, even if a skipper’s free to wonder why his managerial path hasn’t been upward.
Parrish shrugs and smiles, wanly.
“I just enjoy my life,” he said. “My wife and I love being in baseball. I still enjoy the game, meeting new people, living in different cities.”
He talked this way as a player, this graciously, even as he could turn in a nanosecond and get tough with Morris during a mound tantrum, or at those times when he would tell Sparky that, no, it wasn’t wrong to lift weights and that it would not make him “muscle-bound,” as the skipper insisted.
This is a man, Lance Parrish, who can play the game of life in so many ways. And always it seems with virtue.