Mud Hens’ Larry Parrish sets sights on real farm life

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Toledo – In a few weeks he will be home. And home is most certainly where Larry Parrish’s heart is.

On a 340-acre spread in southwest Georgia, Parrish will move into his 3,200-square foot, A-frame log cabin, with double-level, wraparound decks, all of which a handyman on his level mostly built.

He will grab his shotgun or .25-06 rifle. He will lurk in hunting blinds within woods and pine stands. He will tromp across fields of oats, turnips, radishes, arrowleaf clover, and sunn hemp.

Sunn hemp.

“It’s kind of from the marijuana family,” Parrish said, sitting behind his desk at Fifth Third Field, where he works as manager of Triple A Toledo, at least until he retires from baseball following the last Mud Hens game, Sept. 7.

“It’s the only thing that will get ahead of the deer.”

Meaning, it's the only thing all those deer on his acreage won’t eat before it reaches maturity. And somewhat like developing a minor-leaguer for future life, Parrish’s vocation has been to let everything and everyone — including biology — evolve, with just enough nurturing to maximize experiences and dividends.

Parrish, who turns 62 in November, finally will rest from baseball following a career that began when he signed in 1972 with the Montreal Expos (now Washington Nationals) and begot a four-decade-plus adventure.

He was a big-league power hitter (256 home runs, including four three-homer games), then a

coach, manager, batting instructor, scout, and pretty much anything any baseball team looking for a sharp eye and a straight shooter — in the woods or in a dugout — could want.

He managed the Tigers as interim skipper in late 1998 after Buddy Bell was fired. And he ran the team full time in 1999 until owner Mike Ilitch sought a new boss at the end of the season and brought aboard Phil Garner.

For the past two seasons, he has been running the Mud Hens. Before that, following a year as Braves batting coach, he helped as manager at Single A West Michigan. He was a big league scout for the Tigers following his 1999 dismissal when Randy Smith, then the general manager who opposed Parrish’s firing, wanted a sharp adviser to stick with the Tigers.

“To me, that sounded better than just collecting money,” said Parrish, a country boy who grew up in rural Haines City, Fla., 40 minutes from the Tigers spring-training headquarters at Lakeland. “It sounded better to have a job.”

Apart from that year with the Braves, Parrish has been a Tigers employee since he joined Bell, his old Rangers teammate, as bench coach in 1997.

Keen eye for talent

The Tigers have loved him. In any role. All because his ability to see deeply into players and their skill sets, to issue dead-level appraisals, and to help young players get better or deal with reality, has been textbook.

“L.P. has been a very valuable man in the Tigers organization through the year,” said Tigers general manager Al Avila, using Parrish’s eternal nickname. “He has helped so many players get to the big leagues, and has helped the Tigers win ballgames.

“He also has been very valuable in helping us in trades with his evaluation skills. He is a good friend and a person I always turned to for advice with player moves and staff evaluations. And he will be missed.”

Not only by Avila, but by any baseball person who appreciates a no-frills approach to the game, and to life. Parrish hasn’t changed since those days growing up on a farm run by his dad, “hero and mentor,” Alton Parrish.

He sits in the manager’s office, in baseball shorts and T-shirt, chomping on a pizza the clubhouse attendant placed on his desk following batting practice. He puts away a couple of slices and turns to ease into a thick piece of watermelon.

Between bites, a man who doesn’t look a great deal different from his playing days, talks baseball. And players.

The sandy hair might be tinged with gray. His goatee has definitely gone frost. But otherwise this 6-foot-3, one-time third baseman and outfielder, with dangerous right-handed power, differs little from his youth in Haines City, where Alton, known as “Beef” for his thick and muscular build, taught him life’s basics.

“My dad, he didn’t believe anybody was any better than anyone else,” Parrish said. “He believed in treating people the right way: A day’s pay for a day’s work.

“He taught me how to fish. How to hunt. He always seemed to have time to hit me balls or throw pitches.

“You find yourself trying to be half of what you thought he was.”

Dossier spot on

The Tigers have relied on Parrish’s gift for candor, and for insight. Their Richter-rocking trade in 2009, which sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees as part of a three-team deal that brought Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson to Detroit?

The deal was made, heavily, because of Parrish’s reports on Jackson. Parrish was Mud Hens manager and had seen lots of Jackson, who then played for Triple A Columbus.

Jackson, who was 22 when he was dealt, debuted splendidly for the Tigers, and proved a match for Parrish’s detailed report, right down to slump expectations and how Jackson would emerge from them.

He’s convinced that time as a scout might have been a manager’s best move.

Larry Parrish

“It’s important to have a guy here (managing) who can grade a player out,” Parrish said. “Is he a big-leaguer or just a Triple A guy? To me, if you have that scouting background you’re less likely to make mistakes.

“With scouting, you look for certain things. And I also think playing in the big leagues, knowing what you have to deal with, probably helps.

“Some guys, you learn, don’t have the ability to grind, the tenacity to play, or the vision to see a play before it happens. So, they can’t react.

“You take Alan Trammell,” Parrish said of a Tigers great whom Parrish had studied as a rival. ”He didn’t have the greatest tools in the game. But when he played, his brain was in gear. The way he went about the game was the right way, every day.”

Real farm life

Now, having ridden buses and handled the modest hotels and low-budget meals of farm life — this brand of farm life — mandates, Parrish is heading for Georgia. To his woodsy home and those fields of forage and vegetables he plants and grooms, and not for his benefit.

“The wildlife, that’s what I enjoy,” he said of the deer and turkeys that graze there. “I love it.

“A farmer friend tells me I love it (farming) ’cause I ain’t trying to make a living. But I do love to get on that tractor.”

He has an old Ford that can be used for about anything. And he has a heavier, 75-horsepower Kubota he uses for heavier duty: disc-harrowing, grain-drilling, whatever.

He concedes he will miss parts of baseball, particularly spring training. But there’s consolation. Spring is turkey season. And a man who is an accomplished turkey-caller, who loves sitting in his camouflage togs and trying to outsmart a bird with eyesight that would give an eagle a duel, can scarcely wait for spring in Georgia.

Also, for a chance to travel. He is single, having been divorced in 2000, but Parrish is close to his two daughters, son, and seven grandchildren, six of whom live with his eldest daughter, Jessica, and her husband near Lakeland.

The family is tight. Parrish’s log digs in Georgia, complete with a guest cabin, means lots of time ahead for clan gatherings that will involve, even for his kids and grandkids, a fair amount of hunting.

But of all the unconventional threads in a country boy’s journey, travel remains important, all because Parrish has so often found himself at home in the most unusual places.

He likes to say, “I know baseball in four languages.”

Apart from English, those tongues would be Japanese (two seasons in Japan as a player following his big-league days), French (his years in Montreal), and Spanish (winter ball in the Caribbean).

Now, he will focus more on domestic stops.

“There are all these places I’ve flown over,” he says, speaking of his playing and managing days, “and now I’d like to see ’em.

“Yellowstone. Grand Canyon. Places like that.”

Heir apparent

The Tigers haven’t decided who might replace Parrish at Toledo. It could be another “L.P.” — Lance Parrish, who is managing Double A Erie.

What the Tigers know is what Larry Parrish’s players ultimately have come to understand: There never will be another Larry Parrish. No one shot a bull’s-eye in leveling with them about their present status and their future challenges as often as L.P.

“Sometimes I think maybe I didn’t need to say some of the things I said,” Parrish explained of some past heart-to-hearts with players. “But I didn’t think I was being hard, because, to me, as a player I wanted the truth, and I was always going to be harder on me than anyone else. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that.

“Just tell me what I can do to get better. That’s the way I coached.”

And the way he has managed?

“If you want to work,” he said, repeating many a conversation with a prospect, “be here tomorrow at 2 o’clock.

“And we’ll work till you got it.”

Larry Parrish timeline

1972: Signs with Montreal Expos.

1974-88: Played with the Espos, Rangers and Red Sox

1989-90: Played in Japan with Yakult Swallows and Hanshin Tigers

1992-96: Manager in Tigers farm system at Single A Niagara Falls Rapids, Double A Jacksonville and Triple A Toledo

1997-98: Tigers coach under Buddy Bell

1998-99: Interim and fulltime Tigers manager

2000-02: Tigers big league scout

2003-2010: Manager at Triple A Toledo

2011: Braves hitting coach

2013: Manager at Single A West Michigan

2014-15: Manager at Triple A Toledo