Dave Parker Fights Parkinson's and Makes Peace with His Baseball Past

Mike BassSpecial to Bleacher ReportApril 1, 2014

Jonathan Kirn/AP Images

A woman snaps a cellphone photo of Dave Parker and says, "You got the first picture on my new phone."

Says Parker, "You couldn't have picked a better subject."

It is early Saturday afternoon at the autograph show in suburban Chicago. Opening weekend of March Madness dominates the nation's sports conversation, but this is different. This is personal. Scores of patrons line up for baseball's best, brashest, baddest, loudest, proudest player of the late 1970s.

A man hands over a picture of Parker scoring past catcher Carlton Fisk in the 1977 All-Star Game and says he almost asked Fisk to sign on his butt.

Says Parker, "He'd use up all the ink signing MY butt."

Dave Parker scores past Carlton Fisk in the 1977 All-Star Game.
Dave Parker scores past Carlton Fisk in the 1977 All-Star Game.Anonymous

The revolution that was Dave Parker made some people uncomfortable. Especially in Pittsburgh. And when the '70s turned into the '80s, and the injuries sometimes kept baseball's first million-dollar-per-year player out of shape or the lineup, the animosity grew as his productivity fell.

There was the divorce from the Pirates and the admission of cocaine use at the 1985 baseball drug trials, but also a renaissance back home in Cincinnati. Another divorce, this time from the Reds, bred another resurgence—this time as an American League designated hitter.

A man opens the 1988 World Series program to the Oakland A's head shots and points to Parker.

Says Parker, "I may be the best-looking guy in this picture."

For almost 20 years, his heavy-metal voice resonated in locker rooms. His personality became the team's. He would use flattery and mockery, swear at you and with you, make you laugh and make you better.

A man asks Parker to pose for a cellphone photo and then takes his time trying to capture the right shot.

Says Parker, "It ain't that hard to make me look good."

He talked the way he played. He competed aggressively and spoke brashly. The words sometimes alienated the working-class city he helped win a World Series. In the end, the actions endeared him to the teammates who experienced him every day, witnessed him fight through surgeries and run through catchers without fear of repercussions.

Only there would be repercussions.

He wonders if they were more severe than anyone realized at the time.

He wonders if playing so hard caused the tremors in his right hand.

He wonders if playing so hard caused his voice to soften, his words to become a little less pronounced, his balance to start faltering.

He wonders if playing so hard caused him to have Parkinson's disease.

He knows playing so hard didn't get him into Cooperstown. And that is hard for him. Especially now.

"I would have liked to have been in the Hall of Fame when I could have enjoyed it properly," he says. "Not that I couldn't now, but the Parkinson's would have something to say about it."

Photo by Rudi Ayasse

Parker was diagnosed two years ago when he went for a physical. The doctor noticed a tremor in his right hand. It was Parkinson's.

He told the world last summer he had the disease, which attacks the brain's nerve cells and affects movement. About one million people in the United States have Parkinson's. There is no cure. No way to stop the disease from progressing. No timetable, either. Only ways to help manage the symptoms.

His mindset: "I've got to accept this challenge and try to beat it."

There is no anger in his words, no bitterness. And if you know Parker, you know he has no trouble expressing outrage. But after playing about two decades and then living through more than two decades since, he has made peace with much that bothered him in baseball. He has reconciled with the Pirates and Pittsburgh and is no longer angry at Marge Schott and Pete Rose in Cincinnati.

But he still doesn't get why Hall of Fame voters don't get him.

Didn't he hustle? All the time? He insists he did. He is especially proud of that. There was no subtlety, no nuance. If a catcher blocked home plate, Parker reverted to being the Cincinnati Courter Tech high school running back. He figures there were maybe seven or eight home-plate collisions during his career.

Remember the collision at home plate with Mets catcher John Stearns in June 1978? The one that broke Parker's cheekbone? Stearns held onto the ball, but Parker says he didn't remember that at first. He couldn't recall if he was safe or out.

In hindsight, Parker insists, he had a concussion.

"Nobody diagnosed it then," he says. "You said his bell was rung, and you moved on."

Once his jaw healed enough, he was back in two weeks, settling on a football-baseball hybrid helmet that would protect him and finishing an MVP season.

Parker heads into second base, against Manny Trillo, in 1978.
Parker heads into second base, against Manny Trillo, in 1978.Larry Stoddard

"It's a physical game," he says. "I did have some head injuries. Getting slapped on the head diving into second base on a stolen base—those kind of things happen all the time in baseball. So it could be an accumulation of physical blows to the head."

In December 2012, he filed a workers' compensation claim in California for assorted injuries, including multiple ones to the head. He still is waiting for a ruling.

Still, he can't imagine playing the game any other way than how he played it. He doesn't blame Major League Baseball for the home-plate collisions or agree with the effort to restrict them. Alter what's natural, he says, and you might increase the chance of injury.

"What are they going to do, put skirts on them guys?" Parker says as an homage to another '70s showman in Pittsburgh, linebacker Jack Lambert, who used a similar line about rules to protect quarterbacks. "That's a spontaneous reaction."

So if collisions brought head injuries that helped bring on his Parkinson's, so be it.

Dr. Rajeev Kumar has a message for Parker.

"If you see Dave, give him my best wishes—and tell him I treasure his (baseball) card."

Kumar is a Parkinson's expert and medical director of the Rocky Mountain Movement Disorders Center in Denver. He and Parker have never met. And, unfortunately, he can't tell Parker exactly what role head injuries played in him developing the disease.

"That's a question nobody can really answer at this time," Kumar says. "What we do know is there's a statistical correlation with prior head injuries and increased risk of subsequently developing Parkinson's disease. But in individuals, you can't say how much of a role that will play."

Maybe none, says Dr. James C. Beck, a Ph.D. and vice president for scientific affairs for the Parkinson's Disease Foundation. He says there normally is a 0.6 percent chance of getting Parkinson's (although Kumar says it's about 1 percent).

Beck and Kumar do agree that another factor probably is more significant: Parker's older sister has Parkinson's. She is 66 and has had the disease for seven years now, according to Parker. Beck says a parent or sibling with Parkinson's doubles the normal risk to 1.2 percent. Kumar says the risk is about tripled to 3 or 4 percent.

"Some people say it's hereditary," Parker says. "But nobody knows enough about the disease to make a determination. It's a relatively unknown disease. But if it's in your genes, what can you do?"

Until now, Parker has tried to attack his Parkinson's naturally. He worried medication would produce side effects. Diet and exercise have helped. Look at him. He is 62 but doesn't look that old. He's still The Cobra.

Photo by Rudi Ayasse

"You don't know how long your brain cells are going to be here," Parker says. "I just take it day by day. They said to stay active. That's why I'm trying to get into a vigorous workout routine."

Only now, the tremors are worsening. His balance is concerning. He is planning to see a specialist for the first time. He is open to taking medication. He will ask about help with his speech. His voice is easily understandable in person if you are near him, but the response time is a bit slower.

"It's a tough thing to watch," says former Reds teammate Eric Davis, who calls Parker his "second father" and whom Parker calls "my baseball son." "When you think of Dave, you think of The Cobra. I think of my dad. I think of the physicality behind The Cobra."

The first time Davis noticed the effect of Parkinson's on Parker was at the Hall of Fame induction of Reds teammate Barry Larkin. "We were at Cooperstown. It was tough. But it's never going to ever stop me from being around him or approaching him or calling him and seeing how he's doing."

Parker had a Marvel quality to him. He was 6'5", 230 pounds. A phenomenon. In the minor leagues, legend has it, he hit a ball in West Virginia that was picked up some 150 miles later after it landed in a coal car that finally stopped in Columbus, Ohio. With the Pirates one year, he knocked the cover off a ball. Literally.

Parker in 1979.
Parker in 1979.Anonymous

He won two batting titles (1977, '78), an MVP ('78), three Gold Gloves and a World Series with the Pirates. It wasn't enough to please Pittsburgh.

He became the first baseball player to average more than a million dollars a year, including deferred money, when he signed a five-year deal before the 1979 season. And it was too much to please Pittsburgh.

His contract came after an MVP season, but it further distanced him from the city. Over the years, fans threw a bat, a sock filled with nuts and bolts, a nine-volt battery and more at him.

The Pirates were on their way to a World Series title in 1979, but Parker was black and brash and now the richest player in the game, and he openly wondered whether that combination worked against him. And as injuries affected his conditioning and productivity during the rest of his time in Pittsburgh, the acrimony worsened. On both sides.

"Anyone first is going to pay the price," Parker says. "Jackie Robinson paid the price for being the first African-American in Major League Baseball. I revolutionized salary in MLB, and I paid the price for being the first. During that time in Pittsburgh, when the coal and steel industries weren't doing real well, people just couldn't identify or relate to somebody making a million-plus salary for playing a little boys' game. It's one of the reasons I put the earring in (for the 1979 World Series) was to symbolize strength. I know I paid a price, but making it easier for someone behind me, I always had that in my mind."

Parker left as a free agent after the 1983 season, but he and the Pirates would clash again. During the 1985 baseball cocaine trial that rocked the game, he admitted to using the drug recreationally from 1979 until late 1982. The Pirates then went after his deferred money in court. Parker insists he committed no fraud, pointing to his batting title that first year of the contract. They settled out of court.

Today, the animosity is gone. It is a different ownership group from the one that went after his money. He has served as a special instructor for the team. He appears regularly at PiratesFest.

"I go to Pittsburgh about five times a year and do things with the organization," he says. "Whatever problem they had with me is definitely gone and forgiven. They treat me like royalty when I'm in Pittsburgh. If I ever go to the Hall of Fame, I go in as a Buc."

Why the transformation?

"It just took both sides time to mature," he says. "To accept me for me, and for me to accept them for them."

Kellye and Dave Parker with Reds owner Marge Schott in 1985.
Kellye and Dave Parker with Reds owner Marge Schott in 1985.Al Behrman/AP

He has made peace with so many now.

Take Pete Rose. The Reds traded Parker following the 1987 season to Oakland. He predicted the Reds would finish third or fourth. Then-manager Rose criticized Parker's leadership. Parker said he was a scapegoat, Rose a backstabber.

Today, Parker lauds Rose. They have a "special bond," Parker says. Being in the on-deck circle when Rose broke Ty Cobb's all-time hits record remains one of the greatest moments of Parker's career.

"I was a little upset, but me and Pete are good friends," Parker says. "We were never out of good graces. He said what he had to say, I said what I had to say, and life went on."

He even has forgiven Reds owner Marge Schott, who had infamously called him a "million-dollar n----r."

"I'm a Christian individual," Parker says. "I do forgive, and I forgave her."

Now, the Reds will induct him into their Hall of Fame in August. This means a lot to him. He grew up near old Crosley Field. Went to the games and opened cab doors for a quarter or two in tips. Sold baseballs that were hit out of the Reds' old park. Watched and idolized African-American stars Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson.

He expects the ceremony will be emotional. He has seen the museum at the Reds Hall of Fame and calls it "very nice."


"They've only got one exhibit of me, though. Through the production I had here, I kind of thought that I'd be up there more than one time."

He must have missed the others, Reds Hall of Fame executive director Rick Walls says. He counted three total. And that was before the new exhibit on hometown Reds. Walls, who had spent some quality time with Parker during Larkin's Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown a couple of years ago, was the lucky one who called Parker and told him about his Reds Hall selection.

"He's soft-spoken now, and he was very humble and surprised to some degree," Walls says. "For a guy like this to be honored in your hometown, and maybe because it's been awhile, it means a lot, means more...If you do that immediately, I don't know if everybody fully appreciates it. Time kind of cures a lot of things and makes you put things in perspective."

In four years with Cincinnati, Parker averaged 27 home runs, 108 RBI and 158 games. He proved what he could do again when relatively healthy. He quickly took over the locker room. Davis remembers being 21 and meeting Parker for the first time at spring training, seeing Parker pull up in his Porsche.

"I was nervous because that was Dave Parker, that was The Cobra," Davis says. "Never had met him, but had watched and learned and respected and idolized him. And then I finally got up the nerve to introduce myself, and he shot me down like a bullet. 'S--t, I know who you are, kid. You ain't got to introduce yourself to me. Just stick with me, and you're gonna be all right.' And I never left his side until he got traded."

Eric Davis, Darryl Strawberry and Andre Dawson in 1987.
Eric Davis, Darryl Strawberry and Andre Dawson in 1987.Eric Risberg

In 1985, Parker finished second in the MVP race to Willie McGee.

If anything still bothers Parker about his time in Cincinnati, that is it.

Nothing against McGee, says Parker. The St. Louis outfielder led the league in hitting (.353) for the playoff-bound Cardinals. Parker led the league in RBI (125) and finished second in home runs (34) and fifth in hitting (.312) for the second-place Reds. Parker blames New York columnist Dick Young and other writers who held the cocaine trial against him.

"That could have made the difference for the Hall of Fame—two MVPs, a couple of batting titles," Parker says. "So that MVP was vital."

Parker started a Parkinson's foundation last year. It is based in Cincinnati, but he is branching out and working with organizations in Florida and Pittsburgh. He also wants to help bring baseball back to the inner city, to bring African-Americans back to the game. Fittingly, an academy through MLB's RBI program is coming up in his new neighborhood.

"I downsized and moved out of my big place and moved right across the street from this academy," Parker says. "Baseball seems to follow me."

The new place is fine. For now. He is retired, having sold his Popeyes' chicken franchises, and spends weekends with the grandchildren. He plans to move again, only to Florida this time, maybe in the next year. After this brutal winter, his wife Kellye is ready for a warmer climate and wants to coordinate with their kids.

Parker calls Kellye "my rock." They have been married 30 years now, and she is partly to credit for him stopping his cocaine use. "I was planning on getting married," he says, "and I didn't want it to be a part of my life." He says she approached his Parkinson's the way he did: This is what it is, and we're going to do everything we need to do to fight it.

A lot of former teammates and baseball friends are reaching out. Former Pirates and Angels teammate Bert Blyleven, whose father died after fighting Parkinson's for about 20 years, left a phone message for him. Former Reds outfielder Kal Daniels was able to get him on the phone. And that really got to him.

"He wanted to thank me for teaching him the ropes in baseball and helping him out," Parker says. "The conversation got so sentimental that I almost cried. I had tears coming down my face. That makes it all worthwhile."

There was a tribute to Parker last November in Cincinnati. Former Reds and Pirates showed up, from Davis to Daniels, from Al Oliver to Larry Demery. Parker was touched that Buddy Bell could escape his duties as White Sox vice president/assistant general manager, but Cincinnati is Bell's home too, and Parker was "one of the best teammates I ever had"—a "dose of medicine every day" in the Reds clubhouse and "a natural leader" who "related to everybody."

"When you get a little older and you look back on things, you realize what certain people meant to you," Bell says. "He's a good friend and he's a very good person, and I wanted to help in any way."

Seeing Parker having to deal with Parkinson's, Bell says, was heartbreaking.

Seeing how he was dealing with it, though, was seeing vintage Dave Parker.

"He never made you feel uncomfortable," Bell says. "He would joke about it a little bit. He still had that sharp wit, that intelligence he always had."

Barry Larkin at the 2012 induction ceremony.
Barry Larkin at the 2012 induction ceremony.Tim Roske/AP

Larkin mentioned Parker multiple times in his Hall of Fame induction speech. He recalled coming up to the Reds for the first time in 1986, and Parker grabbing him by the hand and taking him to the locker of his idol, Dave Concepcion. Parker introduced Larkin and said, "He's going to take your job."

"Pops, you instilled something in me that day," Larkin said of Parker in that speech. "It was about the confidence. I appreciate that." 

A man asks Parker to sign "Cobra" and "'78 MVP" and tells Parker, "It should be Hall of Famer."

Says Parker, "I'm flattered."

Signing autographs for an hour or so is more difficult than Parker had imagined. He can do it for 10 or 15 minutes at a time at home, no big deal.

He wears a rubber bracelet on his right wrist that reads in all capital letters, "WHATEVER IT TAKES TO BEAT PARKINSON'S." The right hand does not shake, as long as he holds the pen or marker in it. He signs methodically, neatly, carefully.

Parker, right, with A's teammate Dave Henderson and the Blue Jays' Lloyd Moseby in 1989.
Parker, right, with A's teammate Dave Henderson and the Blue Jays' Lloyd Moseby in 1989.Mark Duncan

He clearly enjoys interacting with the fans, though. They tell him their stories. They are Reds fans, Pirates fans, Parker fans. He smiles at them warmly, sincerely, says a few words. They say, "Thanks for the memories, man" and "thank you for being you."

Parker asks if he should write "Reds H of F" on a photo of him in a Cincinnati uniform, and the man happily agrees. Parker just wishes it could be simpler. Just "H of F."

His 15 years of eligibility with the writers have passed. He wonders if his exclusion was personal. Was it the 1985 drug trials? His outspokenness?

He wonders if the game stuck it to him, why nobody signed him in 1992, why nobody gave him a chance to reach 3,000 hits to help ensure a Cooperstown invite, instead falling 288 short.

Sure, he was 40 years old when the 1991 season ended, coming off a disappointing year, but he had been DH of the Year the previous two seasons.

"You find guys that get close to milestones like I have, like 3,000 hits, they let you hang around," Parker says. "There's kind of a good-old-boys network in that regard. I played with guys on the last leg of their career, and they were allowed to get to 3,000 hits. They were allowed to reach major milestones. There were guys in the league that played in the All-Star Game as a last hurrah, and they tell them what pitch is coming. I didn't have that opportunity given to me."

He has found closure in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, but can he find the ultimate closure to his baseball career?

He says writers can't appreciate how he endured all those knee, arm and other injuries to do what he did. Then again, his first go-round with the Expansion Era Committee also passed without success. In December, three managers were chosen for the Class of 2014. No players. No Parker.

Davis can't imagine a Hall of Fame without Parker. And he can't stomach today's players not knowing about Parker or what he meant to the game—not caring enough about the history of the game, the black history of the game that Parker tried to teach Davis.

"He would always talk about, take pride in yourself, take pride in what Jackie did, take pride in what Martin Luther King did, take pride in how to create a legacy," Davis says. "And that's all he thought about was his legacy."

And he knows the Hall of Fame would mean a lot to Parker, even if his second father can't enjoy it as much now because of the Parkinson's. The next Expansion Era induction will be in 2017.

Dr. Kumar says the first five to 10 years after a Parkinson's diagnosis a person can lead a relatively normal life. Parker would be right about at the end of that when the committee meets again.

Meanwhile, Parker continues to live his life and take on his disease. April is Parkinson's Awareness Month, and Parker is trying to help.

As only he can.

"I was at a baseball clinic, and one of the high school kids said, 'How does Parkinson's affect you?'" Parker says. "As a joke, I said, 'Well, I can make a milk shake. All you've got to do is set the cup in my hand.'"

Mike Bass was a sports reporter and columnist for the Cincinnati Post when Parker played for the Reds in the mid-1980s. Bass also wrote the unauthorized biography Marge Schott: Unleashed, which looked at the controversy involving the former Reds owner and Parker.