In his 10 years as a professional baseball player, Bill Lajoie reached Opening Day just once. Kansas City, 1963. He got to the park early. He was ready. He was excited. He was sold.

Sold?

“Sorry, Bill,” his manager told him a few hours before game time, “we just sold your contract to another team.”

Lajoie packed his bag and left.

So you can lower that pie now. The man “who let Lance Parrish get away” is no stranger to rejection. He didn’t do it to be a jerk.

“Unfortunate” is the word Lajoie used to sum up Parrish’s decision to pass the Jan. 8 free-agent deadline for signing back with the Tigers. And it is unfortunate. It is also understandable.

It may even make sense.

Let’s get something straight right off the bat. This whole Parrish episode is not about morality, tradition, history, or the meaning of life. It is about a man’s back.

Plain and simple. Lance Parrish’s back is a legitimate question mark. He suffers from a chronic condition, and he will have to exercise extensively the rest of his career — the rest of his life, probably — to keep the surrounding muscles strong enough to compensate. Those exercises, combined with the rigors of playing catcher for seven months, would make any baseball executive wonder if the guy can take it. Any smart baseball executive. And Parrish is already 30 years old.

The Tigers weren’t sure. Parrish missed the last two months of the ’86 season. They were willing to offer one year, at $1.2 million, and risk a second year for the same amount, provided he was healthy. Bill Lajoie was the guy who came up with that. Bill Lajoie was the guy who brought the message.

And Bill Lajoie was the guy Parrish fans cursed when midnight came and the catcher didn’t.

“Do you feel like the most unpopular man in Detroit?” he was asked.

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Not at all.”

But as he left his apartment for work Friday morning, he went downstairs, opened the door to the garage, and whambo! A TV light was shining in his face. A local reporter was already waiting with tape rolling and the microphone on.

“What happened with Lance Parrish?” he asked.

Nice way to wake up, huh?

But that, as a popular song now goes, is just the way it is. We get attached to ball players. We cheer them. We embrace them. Not so front-office people. Nobody ever did The Wave for fiscal responsibility.

Our team. Not our money. If the Tigers were paying Lance Parrish $2 million to spend months on the disabled list, it would be Bill Lajoie who would take the heat.

So he made his offer.

Parrish walked.

“When did you first suspect Lance would not sign before the deadline?” Lajoie was asked Friday in his third-floor office at Tiger Stadium.

“About three weeks ago,” he said.

“Why did you wait until Thursday to make your last offer? Why didn’t you make it last week?”

He sighed. “I didn’t want to hear the ‘no’ last week.”

Negotiations with Parrish officially ended at 11 p.m., when Lajoie made his last phone call to Tom Reich (Parrish’s agent) and got his answering service. It was hardly the dramatics of last year’s midnight-beater with Kirk Gibson.

By comparison, it was a snooze. In the last 12 months, Lajoie has faced midnight deadlines with the Tigers’ three best players — Gibson, Jack Morris and Parrish. Only this time did the carriage turn into a pumpkin.

“With Gibson there was real negotiation,” he said. “At 9:30 that night, I was home and I said to my wife, ‘Well, let’s get ready. We’re gonna go to work now.’

“Jack, of course, decided to take a different route, shopping himself to other clubs.

“And now, this . . . “

Yes. This. Let’s talk about this. Lance Parrish is today loose in baseball’s shopping mall, and any club can sign him. Except the Tigers.

“Don’t you feel like you lost him?” Lajoie was asked.

“No,” he said, lighting up a cigaret. “Until he signs with another team, we still have great interest in him.”

And yes, he is serious. Lajoie believes Parrish could still be around come May 1 (when the Tigers can again deal with him) precisely for the reason he is around right now. It all goes back to . . . the back.

“I hate to keep returning to that, but it was the basis of our offer. If we were sure Lance could give us 145 games there would have been different thinking. I sense other clubs will have the same concern. They may be hesitant to offer more than a one-year contract, either.”

“If he was completely healthy, would you have offered him a three-year deal?” Lajoie was asked.

“If there were no problems, three years would certainly be in line,” he said.

In fact, Lajoie said, Parrish was offered a two-year, $2.4 million contract — both years guaranteed, unlike the conditional second year of the Tigers’ latest offer — before the 1986 season started. “It was turned down flat,” he said. “And then, in August and September, due to (the injury), we had to re-evaluate the situation.”

Lajoie tapped his cigaret into a large round ashtray. On the wall was a fading map with little flags spotting Tigers farm clubs. In the corner was a file cabinet. It’s an old office in an old park and it is very clear this is not East Coast schmaltz or West Coast glitter. This is Detroit. This is the Detroit Tigers.

It is a worthy observation. For throughout the negotiations, Parrish and Reich insisted on comparable money to Gary Carter, the New York Mets’ catcher, who is considered by many to be Parrish’s only peer.

But there is a difference. Carter plays in New York.

“Detroit is a different market,” Lajoie said. “I can’t compete with the Mets or the Dodgers. They draw different crowds, their television contracts are different.

“Of course, that doesn’t stop Lance from seeking that sort of contract. Yes, Carter is making $2 million. But because of that, the Mets won’t be interested in Lance. The money is already gone on that guy. I can make Lance an offer that would make him the highest-paid catcher in our league. I think there’s some status in that.”

He shrugged. “You know, I watched him grow up here from a 17-year-old kid. He’s been here nine years. I don’t know. Maybe it’s time for him to go elsewhere.

“What can we do? I can’t give a player what he wants just because somebody else makes more somewhere else.”

And so Parrish — the backbone of the current team — is gone, at least for now. The stalemate was basic: Parrish wanted to be rewarded for his past. The Tigers were worried about his future.

That was the ideological struggle. The human struggle, in many ways, was between Lajoie and Reich. Lajoie speaks for the Tigers and Reich speaks for Parrish — but if you think Parrish is the puppeteer and Reich the puppet you better think again. Agents have egos the size of their demands. And in this period of rumor, of collusion talk, of players “challenging” the owners, an agent has a chance to make more than money. He has, at least in his mind, a chance to make agent history.

That can really muck things up.

“Would Lance Parrish be a Tiger right now if you dealt with him instead of his agent?” Lajoie was asked.

He grinned, but just briefly. “I can’t say anything. I have to deal with him again. No, Tom Reich is a very smart man and a very good agent. He’s fine.”

Yeah, right.

Of course, Lajoie is no Santa Claus himself. His methods are hard line. He is not considered a ball player’s friend at contract time. And he can make mistakes.

He made one with Jack Morris. The Tigers’ decision to offer Morris salary arbitration was reported in the media before Lajoie got a chance to call Morris himself.

“Why didn’t you just call Morris and explain the foul-up?” he was asked.

“I should have,” Lajoie admitted.

He didn’t. And weeks later, when Morris finally agreed to take the arbitration — with 15 minutes to go on the deadline — he called Lajoie and let him have it. “I’m calling to let you know I have more bleeping class than you do,” Morris began.

Lajoie shrugged at the memory.

“I had that coming,” he said.

This is the way baseball works. You make up your mind, then you make up your roster. Bill Lajoie was not despondent Friday. Too many times like this for that.

“You know,” he said, “the first time I negotiated most of the contracts I had a pretty rough time. I didn’t even want to see the players come spring training. But I walked through the clubhouse and a couple of them yelled over to me. They were all happy to be down there in the warm weather and they were wondering why I looked so glum. I said, ‘You guys beat me up for the last two months and now you want me to be smiling all the time?’ It’s like nothing happened.

“That’s when I realized that once spring training starts, once they put on the uniform, everything is different.”

Lajoie figures the tandem of Dwight Lowry and Mike Heath might together make up for Parrish’s absence. The other Tigers must deliver more than last year, but it can be done. That’s what he said.

Suddenly he pulled out a green folder that contained the budget, a sheet of all current Tigers salaries, and a sheet of Tigers free agents and how much he was willing to go for each one.

“Is $1.2 million for one year the top figure on your sheet for Parrish?” he was asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“Do you ever go higher than the sheet?” he was asked.

“Yes,” he said.

But not this time.

“I could be wrong,” he said.

And what if he’s right? Most people won’t even remember. They’ll cheer whoever takes Parrish’s place, whoever hits the home run, whoever makes the big play. To heck with what it’s costing.

Our team. Not our money.

And not our job.

“You know,” Lajoie said, leaning forward. “Baltimore won a World Series once with their catcher hitting .220.”

He crushed the cigaret and waited for the next question. CUTLINE: Despite not signing Lance Parrish, Bill Lajoie doesn’t feel like the most unpopular man in Detroit. Bill Lajoie’s Tiger Stadium office reflects the atmosphere of the club and the city.

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