By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Do you remember when the Cobra was a Blue Jay?
No one would blame if you don’t.
After all, Dave Parker was only a Blue Jay for three weeks 30 years ago. But in that short tenure at the end of the 1991 season, the then-40-year-old slugger supplied some much-needed pop out of the Blue Jays’ DH spot.
Most of us think of Parker as an intimidating 6-foot-5, 230-pound, five-tool right fielder, with a larger-than-life personality, for the Pittsburgh Pirates who was one of the best players in the majors from 1975 to 1979. During those five seasons, Parker won two batting titles (1977, 1978), the 1978 National League MVP Award, three Gold Gloves and a World Series ring with the “We Are Family” Pirates in 1979.
In that stretch, Parker also topped the NL in slugging percentage twice (1975, 1978) and registered 20 stolen bases in 1978 and 1979. Defensively, he recorded 26 outfield assists in 1977 – that’s the highest single-season total for an outfielder in the last 60 years.
Not bad for a player that was originally selected by the Pirates in the 14th round of the 1970 MLB draft as a catcher out of Courter Tech High School in Cincinnati. Given his size, it’s not surprising that Parker’s best sport in high school was football and he was a heavily recruited running back until he sustained a serious knee injury in his senior season. That injury also cost him his senior baseball season and hurt his draft status.
The Pirates were fortunate that Parker fell to the 14th round and after he joined their organization they converted him into an outfielder. After parts of four seasons in the minors, he made his MLB debut on July 12, 1973, but it wasn’t until 1975 that he enjoyed his breakout campaign.
As noted earlier, Parker was at his best from 1975 to 1979 and in January 1979, he was rewarded with a five-year contract that made him the highest paid player in baseball. Unfortunately, after that deal was completed, his relationship with Pirates fans soured. His production tailed off in the early 1980s, but his career was rejuvenated when he signed with his hometown Reds prior to the 1984 season.
He set career-highs in home runs (34) and RBIs (125) with the Reds in 1985 and finished second in National League MVP voting. Off the field, however, he was forced to testify in a federal court case against a man charged with selling cocaine to major leaguers. In exchange for immunity, Parker admitted using the drug steadily form 1979 to 1982.
These off-field distractions, however, did little to stop Parker on the field and he added another 31 home runs and 116 RBIs in 1986. He spent one more season in Cincinnati before he was dealt to the Oakland A’s on December 8, 1987.
In Oakland, he became the DH in a lineup that also featured Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco and he earned his second World Series ring in 1989. En route to that triumphant Fall Classic, the A’s defeated the Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series and Parker clubbed two home runs. His slow home run trot irked Blue Jays third baseman Kelly Gruber who told the media that Parker was showboating.
“Who’s Kelly Gruber to tell me how I’m going to trot?” responded Parker. “I’ve got kids his age. You know how long I’ve been using that trot? My whole career. Is there some kind of school of baseball etiquette or is Kelly Gruber starting one?”
Following the World Series, Parker became a free agent and landed with the Milwaukee Brewers and was named the American League’s top DH in 1990. The next spring he was dealt to the Angels, but he batted just .232 with 11 home runs in 119 games before being released on September 7.
The Blue Jays, meanwhile, had employed a trio of DHs – Rance Mulliniks, Mookie Wilson and Pat Tabler – who had combined to hit just five home runs in 1991. Despite this lack of production, the Blue Jays still sat atop the American League East standings, with the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers battling for second.
Initially after Parker was released, Blue Jays GM Pat Gillick said the club was not interested in the veteran slugger. A week later, he changed his mind.
“We decided: ‘Why not?'” Gillick told reporters. “He’s intimidating, and with him sitting on the bench, the manager on the other side may change his pitching strategy.”
The club had picked up Parker after September 1, so he would not be eligible for post-season play.
“He’ll add something in terms of leadership and, hopefully, bring some offence in here, too,” said Gene Tenace, who was serving as the Blue Jays’ manager while Cito Gaston was recovering from a back injury.
Parker had already started his winter workout routine when he got the call from the Blue Jays. He was looking forward to coming to Toronto and he told reporters he had no imminent plans to retire.
“My goal is to play two more years and hopefully get 3,000 hits, ” said Parker, who had exactly 2,700 hits when he arrived with the Blue Jays.
As for his war of words with Gruber, Parker had spoken with the Blue Jays third baseman at the 1990 All-Star Game in Chicago.
“Those things were said in the heat of the battle and that’s not something people hold a grudge about,” said Parker.
Parker reported to the Blue Jays on September 15 for the final game of a series against the A’s at SkyDome. When he emerged from the Blue Jays’ dugout to pinch hit for shortstop Eddie Zosky in the seventh inning, the fans gave him a standing ovation. And they rose to their feet again when he singled up the middle off A’s right-hander Mike Moore to score Derek Bell. Parker’s single narrowed the Blue Jays’ deficit in the game to 5-4, but they eventually lost 10-5.
“Walking to the plate and getting that ovation made it a lot easier to take that first at bat,” Parker told reporters after the game. “I thought I was going to get the call in September. I got my unconditional release from the Angels last week and I was ready to shut up shop for the year. I was even thinking about some hedges I was going to cut. But after getting an opportunity to come to a first-place club, you don’t sneeze at that.”
Parker would become the Blue Jays’ primary DH for the rest of the season. He’d make his first start and go 2-for-5 against the Seattle Mariners at the Kingdome on September 16. It was his first of three, multi-hit games with the Blue Jays.
On September 23, Parker pinch-hit for Tabler in the fifth inning and proceeded to go 2-for-3 in the rest of the game to help the Blue Jays climb back from 7-0 first-inning deficit. He doubled in the seventh and should’ve had another two-base hit in the ninth, but he was called out on a close play at second base. The replay revealed that Parker was safe.
“He blew the call,” Parker said of umpire Jim Evans’ effort on the play after the Blue Jays’ 10-9 loss. “I was on the corner of the bag and he didn’t even tag me the first time. It’s an important time of the year and I hate to see that happen, but you can’t take out the human element.”
Even with the loss, the Blue Jays maintained a 1 1/2 game lead over the Red Sox in the division.
Four days later, Parker had his best game as a Blue Jay, going 2-for-2 with two doubles and a walk in the Blue Jays’ 7-2 win over the Minnesota Twins at SkyDome. The win lowered the Blue Jays’ magic number to clinch the division to six.
During the stretch run, Craig Daniels, of the National Post, wrote about the leadership and wisdom that Parker, who had played on five post-season teams, was bringing to the Blue Jays’ clubhouse. The article ran on October 1 when the Blue Jays were on the cusp of clinching the AL East.
“At this point it’s like, I’m a tiger in the jungle,” Parker told Daniels about the Blue Jays being so close to clinching the division title. “I’ve stalked this prey all this time. I get close – and I know I’ve got to close in from all sides – and then the kill is there. This is when the killer’s instincts come forward.”
Parker said Blue Jays players should embrace the pressure and pounce on the opportunity they have to advance to the post-season.
“I think as far as controlling emotions go, you should make it happen now,” said Parker. “Hey – feel it. Because you’ve got to work hard to get it. You’ve worked hard for the kill.”
That “kill” would come on October 2.
Parker started at DH and went 1-for-2, with a double, as the Blue Jays rallied for a 6-5 come-from-behind, walk-off win over the Angels at SkyDome, to clinch the division title.
In all, in 13 games for the Blue Jays, the veteran slugger went 12-for-36, good for a .333 batting average.
But with Parker ineligible for the post-season, the Blue Jays employed Rance Mulliniks as their primary DH in the American League Championship Series and lost to the eventual World Series champion Twins in five games.
For Parker, those 13 games with the Blue Jays would be the last of the 2,466 he played in the big leagues. In 19 major league seasons, Parker collected 2,712 hits – including 339 home runs – and finished with a .290 batting average.
But despite his strong resume – which also boasts seven all-star selections, an MVP Award, three Gold Gloves and two World Series rings – he failed to garner more than 24.5 per cent support from baseball writers in any of the 15 years he was on the Hall of Fame ballot.
In 2013, Parker revealed that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and he and his wife, Kellye, have set up the Dave Parker 39 Foundation to help raise money to help find a cure.
Parker is still holding out hope that he’ll be elected to the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately for him, he fell short in the voting by the Hall’s Modern Era Committee in December 2019. But the fact that he’s still being considered leaves room for optimism.
But if Parker is one day elected, it’s safe to say he won’t be pictured in a Blue Jays cap on his plaque. It’s also safe to say that those who visit the Cooperstown shrine will probably re-read the section of his plaque that lists the Blue Jays as one of the teams he played for.
“The Cobra was a Blue Jay?” they might say out loud.
The answer is yes.
For three weeks, 30 years ago, he was.