He was among the greatest hitting catchers of all-time, played in eight All-Star Games, won six Silver Sluggers and three Gold Gloves and earned some Hall of Fame votes in 2001—his only year on the ballot. He captained the ship of one of the greatest seasons ever assembled and he is a completely forgotten piece of Tribe history.
Wait a second…Lance Parrish played for the Indians?
If you blinked, you might have missed it.
In 1993, near the end of a long and superb career, Parrish shared a cup of coffee with the city of Cleveland and the Indians organization. He was far removed from the player that slugged a double-digit number of home runs 15 years in a row, but Parrish did end up hitting one dinger during his ten games as the backstop for the transitioning Tribe.
Parrish was signed as a free agent on May 7, 1993 as the Tribe’s regular catcher, Sandy Alomar, was lost due to an injury. With backup Junior Ortiz as the Indians only experienced catcher, Parrish was called upon to lead the Indians inexperienced pitching staff and to help with their young lineup.
“The understanding that I had was that Sandy Alomar was going to have to have back surgery and that it would be a good fit for me to come in there and play,” Parrish said. “When I signed with them, Mike Hargrove told me that I was brought in to be the everyday catcher; I wasn’t just going over there to sit.”
In reality, Parrish spent the majority of the month sitting on the Cleveland bench.
“Quite to the contrary, I didn’t really get to play many games,” Parrish recalled. “I think after the month that I was there that they decided to go with Jesse Levis, their AAA catcher and I was the odd man out.”
Parrish was released by the Indians on May 30, just about three weeks after signing with them. He had opened the season in the Dodgers camp, but thought that he had found an opportunity to play with Cleveland.
“I didn’t really know where my career was going at that point,” Parrish said. “I went to spring training with the Dodgers and my agent had told me that there was no way that Tommy Lasorda was going to take two rookie catchers with him when camp broke. Carlos Hernandez had done the bulk of the catching at the end of the previous season—so they expected him to make the ballclub—and then Mike Piazza wasn’t really supposed to be ready for the Big Leagues. But Mike had an incredible spring training—I actually had a good spring training, too—but I think that they had made the decision that they were going to go with Piazza, which I understood completely. I went to Albuquerque and was hitting the ball pretty well when I got the call from the Indians, so I felt I was ready.”
Unfortunately, the marriage between Parrish and the Indians franchise did not last as long as either side expected.
“I don’t know if I didn’t do what they wanted me to or what they were expecting, but I thought I did what I could do for the limited time that I played there,” Parrish said. “I never really got situated and never really felt comfortable. I never really got to play as much as I thought I was going to play. When I got let go, I just went home. I stayed at home the rest of the season.”
Parrish batted .200 and hit one homerun with two RBI during his brief stint with Cleveland. Parrish even stole a base as a member of the ’93 Tribe—a team that is always remembered for tragedy; not triumph.
During spring training, the Indians organization lost two of their teammates in a boating accident in Florida. The incident hit the organization and city hard as one victim, Steve Olin, was an excellent young reliever who had been in with the team for years. The second victim, pitcher Tim Crews, was expected to make the team in his first season with the club after spending several seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Parrish was able to get a front row seat on both sides of the terrible tragedy.
“Ironically, I was with the Dodgers that spring training and when Tim Crews was killed, it hit pretty hard with that organization as well,” Parrish said. “We loaded up a couple of buses and drove to Winter Haven when the memorial service was held and just about everybody in the Dodgers organization went to that memorial service. It was a difficult time for both ball clubs. Even though I wasn’t involved with the Indians at that point, I was involved a little bit. It was just the tragedy of it all…the fact that the Indians lost some very promising players and the Dodgers had lost somebody who had played for them for such a long time. I felt the grief from both sides. I went to the memorial just to pay my respects. It was a sad time. I don’t know if the Indians were ever really able to recover from it that season—it was tough on them. In baseball, just like in life, you have to move past it and move forward. It might have taken them a little bit longer. It was a difficult time.”
After the 37-year old Parrish’s short stint with the Indians, it took him until the spring of 1994 to land another job. He hooked back on with the Detroit Tigers, a team he had spent 10 years with from 1977 to 1986.
“Sparky Anderson told me that there was no way I was going to make the team,” Parrish said of his old manager. “He was actually doing me a favor to try and raise some interest from some other ball clubs.”
The gimmick seemed to work as Parrish eventually hooked on in Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Toronto from 1994-95.
“Eventually the Pirates called and I spent the rest of the season in Pittsburgh until the strike happened,” Parrish recalled. “I went to spring training with the Royals in ’95 and then eventually hooked on with Toronto. It was kind of a whirlwind my last few years.”
The whirlwind was a far cry from where Parrish had been a decade before, when he was a cornerstone of the Tigers mighty lineup in the early and mid-80’s. Parrish’s most powerful year came during the historic season of 1984, when the Tigers were able to capture the only World Series crown of Parrish’s career.
“There have been some great teams, obviously, but that was by far the greatest team that we had when I played there. It was a pretty special year.”
To say that Detroit stormed out of the gate that season seems like a bit of an understatement, as the Tigers raged to an unrealistic record of 35-5 in their first 40 games. The record stands as baseball’s hottest start of all-time, but Parrish and the Tigers never felt safe enough to take their foot off of the gas pedal.
“No, not at all,” Parrish said. “Even though we got off to a 35-5 start—which is still a record—Toronto was still on our heels the whole way through. Toronto had a very good ball club. It wasn’t until the latter part of the season that we were able to finally create some separation. They stayed with us for quite a while.”
The Tigers ended up with a 104-58 record and won the World Series 4-1 over the San Diego Padres. The unbelievable ride was highlighted with a wire-to-wire first place finish, a no-hitter from ace pitcher Jack Morris and a Cy Young and MVP season from relief pitcher Willie Hernandez.
“It was just a magical year for us,” Parrish remembered. “We ended up sweeping the Royals in the playoffs and then winning the Series 4-1 against the Padres—but that year was just the culmination of a lot of hard work from a lot of us. A lot of guys on that team were guys that I had played in the minor leagues with. It was extremely fun. The city was on fire with baseball talk. To be able to experience that is really what it’s like to experience baseball at its optimum level.”
In between his long stretch with Detroit and his short stay in Cleveland, Parrish also found himself making All-Star teams with the Philadelphia Phillies and the California Angels. Since ending his playing days, Parrish has stayed involved by being a coach in the minor leagues and a little bit back in the Majors.
“(I’ve been) just coaching and managing,” Parrish said. “My last year playing was in ’95 with Toronto, but I started off in Spring Training of ’96 with Pittsburgh and got cut at the end of camp. I did a little roving as a catching instructor for the Royals in ’96 and then in ’97 and ’98 I was coaching in San Antonio, Texas. The first year I coached under Ron Roenicke and we won the Texas League championship…so that was nice…and then I ended up becoming the manager in the middle of the following year after a shakeup in the organization where they moved Roenicke up to AAA. In ’99 I moved up to coach third base for the Detroit Tigers and was a coach there until 2005, but in 2002 I was not on the staff because Phil Garner had let me go—so what I did was some color analyst work for the TV station in Detroit. After we were all let go following ’05, I bounced around a little more in the minors through 2007 and I had not done anything baseball related until 2014.”
Parrish’s baseball travels have taken him back into the Detroit organization as he currently serves as the manager of the AA affiliate Erie Seawolves. The difference in being a coach in the dugout compared to a player on the field is a tough one to relay, but one that Parrish is currently enjoying.
“I don’t know if there is really a way to describe the difference,” Parrish said. “Obviously, I enjoyed playing and enjoyed competing on the field, but as a manager it is fun to try and pass off the experiences that I have had so that they can use it in their career paths and hopefully make it to the Major Leagues.”
Understanding his role as a minor league manager, Parrish is thankful that he still gets to enjoy the game that he loves so much.
“It’s just nice to have a uniform on. It’s a different kind of competition when you’re coaching or managing, but nevertheless, I enjoy it. I’ve had a lot of fun with it. It’s nice to back with the Tigers again.”