What lousy timing. Here it was, four in the afternoon, the heat of the pennant race, the Tigers were playing in a few hours, and Lance Parrish was sitting inside a Detroit coffee shop across the street from Henry Ford Hospital.

“How are you feeling?” a waitress asked.

“Coming along,” he said, “I guess.”

He could have lied. He doesn’t lie. He may shrug and dance with a question, but ask Lance Parrish something direct and he’ll give you the truth. And the truth was, he had just finished his second full day of rehab treatment — an hour in the swimming pool, assorted sit-ups, ultrasound treatment, ice pack — and he still had no idea if his back was better or worse. And, meanwhile, the Tigers were dressing for yet another game without him.

“I hope you feel better,” the waitress said.

“I’ll try,” Parrish said.

“Good,” she said, taking out her pad. “Well, now — who wants coffee?”

Parrish has been out four weeks and counting, in a season when the Tigers need him badly, in a season when all eyes are on him, in a season when his contract runs out. He would like nothing better than to leave this coffee shop and slip on his gear and slide in behind the plate and start catching. But the instructions are: No baseball. Exercise only. You want the back to heal? You want a future? No baseball. He has gone from “day to day” to the disabled list, to maybe a return on Sept. 1.

“You think you’ll play again this season?” he was asked.

He could have lied.

He doesn’t lie.

“No,” he said. “I don’t.” T hese should be Parrish’s shining months, August and September. When the season ends, he becomes a free agent. True, he has been a Tiger since 1977. True, he is considered one of the premier catchers in the game. But baseball is a what-have- you-done-for-me-latel y business, and you want your lately to sparkle.

Instead Parrish is in a pool, a clinic, a coffee shop. Out of sight. Out of uniform.

Lousy timing.

“I’m trying not to view it as a tremendous detriment to my career,” he said. “It’s frustrating. It’s bad timing. I definitely wish it would have happened last year instead of this year, just because the numbers I was putting up this year (.257 average, 22 homers and 62 RBIs) were better than I had any year before.”

He poked a spoon in his clam chowder.

“Don’t you think the front office realizes all you’ve contributed, even if you don’t play again this season?” he was asked.

“I don’t know what they think,” he said.

“What do you mean?” he was asked.

“Well, I’ve been trying to get this contract sewed up since before the World Series last year.”

“And?”

“And they didn’t want to do anything,” he said. “I know this is a business, but I always felt there should be a little loyalty, a little bit of respect for a person who comes in to play.

“I’ve told these guys (Tigers management) I’d like to finish my career here. I know they’re not doing (long-term) contracts like that anymore. But I felt like if they were really interested in treating the situation the way they should and could treat it, they’d go ahead and take care of this contract and say, ‘Hey, we want to get this out of the way and let you go out and play.’

“I’ve always given these guys as much as I can give. I don’t know what else I can do. . . . ” W hat he does know is that this is no minor injury. He played with back pain for weeks, through nights when he couldn’t sleep, through warm-ups when he couldn’t run. Then, during a home game against Kansas City, he got on base and realized he was in trouble. One leg felt numb. He squatted, bounced up, squatted — “anything to keep the blood pumping” — but it didn’t help. The next batter walked. The next batter brought on a pitching change. He stood on the bag. And the standing was agony.

“To be honest, I was worried about being embarrassed on the base paths,” Parrish said. “It was like, if somebody hit one in the gap, and I had to go fast around the bases, would I fall over? Would my leg give out? That’s what I was thinking. I was saying to myself, ‘Oh, man. I hope this guy hits a home run so I don’t have to do anything; I can just jog in.’ “

The next day he tried batting practice and it was a disaster. He sat out, figuring the next day would be better.

He has not played since July 26. Y ou look at Lance Parrish and you wonder how little things like vertebrae could fell him. With that torso and those arms? Couldn’t he just yank whatever’s busted back into place?

Not so easy. Like the itch that can’t be scratched, the problem with Parrish — technically called “spondylolisthesis” — is elusive. Its effects are that the vertebrae in the spine slip slightly. There’s no one way you get it. There’s no one way to get rid of it.

One possible solution is surgery — a fusion of the vertebrae. Everybody wants to avoid that. It could end Parrish’s career. So, after consultation with different doctors, the agreed-upon treatment was a rigorous exercise program to strengthen the muscles around the vertebrae. The thinking is, the stronger those muscles, the more the vertebrae will be held in place. But until the rest of the body is ready, no baseball.

And Parrish does not believe that will happen before the season is almost over.

“Would you come back in mid-September?” he was asked.

“If I thought I could play,” he said.

“Why risk it?”

“Because I feel it’s important. . . . Otherwise, the Tigers are gonna have to sign me knowing that I spent the last part of the season on the disabled list. I’d like to be able to go out and prove to everybody that I’m healthy and able to play.

“In a way I’m kind of happy with the situation. At least they found out what was wrong. That’s more than we knew before. Now we can try and fix it.”

He took a sip of coffee. A few hours earlier he had been in the pool, alone, doing laps. Then in the treatment room, alone, as a therapist rubbed jelly around his back, then administered the ultrasound. No teammates. No clubhouse banter.

Nobody.

“Is this the most vulnerable you ever felt?” he was asked.

“It is,” he said. “You almost feel helpless. I’m doing everything these guys have asked me to do. I’ve always been in a position when I did what I was supposed to do for an injury, it would respond and I’d be back playing. But this is something, no matter what I do, it doesn’t seem to want to get better.”

“You can only be a good patient,” came the suggestion.

“I’m being a good patient,” he said, sighing. “But I have to learn to be patient along with it.”

The waitress brought over the check. And a request. “Could you sign an autograph?” she asked.

“Sure,” Parrish said. “For who?”

“Well, OK,” said the waitress, looking over her shoulder at the workers behind the counter, “we have a little list. The first one . . .”

Parrish is popular in Detroit, maybe across-the-board the most popular Tiger. Kirk Gibson has his masses, but also plenty of critics. Everybody, they say, likes Lance.

“What would it take to make you leave Detroit?” he was asked.

“All it would take would be for the Tigers to prove to me they weren’t really interested,” he said. “That all the years I’ve played here didn’t really make a whole lot of difference to them. That I was just, you know, a part of the machine.”

Parrish is a dedicated player who thinks that characteristic should flow both ways. In his deepest heart, he wishes the Tigers would embrace him forever, slap him on the back and say thanks with a lifetime deal. But he knows that won’t happen. He saw what happened with Gibson last year. And he knows, at age 30, he may get only one go-around at this free agency thing.

“I think Kirk was made an example of last year,” he said. “It was pretty obvious the owners were trying to stick to a new system of no long-term contracts.”

“Do you resent that?” he was asked.

“I’ll tell you what I resent,” he said, “a change of policy in an organization that has always been successful with a policy over the years. This has always been a ball club that’s prided itself in being different from the rest. They weren’t gonna sign big contracts, pay for free agents, just because the others were doing it.

“To me, baseball’s the kind of business where you should take care of your players like they were part of your family. That’s the way it used to be here. But I think they’ve changed as baseball’s changed.”

He finished the autographs, and groped for his car keys.

“Get better, Lance,” yelled one of the grill men.

“Yeah,” added another.

“Hey, Lance,” a counter customer asked, “you gonna play again this year?”

He grinned. A small grin. He could lie.

He doesn’t lie.

“I don’t know,” said the good patient, trying to be patient. “I’ll try.”

He turned for the door and walked out, slowly, as if he knew the off-season would be a long one, and he’d better get used to the pace.

CUTLINE:

Lance Parrish leaves the Center for Athletic Medicine at Ford Hospital after a rehabilitation session.

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