April 4, 2023
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Who was the Toronto Blue Jays’ Opening Day catcher in 1995?
That was a surprisingly difficult trivia question someone asked me recently.
It wasn’t Pat Borders. He moved on to the Kansas City Royals after the 1994 season.
It wasn’t Ernie Whitt; he was retired.
And Darrin Fletcher didn’t arrive until 1998.
So, who could it be?
Fortunately, I was offered some hints: the Blue Jays’ 1995 Opening Day catcher was an eight-time All-Star and six-time Slugger Silver Award winner.
I hate to admit it, but I still couldn’t come up with a name until one final hint gave it way: he was the catcher on the 1984 Detroit Tigers World Series-winning team.
The answer was, of course, Lance Parrish.
As someone who considers himself a Blue Jays trivia junkie, I was humbled that this question stumped me for so long. I had forgotten that Parrish played his final 70 major league games for the Blue Jays in 1995.
By the time he landed with the Blue Jays, Parrish was 38 and a grizzled 18-season major league veteran who had belted 320 home runs. He had not been a starting catcher since 1991, but for much of the 1980s, he had been considered the American League’s equivalent of Gary Carter.
Nicknamed “Big Wheel” for muscular physique and his quiet leadership on the Tigers, Parrish also had stops with the Philadelphia Phillies, California Angels, Seattle Mariners, Cleveland and Pittsburgh Pirates prior to joining the Blue Jays.
The Blue Jays acquired Parrish from the Royals four days prior to the start of the regular season, which had been delayed due to the prolonged players’ strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series.
Even after landing Parrish, the Blue Jays’ plan was to use a platoon of prized left-handed hitting prospect Carlos Delgado and right-handed hitting Randy Knorr behind the dish.
“Lance will be kind of an insurance policy in case Carlos (who was battling soreness in his neck) can’t catch as many games as we’d like him to,” Toronto Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston told reporters on April 22, 1995.
The 26-year-old Knorr was delighted to have Parrish in the Blue Jays’ ranks, despite the fact that he was likely to lose playing time to the veteran backstop.
“Are you kidding? I love the idea (of Parrish joining the Blue Jays),” Knorr told Mike Rutsey of the Toronto Sun. “That man has played in the major leagues for 18 years. I’m going to milk him of everything he’s got if he’ll let me.”
Delgado, just 22 at the time, was still raw defensively behind the plate and to get his bat into the lineup the Blue Jays decided to use him in left field. This opened up playing time for Parrish. Left-handed hitting Sandy Martinez was also in the mix, but he was sent to double-A Knoxville to begin the season.
This left Parrish and Knorr as the two catchers that would break camp with the club. In his limited audition with the Blue Jays, Parrish impressed enough to earn the Opening Day start.
So when the Blue Jays began their season against the Oakland A’s at SkyDome on April 26, Parrish was batting ninth and catching ace David Cone. Parrish would go 1-for-3 with a double and a walk and guide Cone and three relievers to a 13-1 win.
Parrish proceeded to record hits in each of first three starts with the Blue Jays and bat .260 in 16 starts in his first five weeks with the team.
“Teams tend to look at my age and ignore that I take care of myself physically,” Parrish told reporters at the end of May. “I just want to show the Blue Jays they made the right decision by signing me.”
The Blue Jays certainly thought they made the right decision after Parrish socked a three-run home run off Cleveland reliever Eric Plunk in the bottom of the seventh inning at SkyDome on May 27 to lead his club to a 3-0 victory.
“It took a while for me to finally help us win a game,” a modest Parrish told the Canadian Press after the contest. “I felt it was a long time coming for me to make a contribution.”
But while that might have been his first round-tripper as a Blue Jay, the veteran catcher was a valuable mentor to young Blue Jays pitchers, including left-hander Al Leiter. In that contest against Cleveland, Leiter started and pitched 7 2/3 scoreless innings.
“All I’m trying to do is convince Al his ball moves well enough that he doesn’t have to pitch to the corners. He can put it over the plate and let them swing,” said Parrish after the game.
“I expect to see this (from Leiter) all the time,” added Parrish. “Al is coming into his own as a pitcher. I don’t think there’s anybody in baseball with better stuff.”
And Parrish was right. With his guidance, the 29-year-old Leiter finally enjoyed a breakout season, going 11-11 with 3.64 ERA in 28 starts.
Two days after his first homer of the season, Parrish enjoyed his most memorable night as a Blue Jay. Starting and batting ninth against the Tigers, his former team, at SkyDome, Parrish belted two homers, including a solo home run in the bottom of the eighth that proved to be the difference in the Blue Jays’ 5-4 win.
“It’s very satisfying,” said Parrish about his pair of home runs against the Tigers after the game. “Whenever I’ve been available (as a free agent), I’ve told the Tigers, I want to come back. For some reason, they haven’t cared enough to give me an opportunity to come back. It doesn’t matter now. I’m happy here.”
That was one of Parrish’s six multi-hit games with the Blue Jays who were a team in transition in 1995. Veterans Roberto Alomar, Devon White and Paul Molitor – all members of the 1993 World Series-wining team – saw their production dip and were in their final seasons with the club. And the Blue Jays hobbled to a 56-88 record, good for last place in the American League East.
Parrish, who turned 39 that June, continued to do his best to help the Blue Jays pitchers and he’d club his 324th – and final major league home run – on August 6. It came off Boston Red Sox right-hander Mike Maddux in the fourth inning of a Blue Jays’ 6-4 loss at SkyDome.
Parrish finished the 1995 season, his last as a big leaguer, with a .202 batting average with four home runs and 22 RBIs in 70 games.
He would sign with the Pirates the following January, but was released during spring training. That ended his outstanding major league playing career which on top of his aforementioned eight All-Star selections and six Silver Slugger Awards included three Gold Glove Awards. He belted 299 of his 324 big league home runs as a catcher, which is the fifth most by a backstop.
Parrish also boasted one of the strongest throwing arms of any catcher of his era, throwing out 39 per cent of runners attempting to steal off him.
Despite, his sterling resume, Parrish garnered just nine votes from baseball writers in 2001 when his name first appeared on the National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot.
Following his playing career, he joined the Royals as a minor league catching instructor in 1996. In the ensuing two-plus decades, he coached or managed in the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tigers’ organizations. Most recently, he served as the manager of the Tigers’ class-A West Michigan Whitecaps in 2019. He is currently a special assistant to the general manager of the Tigers.
But most remember Parrish as a World Series-winning Tigers slugger and as one of the best catchers of his era.
And most – like me – also forget he was the Toronto Blue Jays’ 38-year-old Opening Day catcher in 1995.
I didn’t remember, that’s for sure. Great career he had.
Thanks for your comment and for reading this, Scott.
Thanks for another great blog. I did not remember that Lance Parrish played for the Jays.
Thanks for your support and for reading this.
Great story, Kevin. I, too, had forgotten that Parrish ever played for the Jays.
Thanks for your kind words, Eric. Hope you are well.
Thanks for your kind words, Jeff.