Catcher Parrish anchors Tiger defense, fuels offense with homers

While the 1984 World Series between San Diego and Detroit could turn on something as Mickey Mouse as a bad-hop single over an infielder's head, most teams wouldn't have gotten there in the first place if it hadn't been for their No. 1 catcher.

The Padres, for example, have an excellent all-around backstop in Terry Kennedy (14 home runs, 57 runs batted in), while the Tigers probably have the best catcher in baseball in Lance Parrish (33 homers, 98 RBIs). In addition to being strong defensively (always the No. 1 priority at this key position), Parrish has now led the team in home runs for five consecutive seasons and has averaged 100 RBIs a year for the past three campaigns.

Unless you have managed in the big leagues, it is impossible to know the luxury of coming to the ballpark every day secure in the knowledge that this is one key position you don't have to worry about. It's like having a car that always starts; a cleaning lady who does windows; or a stockbroker who put you into Xerox before anybody knew what it was.

The 6 ft. 3 in., 220-pound Parrish, who had 12 game-winning hits in 1983, was surpassed in that category this season on the Tigers only by outfielder Kirk Gibson. Lance is durable enough to have caught more than 133 games in all but one of the last five seasons. He also guns down would-be base stealers like an Olympic sharpshooter and keeps Detroit pitchers in line with a personality that is practically unshakeable if he thinks his calls are right.

While former Yankee backstop Thurman Munson wasn't the first to tell reporters that knowing the strengths and weaknesses of opposing hitters is what makes a good catcher, Thurman did say it more often than anyone else. By making that statement, Munson wasn't ignoring the fact that blocking balls in the dirt and throwing runners out on the bases wasn't also important - only that there are mental gymnastics to catching that are sometimes overlooked.

Parrish told me he first began keeping a mental book on opposing hitters in 1979, his second full year in the big leagues. Today his mind is a virtual library of do's and don'ts against most hitters, information he might not share directly with a pitcher but dispenses with finger signals while working behind the plate.

''Some catchers you can trust with whatever situation comes up in a game because you know they have the experience to handle it,'' explained Tiger Manager Sparky Anderson. ''While Lance and I might talk about how we're going to have our pitcher work against an especially hot hitter at the start of a series, usually I don't even have to get into things like that with Parrish. He already knows the score.

''Aside from the fact that Lance can hit and field, the thing I probably like best about him is that he has always put the team and winning ahead of everything else,'' Anderson continued. ''And when a veteran gives you that kind of commitment every day, the rest of the players - especially the rookies - are bound to pick up on it. Here is a perfect illustration of a man who leads by example.''

Originally attracted to Parrish by his power bat (good enough so that Detroit made him its No. 1 selection in baseball's 1974 free-agent draft), the Tigers signed Lance as a third baseman. He had also done well enough as a part-time, high school pitcher so that the Tigers' scouting report on him carried a detailed notation about the quality of his throwing arm.

''Although I had played third base, I really wasn't much of an infielder,'' Parrish said. ''At least I didn't see myself playing that position in the big leagues. Anyway, when Ralph Houk (who was the Tigers' manager at the time) asked me to try catching, I really liked the idea. I already knew my arm was strong enough to throw out most base runners, and the chance to play regularly really appealed to me.''

The first thing that Houk saw in Parrish, of course, was the way he could swing a bat. Big league managers will find a place for a kid like that in their lineup if they have to invent one, and Ralph already knew that Lance could always play first base or the outfield as a last resort.

Houk also saw a mental toughness in Parrish, meaning that here was a kid who wouldn't complain if he got hit with a foul tip, or had to dig a ball out of the dirt, or got blindsided by a sliding base runner. He also had the intelligence to call his own game and not let veteran pitchers influence him in any way.

''The most important thing a catcher must have mentally to succeed in the big leagues is the desire to go behind the plate every day and handle whatever comes ,'' Parrish explained. ''Although the physical price you pay for winning is often excessive, if you like the job it doesn't matter.

''I've lost 10 pounds catching on a hot day, and had my fingers stiffen up so much on cold days that I could hardly throw the ball,'' Lance added. ''It's no fun either when a pitcher is having trouble with his control, to either jump or have to reach out for everything. But there is no feeling like it when you've called a good game and your team wins.''

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