“This whole thing has been like a movie — ‘The Negotiation of Lance Parrish.’ It’s ridiculous. This is not how I want my name in the papers. . . . “
CLEARWATER, Fla. — He pulled the new uniform over his broad shoulders and tugged on the zipper. Up came the pants around his waist, and the red belt went through the loops.
“It fits,” he mumbled.
“Pinstripes,” said an observer. “Nice. You look like an inmate.”
“Yeah?” He smirked at the irony. “Well . . .”
And out he went, into the Florida sunshine, into a strange stadium and a strange team and a strange league. A small group of fans applauded him, people who had never applauded Lance Parrish before, and a blond-haired kid in a Phillies helmet and Phillies jacket held out an autograph ball that barely fit in his hand.
“Mr. Parrish?” he said. “Please, Mr. Parrish . . .”
He’s somebody else’s hero now. Some other city. Some other park. Two years of trying to stay with the Tigers have resulted in his signing with another team — only the second major free agent to do so this year. His little saga has made headlines for months. It is a story with many implications. But before Detroit writes him off as a traitor, and before fellow players canonize him as a martyr, and before baseball lawyers make him Exhibit A in their “collusion” file, know this: None of that really mattered to Lance Parrish.
How can a guy who turned down a guaranteed $1.2 million from Detroit — a team he knew and loved — settle for a guaranteed $800,000 with a team he knows almost nothing about?
For the last few years I felt I might have been playing below the pay scale for a catcher like myself. But because I had signed a contract, I was determined to honor it. I figured the Tigers would take care of me when the contract was over.
“To be honest, I felt very . . . let down . . . by their attempts to sign a new one. I’d done everything they asked of me. . . . I was naive. I felt like I had such a good relationship with the Tigers that they would do what was fair. And it wasn’t even close.
“I understand they were concerned about my back (which made him sit out more than two months of last season). But I made concessions to that. Originally I wanted a three-year contract. When I realized it would not have been a good business decision for them to sign me for three years, what with my back, I resigned myself to a one-year contract. I was willing to prove I could play healthy. I would take a chance if they would. But I was not going to sign a one-year contract for less than I was worth.
“That’s what they wanted. The week after they made their last offer in November ($1 million, one year, a raise of $150,000), that was the point where money stopped being the premier issue. That’s when I started really taking this thing personally. . . . “
As Lance Parrish talked, he slowly pounded a bat into the bullpen grass. He would say he was happy now. It was obvious he was not. Other free agents in this winter of discontent may have been trying to make a statement to the owners. But Parrish — who has ended up doing just that — tumbled into the role out of hurt and resentment.
“People aren’t going to understand this,” he said, “but I thought of the Detroit Tigers as my family. They raised me in baseball. And in the end . . .”
“What?” someone asked. “You felt betrayed? What?”
“That’s exactly how I felt. Betrayed.”
It is impossible to say whether the Tigers were right or wrong in their final offer — one year at $1.2 million with a second-year option at the same rate. A healthy Parrish is certainly comparable to the Mets’ Gary Carter, who earns $2 million a year — but that figure is called “a reference point” by agents and “a mistake of the past” by owners.
This much you can say: The Tigers blew their chance with Parrish as much with their treatment as with their figures. Here was a guy who came up through
their farm system, who felt like a son in their organization, an All-Star, a cleanup hitter, a 30-year-old team leader who gave them 10 honorable big-league seasons, and when contract time came he was handled like just another customer in the deli. Tigers officials delayed, as is their custom. They kept the offers low, as is their custom. Their communication with him was minimal, as is their custom. Sometimes these tactics work.
And sometimes they do not.
“What is it that you wanted from the Tigers, really?” Parrish was asked.
“Besides the dollar figure? What was it you wanted that you didn’t get?”
“I wanted them to talk to me!” he said, the exasperation gushing out. “I wanted them to be honest with me and try and work something out. If it was the back problem, OK, I think we could have structured a contract around that. Whatever. But I didn’t even hear from them between November and after Christmas! I was owed better treatment than that. What I’m trying to tell you is, we’ve been trying to work something out with the Detroit Tigers for two years!”
Parrish wanted his contract to reflect the time he’d put in for Detroit. He wanted the negotiations to reflect that, too. He wanted, quite simply, to feel wanted. The Tigers kept it businesslike. Claiming his back was too big a question mark, and that his agent, Tom Reich, was clogging any communication efforts, Detroit general manager Bill Lajoie made no real moves until the last day — the $1.2 million offer. It’s a common ploy by the Tigers; a last-minute deal snagged Kirk Gibson one year earlier.
But by Jan. 8, Parrish was seething. He turned the Tigers down. He was out in the void.
In the next day’s aftermath, many blamed Reich, Parrish’s agent, who, it was said, wanted the catcher to sign elsewhere so he could break the alleged owners’ “collusion” — as much for his own ego as for his client’s bank account.
“That’s just wrong,” said Parrish. “He’s been taking a bad rap through all of this. I honestly felt that if I became a free agent, I would be able to do better than what the Tigers offered me. But they (the owners) have changed the system. They’re obviously putting the screws to everybody.”
Parrish found the Phillies to be the only interested party. And they were interested only at lower rates than the Tigers. Why? Here is one theory: because that way, one owner isn’t outbidding another, which is how free agency got to be so ridiculously expensive in the first place.
If Parrish signed, the Phillies could always tell the Tigers: “Don’t blame us for stealing him. He came here for less money.” Get it? As long as the new club offers less, free agency exists in theory, but it is always less lucrative than the alternative, staying put.
The players’ union, of course, charged the owners with conspiring on this
— and thus kidnapping a free market.
And Lance Parrish was suddenly prime evidence.
“Of course we initially demanded the kind of money from Philadelphia that we wanted from the Tigers,” he said, when asked how he could ultimately sign for a lower figure. “But you can demand all you want. I had received word from Bill Giles (the Phillies’ president) that his offer was the best he could do given the way everything was in baseball today.
“I wasn’t happy with the position I was put in. But there was an obligation to do something for other players. Since no other free agents were moving, I felt I had to make every effort to be the guy who did.”
So in the end — after some bizarre bickering over a clause entailing his right to sue baseball — Parrish agreed to one year at $800,000, plus
$200,000 if his back did not cause serious absence before the All-Star break. He said he considered returning to the Tigers on May 1 and “was not too proud to do it if I had no other choice.”
But any other choice was preferable — even for less money. It was a point of principle. It was a point of pride.
“It cost me,” he said. “It did cost me. But I’m putting my faith in the Philadelphia organization now. I believe if I show them I can play healthy and productive they’ll take care of me next year.”
Someone pointed out that this was what he thought of the Tigers, too, before his contract ran out.
“Hey,” he said, his voice angry, “if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I’ll end up paying for it. Nobody else.”
But that is not true. Everybody pays. The Tigers have not only lost their catcher and cleanup hitter, they have lost a gentleman — and gained a critic. Listen to Lance Parrish now:
“I see what the Tigers are doing to the other guys on the team. Where’s the loyalty? Everybody talks about loyalty! Arbitration? Yeah. You can win an arbitration, but you have to sit in there and listen to them bad-mouth you the whole time. To me that’s not how a grateful employer treats his employes.
“Kirk Gibson had to go through that kind of thing. Jack Morris had to go through it. They cut Larry Herndon down to nothing practically this year. And Darrell Evans? They cut his pay — when he’s been the most productive guy on the team the last two years!
“If that’s what I’ve got to look forward to, why should I pursue anything with that club?”
When he said it, his eyes were cross and his expression sour. This was an angry man, and anger was never an emotion you saw much of in Lance Parrish — whose strong, grinning, everything- will-work-out style was a fixture in the Tigers’ clubhouse for years.
Everybody pays. There are loose ends in this deal that will now never be mended. How bad was Parrish’s back injury? Each side gives you a different story. What offers were made earlier in his career? Each side has a different story.
And what difference does it make? He’s someone else’s hero now. Some other town. Some other park. “Baseball,” said the Phillies’ new catcher, “has elevated itself — or I should say plunged itself — to the point where all anyone is concerned with is trying to get the upper hand on someone else, and cheat them out of everything they can. That’s what it’s become.”
And that’s about all you can take out of the Lance Parrish saga. Another player jaded on the game. He is not faultless; he was asking an enormous amount. His agent is not faultless — he played this to the hilt. The Tigers are not faultless, the owners are not faultless. Everybody is to blame. If there’s a player left in baseball who doesn’t feel like a piece of meat he’s either stupid or very young.
What has been lost in all this? Well. There’s an old story about Buzzie Bavasi back when he was handling contracts for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s — back before athletes used agents. One day Gil Hodges came in all hot about his demands for the next season. Bavasi was ready to pay him $25,000.
Of course, Hodges didn’t know this. He demanded $24,000, and not a penny less. “That’s a lot of money,” Bavasi said. He suggested a game. He would put five pieces of paper into a hat, each piece with a figure between $22,000 and
$26,000. “This way,” Bavasi said, “you have two chances to exceed your figure, and I have two chances to get you lower.” Hodges said OK. Bavasi wrote out the slips. Hodges fished around. He pulled one out of the hat. It read
$26,000. “Yahoo!” he yelled. Bavasi shrugged. Fair was fair. Hodges got his money. He never knew that his general manager had written $26,000 on every slip of paper. And Bavasi never told him.
That’s what has been lost.
So there goes Lance Parrish. One more heart turned stone cold. This is what all the money is doing. And who on the field Friday even noticed? The equipment guy collected the baseballs, the kid in the Phillies helmet was working on another autograph. Nobody plays taps for spirit. Nobody ever has.
“Well,” said a Detroit reporter, offering Parrish a final handshake,
“we’re going to miss you.”
“You’ll get over it,” he said, and he walked away. CUTLINE: Did Lance Parrish turn his back on Detroit, or vice versa? Lance Parrish takes a practice swing in his Phillies pinstripes.