Murph and the Cobra

“Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”

Rules for Election to the Hall of Fame

Dave Parker was maybe the best hitter in the National League in the late 1970s, a high-average hitter (winner of two batting titles) with 25-30 HR power (in a time when 35 might lead the league), some walks, fair speed. In a sense, he was what Jim Rice was supposed to be. Parker won the MVP in the NL in 1978, the same year Rice won it in the AL. Parker’s Pirates finished second that year. The next season, they won it all. Willie Stargell was the MVP but Parker, though he wasn’t as good as he was in ’78, was actually the Pirates’ best player that year as well. He finished tenth, a low rank for him; in other seasons he finished second and (twice) third. There’s a statistic (developed, I believe, by Bill James) to measure a player’s success in MVP (and Cy Young) voting over his career, called MVP Share. Parker, with 3.19 MVP shares, is tied for 27th all-time with Albert Pujols. Every eligible player ahead of Parker is already in the Hall of Fame. In fact, other than Rice (tied for 29th) the next eighteen eligible players in this ranking are in. (Dawson is 63rd and Murphy is 64th; these are respectable rankings considering they mostly played on losing teams. They’re in a bunch with Steve Garvey and a set of guys [George Foster, Pedro Guerrero, and Albert Belle] who burned even brighter but for a shorter period.)

So Parker, in his prime, was considered by the MVP voters (a subset of the BBWAA) to be a great player. I am fairly certain that he was. He was likely a better hitter at his peak than any eligible player not in the Hall of Fame. While he didn’t have the defensive value of a centerfielder like Murphy (or a third baseman like Santo or Boyer, the best players not in) he was a good defensive right fielder. He won three gold gloves from 1977-79; though he made a lot of errors he had a terrific throwing arm and ran well.

The problem with Parker’s candidacy is what came after that peak, the five years 1980-84. Dave Parker was a habitual cocaine user, and the Pirates’ clubhouse was taken over by drug dealers in this period. Parker was probably already using coke in his starring years, but the thing is that for a while you can get away with that. It might even improve performance. But in 1980 he hit the wall, showing an across-the-board plunge in all of his skills. He declined a little more in 1981, missing a third of that shortened season and more than half the next, and in 1983 he was actually a bad player, hitting .279/.311/.411. His defense fell apart as well, as he put up subpar range factors with few assists. He put on a bunch of weight, something the team was unable or unwilling to do anything about. The Pirates finally let him leave as a free agent then.

Parker rebounded with the Reds in 1985, finishing second in the MVP voting and leading the team to a second-place finish. He went into a pretty standard decline phase then, punctuated with feuds with Pete Rose about not wanting to play first base (the Reds came up with Eric Davis, Kal Daniels, and Paul O’Neill all about the same time) and wound up finishing his career as a DH with the A’s and Brewers. His final hit total of 2712 and HR total of 339, while both short of the magic numbers, are very high in combination for someone not in the Hall of Fame. I believe that Andre Dawson is the only player ahead of him on both lists who is eligble but not elected.

Dave Parker had a Hall of Fame career. I am more comfortable saying that about him than even Dawson, because his peak was higher; his career numbers are far better than Murphy’s or Rice’s. At the same time, there is a lot of off-field baggage here.

It is not simply the drug use. My guess is that at one time or another 90 percent of the players in baseball in the late seventies tried cocaine. That’s just what the late seventies were like. Parker let it take over his life, but that was just his bad luck. The problem is what that drug use did to his team.

The Pirates, in 1979, were a team with a long history of winning. They finished above .500 nine times in the seventies and 80-82 in the other season. They won six division titles and two World Series in that span, finished second three times and third once. The history of the Pirates’ franchise since then is probably known to you; with the exception of the Barry Bonds era they’ve been a bad team. Parker can’t take any blame for the post-Bonds debacle, but he has to take a lot of it for the collapse of the early eighties. He was the best player on the team, and still in his prime, and let it collapse around him while he was busy exploring other states of consciousness.

I mean, there are lots of guys in the Hall of Fame who broke the law. Like Babe Ruth and most every other player of the Prohibition era. But the guys who let alcohol (legal or not) take control of their lives… Well, they generally didn’t last long enough to make it. It’s hard to get behind Dave Parker’s candidacy, despite his qualifications. I’ll take the gentlemen (Dawson and Murphy) first and won’t have any qualms about it.

Dave Parker Statistics –

(ADDENDUM: Bledsoe may remember a long discussion I had with someone on the Compuserve sports forum many years ago about Rice vs. Parker as HOF candidates. At the time, I thought that Rice was the better candidate. Now, I’m pretty sure I was wrong. Oh, well.)

27 thoughts on “Murph and the Cobra”

  1. I am interested in learning a little more about the whole Pittsburgh cocaine scandal as well, and would even settle for a link to a good article about it. I seem to recall that other folks such as Paul Molitor and Keith Hernandez were caught up too.

  2. Umm, slightly off topic here – but this was too funny not to post. One of the 1st thoughts that came to my mind when we got Farnsworth last year was his role in the brawl with the Royals when he tackled Jeremy Affeldt. Well, Joe Posnanski wrote a column the other day where he’s going around the Midwest on a ‘tour’ with the Royals promoting the upcoming season, and he had the following anecdote about Farnsworth & Affeldt & that brawl:

    Chili’s in Salina.
    Here, over boneless chicken wings (Dennis Leonard, being an old-school guy, fought hard against them), Affeldt tells the story of Kyle Farnsworth. You might remember that Farnsworth, then the closer for the Detroit Tigers, tackled Affeldt during a brawl last year. It was a strange scene — Affeldt says Farnsworth just attacked him.
    What you might not know is that Farnsworth and Affeldt ran into each other after that game. Affeldt walked into the tunnel he saw Farnsworth walking toward him.
    “I’m thinking, ‘Oh man, he’s going to kill me,’ ” Affeldt says. “He’s a big dude. And he’s got these wild eyes. I’m looking around to see if anyone is around. Nobody. It’s just me and him. And I’m like, ‘Yep, he’s going to kill me.’ ”
    Instead, Farnsworth walked up beside Affeldt, and the two walked together toward the door. Farnsworth did not say a word. After a while, they ran into Royals player Matt Stairs, once a Farnsworth teammate. Stairs had a huge grin on his face.
    “Hey, Kyle,” Stairs said. “Why did you go after Affeldt?”
    Farnsworth looked back. “Um, I think I got the wrong guy,” he says.
    “Ya think?” Stairs said. Farnsworth looked back again and caught Affeldt’s eyes. No recognition. None. Farnsworth had no idea that Affeldt was the guy he had tackled.
    “Yeah, wrong guy I think,” Farnsworth said, and he headed for the bus.

  3. I’m someone who lived in Pittsburgh in 1979 and 1980. This was how Parker was when times were good.

    Reporter: Dave, why do you wear a golden Star of David around your neck when you play?
    Parker: Because I’m a star and my name is David.

    “It is not simply the drug use. My guess is that at one time or another 90 percent of the players in baseball in the late seventies tried cocaine. That’s just what the late seventies were like. Parker let it take over his life, but that was just his bad luck. The problem is what that drug use did to his team.”

    That’s a heck of a claim, Fearless Leader. 90%!!!
    I also disagree with your characterization of Parker’s habitual use of an illegal substance as just bad luck. But I do agree that his team was who paid for his selfish indulgence.

    I guess I haven’t walked a mile in his shoes, but I pretty sure he knew right from wrong. I couldn’t bear to see the wasted Mickey Mantle at his end, but he honestly repented his indulgences at the end. Parker could care less.

    No HOF. Not Ever.

  4. I think that becoming an addict (though I didn’t use the term, because I’m uncomfortable saying someone “was” an addict) is bad luck. Cocaine doesn’t instantly hook you, despite what the Just-Say-No Brigade says. Some people get hooked, some people don’t. I don’t think that’s any failure of character or anything like that, not most of the time — probably just biology or something.

    90 percent does seem high, but we’re talking about young men with a great deal of money at a time when young men with a great deal of money normally tried cocaine. (Notice I used “tried” in both statements.) That’s just what that time period was like — people really believed that cocaine was basically harmless. Some of them became drug addicts.

    There’s actually something admirable about Parker, which I didn’t mention, in that he apparently kicked the habit on his own and turned his life around. That doesn’t mean he didn’t stay an ass, which he no doubt was with no chemical help.

    One more thing I didn’t note was that Parker didn’t establish himself as a regular until he was 24, not because he wasn’t a good player yet (his OPS+ in that season was the second-best of his career) but because the Pirates had Stargell, Oliver, and Zisk in the outfield and no room for him until Bob Robertson was released and Stargell shifted to first. He probably deserves a little extra credit for losing 150 or more games to that circumstance; without it, he’d probably have had 2850 hits, 350 homers, something like that.

  5. Mac, to which Boyer do you refer? Both Clete and Ken played third, if I’m not mistaken. Ken was the better hitter, however.

  6. From “If you cant own a Ria…”‘s link (Kyle that you?):

    “Power hitters, starting pitchers, middle and late relievers alike took part: Lonnie Smith, Gary Matthews, Pascual Perez, Keith Hernandez, Joaquin Andujar, J.R. Richard, Lee Mazzilli, Tim Raines”

    I hadnt heard Mazzilli connected with cocaine, but then again i wasnt around in 1979 but did that come up at all when he was named manager?
    I dont remember hearing it

    And if Elaine was so upset that Keith Hernandez smoked cigarettes imagine if she knew he did coke…

  7. I meant Ken. Sorry, I should have been cleared. Clete isn’t a serious candidate, not with a .299 career OBP.

    I think Elaine would be a lot more tolerant of a cokehead than a smoker. It’s the smell that’s the problem.

  8. I should probably mention my feelings about Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who played Elaine on Seinfeld) are pretty much similar to Jac Holtzman’s feelings about Erin Andrews.

  9. question for whomever is knowledgeable about the topic: any news lately on the braves being up for sale? that piece of info was almost faded from my memory.

  10. ” should probably mention my feelings about Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who played Elaine on Seinfeld) are pretty much similar to Jac Holtzman’s feelings about Erin Andrews.”

    On an ESPN college bball game someone had a “Marry Me Erin Andrews” sign.

  11. I do vaguely, and am shocked to hear that you have ever been wrong.

    My world is crumbling around me.

  12. For what it’s worth, I’ve gotten comments written for Smoltz, Hudson, Thomson, and Sosa. The starters are easy. The relief situation… Well, I don’t really understand it. I might wind up with three reliever entries and a 20,000 word “Other Relief Possibilities” piece.

  13. I know that I am late to post this, but the topic is compelling–at least for me. I want to Thank Kevin for the Parker quote–it was one of my favorites.

    Here is another: asked about the batting race Parker said (I think in 1978):

    When the leaves turn brown
    I am gonna be wearing the batting crown!

    He was a lively, arrogrant presence. I cannot help but think that it was more than a coincidence that in the original Alien (1979)movie there was an outspoken, materialistic, selfish, character (played by Yaphet Kotto) called `Parker’ (who is ultimately killed by the Alien). He even looked a bit like Dave Parker.

    Maybe there was no connection at all, but I will always believe differently (unless proven otherwise).

    I am adding this to the thread becaues I believe that for the HOF Parker’s arrogrance was possibly more important than his drug use. I am guessing that the writers who did elect HOF simply did not like him.

  14. question for whomever is knowledgeable about the topic: any news lately on the braves being up for sale? that piece of info was almost faded from my memory.

    AJC had a short blurb today indicating that 1. local ownership is desired but not necessary according to MLB, 2. Turner is not interest “at this time” and 3. Arthur Blank is continuing to pursue it. I don’t know if the blurb is in the online portion of the paper.

  15. I’ve always felt Parker should be in the HOF, and that he ranked above the guys Mac mentions, several of which will undoubtedly make it.

    Parker will not, because of the arrogance, because of the drug use, but perhaps most of all, because he refused to apologize for being Dave Parker.

    I do wonder if Parker and Rice would have it made if they had played in different places — say Parker with the A’s and Rice with the Dodgers.

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