Since I first saw those yellow and black uniforms on television in the early 1970’s I have always been a diehard Pittsburgh Pirates fan. No, I have never lived in Pittsburgh. In fact, I have never even visited but I have always loved the Pirates. It has been tough to be a Pirates fan in recent years as they have, to put it bluntly, stunk the joint up. At this point I’m not even thinkin’ World Series, I’m just hoping for a winning season sometime in the next decade. But the Pirates did have their glory years and the 1970’s sure were it. The residents of Shittsburgh maybe have had to deal with super high unemployment rates and their steel mills closing all over the city but they had their beloved Pirates. But the fans in the Iron City needed some new young blood to help quench their thirst for baseball and he came.
The year was 1973 and it was a somber one in the dugout of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Roberto Clemente had died the year before and the Pirates team needed some new blood. Sure they had their slugger Willie Stargell (my all-time favorite player, I might add) but even he had been around a decade at this point and the team needed someone to help Stargell put some runs on the scoreboard. That someone came in the name of Clemente’s replacement in right field: Dave Parker (who was originally signed as a catcher). Nicknamed The Cobra, Parker was the answer to their prayers.
Born June 9, 1951 in Calhoun, Mississippi, Parker was the Pirates 14th pick in the 1970 draft. (A draft that also included Dave Kingman, Rich Gossage, Ray Knight, Rick Reuschel, Dale Murphy, Chris Spier, and, of course, the legendary, Barry Foote.) Parker was already a strapping 6’ 5” and at 200 pounds (a weight that would continue to grow throughout his career, eventually getting up to 250 pounds) and he began to strike fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers.
His first two years, only playing part time he hit in the upper .280’s and four home runs each year but he showed plenty of promise and the Pirates organization knew they had a future super star on their hands. Then, the following year (1975) things began to come together as Parker hit 25 HR, 101 RBI and he hit .308. Things got a bit scary on opening day of the 1976 season when playing against the Phillies, Parker scored the winning run but had a violent crash at home plate with Phillies catcher Johnny Oates. Parker was shaken but okay while Oates missed the next two months with a broken collar bone).
The following years were Parker’s best. In 1977 he beat out his teammate Rennie Stennett for the batting title with a .338 average (with 215 hits for the season, 44 of those doubles). He won the National League MVP in 1978 beating out the Dodgers clean-cut All-American boy Steve Garvey (who we would later find out had a penchant for women and weird sex) with 30 HR, 117 RBI, a .334 average, and 340 total bases.
My longest-lasting memories of Parker come from the 1979 All-Star game (July 17, 1979, to be exact). While playing his usual right field he showed off his rocket arm by throwing out two players. He tossed out Red Sox superstar Jim Rice at third base and Angels catcher Brian Downing at home (on a hit by Graig Nettles). In the same game Parker drove in a run and was named the game’s MVP. I am still amazed by Parker’s strength and accuracy. At that time I don’t think any other outfielder could have done that. Parker made me proud to be a Pirates fan. Later on that year the Pirates won the World Series, beating the Baltimore Orioles while all of us happily sang the dopey Sister Sledge song “We are Fa-muh-leeeee”and called Stargell “Pops” like he was a personal friend of ours. Those were the best of times to be a Pittsburgh fan and it was shortly after that that Dave Parker’s star began to fade.
Due to knee problems Parker’s weight began to rise and his production began to fall. In 1980 he hit under .300 for the first time in 5 years (though he did still hit .295) and the fans in the Iron City began to boo. Not only did they boo but they began throwing objects at him from the right field stands (batteries, ice cubes, his own bobble head dolls, an anvil, even an engine from a car). Not that Parker didn’t deserve some hate—he was cocky as all get out and needed to be taken down a few notches. He was making millions while most native Pittsburghers were eating SPAM and toast for dinner. Later on, in 1985 (while was now playing for the Cincy Reds) Parker was one of the players named in the Pittsburgh drug trial (“Cocaine in the Clubhouse”). Apparently it was always snowing when the Cobra was around.
In the 80s Parker had some good years with the Reds, including 1985 when he batted .312 with a career high 34 home runs. He was traded to the Oakland A’s in 1988 and had two decent years. A slight streak of the old Cobra returned in 1990 while playing for the Milwaukee Brewers. He hit .289 with 21 home runs and 92 RBI. He spent his final two years in the majors with the California Angels (1991) and the Toronto Blue Jays (1992) where he only played in 13 games and called it a day.
Of course there is more to Dave Parker than stats. Here are five of my favorite anecdotes:
· One time when Parker hit a long home run at Wrigley Field he returned to the dugout and stated to Willie Stargell, “That has gotta be the longest one anyone has ever hit here!” Stargell replied, “Nope, Clemente hit one that hit the scoreboard in center which is 480 feet away.” To which Parker’s face dropped.
· One unnamed Pirate once said about Parker: “He has gotten so fat that he’s taking his showers in a car wash.”
· Willie Stargell, on finding out he was Parker’s idol: “That’s pretty good considering Dave’s previous idol was himself.”
· On Cobra’s notoriety in Pittsburgh by sportswriter Charlie Feeney: “Dave Parker is so unpopular in Pittsburgh that he could run for mayor unopposed and still lose.”
· And, finally, when Parker mentioned to someone that he might be part of the Phillies outfield of the early 80’s (with Greg Luzinski in left and Garry Maddox in center): “Just think of that outfield, a pig in left, a greyhound in center and an Adonis in right.”
Such was the life of The Cobra, he had it all, MVP honors, a World Series ring, all star games, fights, drugs, insults, weight problems and today Parker is in the Cincinnati area where he owns several Popeye’s Chicken franchises! (Popeye’s Chicken????!!!) You’re still making me proud, Dave!
(Some of the above quotes were taken from Kevin Nelson’s book, Baseball’s Greatest Insults.)
Tim Hinely lives in Portland, Oregon where he publishes his own zine, Dagger. For a copy please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.