Catchers who hit major league pitching with consistency, especially if they also have power, can hardly miss being called great. It doesn't seem to make any difference if they need a relay man to get the ball to the infielder covering second base against steals, they still require a laundry basket to carry home their compliments.
This story is about a rare young catcher who can both hit and field, had a . 499 slugging percentage last season, made the American League All-Star team, and recently signed a multiyear $3 million-plus contract with the Detroit Tigers.
You look at 6 ft. 3 in., 210-pound Lance Parrish and you wonder who the sculptor was. This kid has muscles that flow rather than bulge; hands the size of a dictionary (the unabridged kind); plus an upper body that can't get through a normal doorway without making contact.
Perhaps this is why he once worked as a bodyguard for rock star Tina Turner.
Since the season started, Parrish has been struggling a little at the plate, a combination of cold weather and a slight kink in the rhythm clock he uses to zero in on the throws of opposing pitchers. But come October and his statistics are expected to equal or exceed last year's, when he hit .286 with 24 homers and 82 RBIs.
"Aside from the fact that this kid can hit and field, the thing I like most about Parrish is that he puts the team and winning ahead of everything else," said Manager Sparky Anderson. "He's also durable, and it's a tremendous plus for a manager when he can come to the ballpark every day and not wonder who his starting catcher should be.
"For a while this spring, because we have a young staff and [pitching coach] Roger Craig wanted to establish a certain pattern with our pitchers, he called everything they threw," Anderson said.
"Even though that was not intended as a reflection on Parrish's ability to handle pitchers, most catchers would have fought the idea. But Lance accepted it immediately in the spirit that it was good for the ball club. Since then, we've given him back that responsibility."
When the Tigers made Parrish their No. 1 selection in baseball's 1974 free agent draft, they signed him as a third baseman, although he also had a sensational record as a part-time pitcher in high school.
"To tell you the truth, I wasn't much of a third baseman, and when [former Manager] Ralph Houk asked me to try catching, I really liked the idea," Lance said. "I already knew my arm was good enough to throw out most base stealers, and the chance to play regularly appealed to me.
"The guy who really helped me with my hitting was Les Moss, who took over as a manager when Houk decided to retire," he continued. "When Moss got hold of me , I was strictly a pull hitter who just wasn't doing much to anybody's curveball.
"Les's theory was that if you worked hard and saw enough curveballs, you'd eventually learn to hit them. He used to get me out to the ballpark early; set the pitching machine so it threw nothing but curves, and have me swing for 90 minutes.
"He also showed me how to hit up the middle and take advantage of the gap between center and right field; and he said if I'd go with the pitch I still had enough power to reach the fences. If it hadn't been for that man, I might not be here now."
Parrish says 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, despite a physical price that can often be excessive.
"Physically, catching is the most demanding position in the game," he said. "On a hot day you can lose 10 pounds; on a cold day you have trouble throwing because your fingers get stiff; and when the pitcher is throwing the ball in the dirt, you wish you were in another business.
"But there is no feeling like it when you know you've called a good game and you win," he added. "And since I started putting together a mental book on opposing hitters two years ago, I really feel like I know what I'm doing. As I said, catching is a draining position, and maybe I could hit for more average if I played somewhere else. On the other hand, there is no position that keeps you more in the game."