Lance Parrish Used His Arm and Bat as “Big Wheel” of 1984 Champions

For more than two decades from the early 1960s through the mid-1980s, fans of the Detroit Tigers felt at ease about the man in the mask. That’s because the team had two of the best catchers in baseball for an almost uninterrupted stretch that included the last two World Series championship seasons.

Bill Freehan was a star for the team in the 1960s and into the 1970s. Following his retirement after the 1976 season, a void didn’t exist for long at the catcher position. In September of 1977, Lance Parrish made his debut in the big leagues wearing the Old English D. For the next decade, Parrish was a standard bearer at the position, and a key member of the 1984 World Championship club.

Lance Parrish was the finest all-around catcher in the American League in the early and mid-1980s. He set a league mark for home runs in a season by a catcher, and in the 1982 All-Star Game he established a record when he gunned down three National League speedsters on the base paths. He had tremendous power, a Greek-statue-like body, and a strong throwing arm. He was a slow runner and hit into many double plays, but was a near-perfect physical specimen due to his weight-lifting regimen.

When he emerged from the Detroit farm system in the mid-1970s, it wasn’t clear that Lance would settle into wearing what have been called “the tools of ignorance.”

Detroit drafted Parrish 16th in the first round of the 1974 MLB Amateur Draft. A tall, but lean athlete at the time, Lance had played for Walnut High School, near Los Angeles. He was a third baseman.

The Tigers sent Lance to their team in Bristol in his first season as a professional ballplayer. Parrish made 20 errors in only 55 games at third, showing an unsteady, almost stiff approach to defense at the hot corner. At the plate, the 18-year old hit 11 home runs in 253 at-bats, displaying the power he had at even a junior age.

Things changed for Parrish’s development in 1976 when he was assigned to Montgomery at the Double-A level. There, he met manager Les Moss, a genial but firm veteran of the game. Moss had been a catcher for 13 seasons in the major leagues, playing his last game in 1958. Under Moss’s guiding hand, Parrish learned the nuances of playing behind the plate at Montgomery.

Another important introduction occurred at Montgomery in 1976: Parrish met Alan Trammell, a shortstop from California in his first professional season. The two would grow to become close friends, and combine to create many iconic memories for the Tigers in Detroit.

In late September of 1977, with the Tigers building a team around key young players, Parrish made his debut. In only about two years of development as a catcher, Lance was polished enough to handle a game behind the plate. The following spring in Lakeland, Freehan was asked to work with Parrish on his footwork and blocking pitches. The great Detroit catcher of the 1960s was passing on his institutional knowledge to the next great Tigers catcher.

In 1978, with Trammell at short, joined by double play partner Lou Whitaker at second, and Parrish behind the plate, the Tigers were teaming with youth. A fast start led to a multi-page feature article in The Sporting News.

In an article titled “Those Frisky Young Tigers are the Talk of the American League,” Joe Falls mentioned Parrish as a promising product of the team’s farm system in May of 1978.

“Parrish is a power hitter who could mature into the best catcher in the league, and he will only get better behind the dish,” Falls wrote.

Lance’s first great season as a Tiger came in 1982. Though he missed a few weeks with injuries, Parrish blasted 32 home runs, a new American League record for a catcher. He also posted a career-high .529 slugging mark and batted .284, well above his career average. Entering the prime of his career, Lance made the All-Star team and established himself as one of the finest defensive catchers in the AL.

On September 28, 1982, Parrish hit his 31st home run in a 9-6 win over the Orioles, breaking the American League single-season record for catchers that he had shared with Yogi Berra and Gus Triandos. Since then, the record has been eclipsed by Carlton Fisk and others. But when Lance set the mark, he seemed to establish that he no longer deserved to be compared to Freehan: he was his own force on the diamond.

In 1984, everything snapped in place for the Tigers. With Sparky Anderson in the manager’s chair, the team soared to a record-setting 35-5 start and never looked back. Parrish smacked a career-best 33 home runs and drove in 98 runs. By that time, Lance was entrenched as the cleanup man in a dangerous lineup.

As the primary run producer, as well as a field leader from behind the plate, Parrish naturally commanded respect from his teammates. His nickname was “Big Wheel,” a tag that Trammell explained many years later.

“Lance was the guy who really made us go,” Trammell said in a 2004 interview. “He was the big wheel that kept all the others on the roster churning.”

In the 1984 World Series, Lance experienced his most cherished moment as a ballplayer. In Game 5 at Tiger Stadium, he rocketed a Goose Gossage fastball into the left-center field stands in the seventh inning. The ball left the field so quickly, that the Padres left fielder barely had a chance to retreat on it. The home run proved to be the winning margin in the game, though it became overshadowed by Kirk Gibson’s three-run blast the next inning.

When Parrish hit his home run off Gossage, he clapped his hands emphatically as he rounded second base. A rare display of emotion for the typically stoic Parrish, but understandable given the pinnacle of the moment. About an hour later, Parrish was pouring champagne over the heads of Trammell and other teammates, and drinking the sweet nectar of champions.

Parrish was not signed as a free agent in the off-season of 1986 because Detroit (and several other clubs, it turned out later) were refusing to spend big money on the open market. He was let go to the Phillies in a move that was very unpopular with Tiger fans. The failure to stay in Detroit hurt both the Tigers and Parrish in the long run. Parrish struggled in Philadelphia, never really adapting to National League ball. The Tigers filled his spot with Matt Nokes for a few years but never regained the consistent leadership and power from the catcher spot until Mickey Tettleton arrived in 1991.

Had Parrish stayed in Detroit he may have finished his career as a Tiger and hit far more home runs in friendly Tiger Stadium, ultimately helping his Hall of Fame chances. Instead, he will likely remain on the outside and watch Gary Carter enter the Hall of Fame – a contemporary with similar skills.

Parrish’s 1,818 games behind the plate ranked sixth at the time of his retirement in 1995, and ranked seventh entering the 2005 season.

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