SABR

Larry Parrish

This article was written by Norm King.

During an International League game between the hometown Ottawa Lynx and the Toledo Mud Hens, a Mud Hens runner was called safe in a play at the plate. The call angered Lynx fans, who booed the call lustily. When the inning ended, as the Mud Hens manager/third base coach returned to the dugout, a fan yelled, “Hey Larry. Was he safe?” Larry Parrish smiled and said, “Close!”i

Larry Alton Parrish brought a sense of humor, leadership, and a powerful bat to a 17-year career, 15 years in the majors and two in Japan. He was born on November 10, 1953, in Winter Haven, Florida, the oldest of three children born to Alton “Beef” Parrish and his wife, Sara. Parrish’s parents and grandparents had moved to Florida from Alabama, where Beef worked in the citrus business then in homebuilding. With his father and grandfather around, it’s no surprise that Parrish always had someone to play catch with or to hit a ball to him.

“I grew up with some kind of ball in my hand, whether it be a baseball or football.” said Parrish. “I was always playing one or the other.”ii

Growing up in Florida gave Parrish the opportunity to see his favorite team, the New York Yankees, and his favorite player, Mickey Mantle, during spring training. As much as he liked the Mick, he couldn’t bring himself to ask him for an autograph for fear that he would be turned down.

“I couldn’t handle that (being turned down),” Parrish said.iii

Parrish was a catcher on his high-school team in Haines City, Florida, a town the scouts didn’t usually visit, and went undrafted after high school. He enrolled in Seminole Junior College in Sanford, Florida in 1972. . That year he led the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division 1 in hitting and made the All-Star team as an outfielder. The team also made it to the Florida junior college championship tournament, where one of the opponents was Miami Dade Junior College, which included a future friend, teammate, and fellow gaijin (non-Japanese player in the Japanese Leagues), Warren Cromartie.

That kind of season brought the scouts out of the woodwork to sign the young free agent, but when it came time to decide on an offer, clothes did indeed make the man, and the team, at least as far as Beef Parrish was concerned. A lot of scouts came to talk to the elder Parrish wearing shirts and neckties. Expos scout Mel Didier, a Louisiana Cajun, showed up wearing a golf shirt and khaki pants.

“(Didier) and my dad hit it off,” Parrish explained. “Didier said, ‘They ain’t gonna be no drugs in the Expos organization when I run it – I’m gonna look at ’em eyeball to eyeball and belly button to belly button.’ ” After Didier left, Beef told Larry he was signing with the Expos, even though the Baltimore Orioles had offered more money.iv

The Expos sent Parrish to the Jamestown Falcons, their affiliate in the short-season Class A New York-Penn League. The teams played a 70-game schedule, and Parrish was part of the league’s top-hitting club. Jamestown led the league in several hitting categories, including runs per game (5.56), total runs (389), and batting average (.266). Parrish hit .260 with four home runs and 28 RBIs and committed three errors while playing right field. Those statistics earned him a promotion for 1973 to the West Palm Beach Expos of the Class A Florida State League, where he began learning how to play third base. Parrish found out firsthand why it’s called the hot corner because the ball must have felt like burning coal to him at times. He committed 31 errors as he learned the position, but made up for his fielding with a .293 batting average, 16 home runs and 33 RBIs. He even stole 12 bases, and became the first Expo player ever to win league MVP honors at any level.

Parrish’s progression continued in 1974, when he moved up to Double-A with the Quebec City Carnavals of the Eastern League, although he was met with a cold reception upon arriving in Canada for the first time after spring training in Florida. “We get to Quebec City and man, there was snow piled up along the runway,” Parrish recalled. “That was my first time seeing snow. I didn’t have the clothes you needed for that kind of weather. I had to go shopping.”v

The new clothes and Quebec City’s joie de vivre helped Parrish warm to a city and culture that he was experiencing for the first time. “It was a different language and culture, and when you’re a kid ... that part is exciting, “Parrish said. “The French women were beautiful. I couldn’t think of a place being any better.”vi

The joys of Quebec City did not distract Parrish and his teammates from being a dominant club in the Eastern League that year. Parrish hit .284 with 13 home runs and 77 RBIs and joined future Expos teammates Ellis Valentine, Warren Cromartie, and Bill Atkinson as representatives of the Carnavals at the Eastern League All-Star Game in Reading, Pennsylvania. The Carnavals ended the regular season leading the league’s National Division with a 76-64 record but were swept 2-0 in the playoffs by the Pittsfield Rangers. Parrish’s disappointment over that loss was reduced somewhat by a September call-up to Montreal. He never saw the minors as a player again.

Not much can be ascertained from Parrish’s September 1974 performance with the Expos. He played in 25 games and hit only .203, without any homers and just four RBIs. The Expos won 18 of their last 23 games, but it’s fair to say that Parrish’s numbers weren’t a major reason for that hot streak. Nonetheless, he won the starting job at third base in 1975.

Being a September call-up is one thing. Competing against established major leaguers every day is something else, especially to a 21-year-old rookie. Parrish got off to a slow start in ’75, due primarily to feeling that he didn’t belong on the same field as players he had only recently watched on television.

“I wasn’t hitting very much,” he said. “A lot of it had to do with confidence. Now all of a sudden (I was) in the big leagues and playing the Pirates and those guys Stargell and Sanguillen, I had seen them in the World Series and here I am standing at the batting cage beside those guys. I wasn’t sure I belonged there.”vii Fortunately for Parrish, his manager was sure, and knew it was just a matter of convincing Parrish that he deserved to be in the majors.

“One day we were in Chicago and Gene Mauch invited me out to dinner after the game. I thought, ‘Oh boy, this is a nice way he was going to tell me he’s sending me down to the minor leagues.’ We went out to eat and Gene told me that rather than sending me down, he was a good judge of baseball talent … and said I had the ability to play in the major leagues; I had to believe I belonged on the same field with the other guys. It was a great talk and I started believing I belonged and wound up having a pretty good rookie season.”viii

Indeed he did. Parrish batted a solid .274, with 10 home runs and 65 RBIs. His defense was still a work in progress, as he was second among the league’s third basemen in errors with 35. He even got 291,198 write-in votes as an All-Star selection.ix He ended up tied for third in National League Rookie of the Year voting with Rawly Eastwick and Manny Trillo behind winner John Montefusco and teammate Gary Carter. Parrish, Carter, and Montefusco also made the Topps baseball card company rookie All-Star team.

Life threw Parrish a curve in his sophomore season of 1976. To be more precise, National League pitchers threw him a lot of curves that he had trouble hitting. The result was your classic sophomore jinx, and while he did hit 11 home runs and drove in 61 runs, his batting average, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage all declined from the previous season.

“After that first year, they went to work on me a little bit,” Parrish recalled. “The second year was a struggle. … I had to make the adjustment to be able to hit the breaking ball because all of a sudden I was getting a steady dose of curveballs and sliders.” He also continued having his ups and downs defensively, making the spectacular plays but booting the easy ones. One day he would play third like Brooks Robinson, the next like Brooke Shields.

“He has played third like the people of Montreal never have seen third played, and then he has played it like they never want to see it played,” wrote Bob Dunn in The Sporting News.x

A new era dawned for the Expos in 1977, as they moved into the huge Olympic Stadium from tiny Jarry Park, with taskmaster Dick Williams as their manager. Williams was unequivocal in spring training as to who his starting third baseman would be at the beginning of the season.

“Parrish is my third baseman,” Williams said. “He’s hitting the ball extremely well and he’s working hard. He listens. He responds.”xi

Talk is apparently quite cheap in spring training because Parrish was on the bench by mid-May as the Expos suffered through a streak in which they lost 15 of 17 games, including 11 in a row. Williams put him back in the lineup on May 29, and Parrish responded with a game for the ages: five at-bats, five hits (including three consecutive home runs), five runs, and five RBIs as the Expos smacked St. Louis 14-4.

That great day did not translate into a great season, however, because by July Parrish was platooning with Wayne Garrett.xii Overall, Parrish’s numbers for the season were still not very good; he equaled his home-run total from ’76 with 11, but drove in only 46 runs, and his .246 batting average was still significantly lower than the .274 of his rookie year. He was second in the league in errors committed by a third baseman for the third consecutive year, with 21, despite the smoother bounces served up by Olympic Stadium’s artificial turf.

Since Parrish’s game was going south, he decided to do the same thing; he played winter ball with Aragua of the Venezuelan League, where his manager was Expos third-base coach Ozzie Virgil. That move seemed to give him the boost that he needed. Not only did he hit well, but his defense improved dramatically. “He was leaping for the choppers over his head. He was dashing to the shortstop side, sliding on his knees to the line,” said Expos director of scouting Danny Menendez. “He was animated, not like a robot.”xiii Parrish’s offensive numbers were encouraging as well: a .362 batting average, a .653 slugging average, and a league-leading 54 RBIs.

When Parrish was introduced to the Montreal fans on Opening Day 1977 they had responded with a chorus of boos, and his play that season suffered as a result. But on Opening Day 1978, the only person who got a longer ovation than Parrish was legendary Montreal Canadiens star Maurice “Rocket” Richard; in Montreal, that was like Parrish coming in second behind God.xiv The positive fan reaction launched Parrish onto a divine season. He established what up to then were personal highs in numerous offensive categories, including home runs (15), RBIs (70), and OPS (.775). His overall defense improved as well, even though he again finished second in errors by a third baseman. The Expos rewarded his efforts with a three-year contract at a substantial raise. He proved the team was right in being patient with him by having a career year in 1979.

At 6-feet-3 and 190 pounds, Parrish’s shoulders were broad enough to carry the 1979 Expos to the best season in the franchise’s history. The team, which had never before played .500 ball, went 95-65 that year, and came within two games of winning the National League East Division. Parrish hit .307 – the only time in his career he hit .300 – with 30 home runs and 82 RBIs. Besides being the obvious choice for Expos Player of the Year, he was on the All-Star team, and came in fourth in MVP voting. His season was all the more remarkable considering he played much of it with sore wrists. In fact, he wore a cast on one of the wrists for several weeks after the season ended.

“ ‘A layman,’ explained (Expos team physician Bob) Broderick, ‘would have had that wrist in a cast last spring. There was no way we could do that with Parrish. He’s a tough kid, works hard, and plays hurt.’ ”xv

Parrish’s reputation grew throughout the National League as well. At a sports celebrity dinner in Montreal after the 1979 season, Chuck Tanner, manager of the world champion Pittsburgh Pirates, said of the Expos’ third baseman: “He deserved to be (the Expos’) MVP and he’s not even gotten good yet. He came into Pittsburgh one time and we heard he had two bad wrists, but he had a big series against us. I don’t want to have to face him when he’s healthy.”xvi

Unfortunately for Parrish, Tanner got his wish. He started the 1980 season well, including a three-home-run game in front of family and friends at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. Then, in a May 3 game against San Francisco, a pitch from the Giants’ Ed Whitson hit Parrish and re-injured his wrist. He played only 126 games that year, with 15 homers and 72 RBIs. “ ‘The wrist never did get well,’ Parrish said, ‘until I got home (after the season) and gave it some rest. That was probably the most frustrating season of my career. I was getting pitches I should have hit and couldn’t.’ ”xvii

Parrish was confident as spring training 1981 rolled around, but once he hit the Northern climes and played in the then-topless Olympic Stadium, the pain and discomfort returned.xviii The result was a further decline in production until late in the strike-shortened season. He drove in 25 runs that September and was the Expos’ Player of the Month. Expos fans finally showed their appreciation during a 6-3 win over the New York Mets on September 25. Jim Kaplan wrote in Sports Illustrated: “No one cheers louder than Expo fans, but if the spirit moves them, they would boo Mother Teresa: The riding they have given the slumping Parrish in the wake of his injury is perhaps the worst in the 13-year history of the Montreal franchise. But on this night they reverse themselves when Parrish goes 3 for 4 and drives in four runs. As he stands on first after delivering a two-run single in the seventh, they give him a thunderous, prolonged ovation. Parrish finally tips his hat. The ovation continues, and he tips his hat again. It’s as if 41,351 people are exorcising their guilt.”xix

The Expos played in the National League Championship Series that strike-interrupted year and lost in five games to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Game Five was Parrish’s last as an Expo. He was traded during the following spring training to the Texas Rangers, along with prospect Dave Hostetler, for first baseman Al Oliver. Oliver won the 1982 National League batting title, and pundits felt that the Expos should have won the National League East Division in 1982 – Sports Illustrated picked them to take it.xx They didn’t, and some felt the reason for that was the trading of Parrish.

“I don’t think that LP ever envisioned himself as that instrumental,” said Expos tammate Steve Rogers. “The nucleus of who the Expos had become – it took out a significant chunk of it when LP was traded.”xxi

“I felt that at the time the Expos traded Larry Parrish that they had underestimated one thing and that was the value of Parrish to his teammates in the clubhouse and in the dugout,” said Dave Van Horne, then the Expos broadcaster. “I don’t think they ever recouped from that.”xxii

For Parrish, it meant going from the penthouse to the outhouse because the ’82 Rangers were wretched. They lost 98 games that year and finished sixth in the American League West, with only the horrendous Minnesota Twins (60-102) cushioning them from the basement. The class distinction even extended to how the players were treated. “It was a lot of disappointment,” Parrish said of the trade. “(The Expos were) the organization I came up in. ... It was what you knew. Getting traded was almost like going through a divorce. It was tough.

“In Montreal ... there were never any money issues. We traveled first-class, stayed in the best hotels. It was a first-class organization. The money backing the Rangers that time was not on a par with the Expos. I had a drop-off organization-wise.”xxiii

Parrish also had to adapt in the field. Buddy Bell had some pop and provided Gold Glove defense at third base, so Parrish played primarily in right field, a position he was familiar with from his minor-league days. All those changes resulted in a terrible start. By the Fourth of July he was hitting .186 with one home run and eight RBIs. Perhaps he chose that date to declare his independence from the Expos because he went on a hot streak that saw his average rise to .250, with 10 home runs and 41 RBIs by mid-August. Overall, Parrish’s numbers were good compared to those of the rest of the team. He finished second in home runs with 17 (behind Hostetler’s 22), and RBIs with 62 (both Hostetler and Buddy Bell had 67).

Parrish’s tenure with the Rangers was a merry-go-round of offseason trade rumors and slow starts. If Photoshop had existed in those days, it seems you could have put him in any uniform in the major leagues for all the trade rumors about him. About the only team that didn’t express interest in him was the New York Bloomer Girls. xxiv The slow starts didn’t prevent Parrish from going on to have excellent seasons. He passed the 100-RBI mark in 1984 and 1987, and made his second All-Star team the latter season.

Parrish’s banner 1987 didn’t mean much in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of professional sports. He couldn’t get his game going in 1988 after offseason knee surgery and the Rangers released him after 68 games when he was hitting .190. The Boston Red Sox picked him up, and despite a good start he hit only seven homers for them, the same number he had hit for Texas when he was released. (He did bat .259 for Boston, 69 points better ythan he had with Texas.) The Red Sox made it to the playoffs, but Parrish went hitless in five at-bats. He was let go after the season, bringing an end to his career as a major leaguer, but not because he lost his ability to play.

“At that time, that’s when the collusion was going on. ... They were trying to get the older players who had been in the union a long time out of the game,” said Parrish. “It was tough for older guys to find a job back then. I got an offer to go play in Japan for more money than you could make over here”xxv

Parrish’s career brightened in the Land of the Rising Sun with the Yakult Swallows of the Japan Central League in 1989. He led the circuit in home runs with 42 and made the “Best Nine” team with his old buddy Cromartie. He played with the Hanshin Tigers in 1990 and was leading the league in home runs with 28 when a knee injury ended his playing career.

After his playing days ended, Parrish was considering his future when his friend Joe McDonald, an executive with the Detroit Tigers, offered him a job managing Detroit’s A-ball affiliate in Niagara Falls, New York. Parrish found that he enjoyed coaching younger players and as of 2012 had worked in that capacity at various levels ever since, including a stint in 1998-99 managing the Tigers. He enjoyed three successful turns as manager of the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate, the Toledo Mud Hens, in 1994, 2003-06 and 2008-10. He became the winningest manager in Mud Hens history, and his 2005 and 2006 squads mashed up International League opposition in winning back-to-back league titles.xxvi He got tremendous satisfaction from seeing former players Brennan Boesch, Andy Dirks, Omar Infante, Rick Porcello, and Max Scherzer play in the 2012 World Series for the Tigers.

“When you see guys you worked with over years make it to the major leagues, that’s what it’s all about,” he said.xxvii

 

Sources 

baseball-reference.com

www.njcaa.org/news

www.milb.com

Paper of Record

 

Notes

i The author was the fan who asked Parrish the question.

ii Telephone interview with Larry Parrish conducted by author on October 25, 2012.

iii Parrish telephone interview.

iv Parrish telephone interview.

v Parrish telephone interview.

vi Parrish telephone interview.

vii Parrish telephone interview.

viii Parrish telephone interview.

>ix Bob Dunn, “Expos Chant Hymns to Parrish Youth Program,” The Sporting News, July 26, 1975.

x Bob Dunn, “Sagging Expos See Brighter Days for Parrish,” The Sporting News, July 24, 1976.

xi Ian MacDonald, “Expos’ Infield Gets Stronger Hinge,” The Sporting News, April 9, 1977.

xiiIan MacDonald, “Montreal Relives its Glory Days with Jackie,” The Sporting News, August, 20, 1977.

xiiiIan MacDonald, “Expos Applaud Sizzling Parrish in Winter Loop,” The Sporting News, January 21, 1978.

xivIan MacDonald, “Peace Settles on Once-Disturbed Expo Parrish,” The Sporting News, May 6, 1978.

xvIan MacDonald, “Pain Was Expos Middle Name,” The Sporting News, October 20, 1979.

xviIan MacDonald, “Fans Salute Second-Best Expos,” The Sporting News, February 9, 1980.

xvii Ian MacDonald, “Expos’ Parrish: ‘Fun to Play Again,’ ” The Sporting News, April 4, 1981.

xviii Ian MacDonald, “A Standing Ovation for Expos’ Parrish,” The Sporting News, October 24, 1981.

xixJim Kaplan “Retelling The Tale of Two Cities,” Sports Illustrated, October 5, 1981.

xx Sports Illustrated Baseball Preview Issue, April 12, 1982.

xxi Author interview with Steve Rogers conducted on April 9, 2012.

xxii Video: Les Expos Nos Amours, Produced by TV Labatt, 1989.

xxiii “Former Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish back with Detroit Tigers organization,” Toledo Blade, February 10, 2012.

xxiv Various articles in The Sporting News between 1983 and 1987 had Parrish going to the Yankees, Braves, Phillies, Tigers, and other teams.

xxvParrish telephone interview.

xxvi Former Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish back with Detroit Tigers organization, Toledo Blade, February 10, 2012.

xxviiIbid.

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