Parker connects passions of teaching baseball, fighting Parkinson’s
CINCINNATI — Dave Parker might as well have been born in the bleachers of a ballpark. Baseball has always been a part of Parker. Crosley Field, where the Reds played when Parker was growing up in the Cumminsville neighborhood, was a second home.
Kids used to congregate outside the stadium waiting for the players to arrive. Frank Robinson always drew a crowd. Parker says he was 8 or 9 years old when he got more than a signature from Robinson.
"Everyone else told him they wanted autographs. I told him I wanted something I could play with," Parker said, "and he gave me his glove."
The first time Parker got a chance to be on the same field as Robinson, during a spring training game in Florida, Parker tried to coax the memory from Robinson.
"He couldn’t remember it," said Parker. "But Vada Pinson remembered me. He called me a ‘little bad green-eyed boy.’ He’d say, ‘I remember you. You were a bad little green-eyed boy.’"
Parker and baseball have always played catch with one another.
When Parker’s grandson Solomon, himself now 9 years old, told Parker he wanted to play baseball, who better to begin the instructions? To hell with Parkinson’s disease. There was no way Parker wasn’t going to show his grandson around the field and the batting cage.
Solomon isn’t the only one learning from Parker. Twice a week this winter, Parker was at the Reds’ new youth outreach facility, the P&G Cincinnati MLB Urban Youth Academy, near his home in Roselawn giving instructions and passing on the game. It’s part of the work he’s doing with his Dave Parker 39 Foundation, which is helping raise awareness of Parkinson’s and funds for research.
"It’s showing them something and trying to get them to do it and then them finally getting it down," said Parker. "When they do it right and get it down and you see the smile on their face there’s a gratification. That’s worth a million dollars to me."
Parker was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2012 during what was supposed to be a routine check-up with his doctor.
Parkinson’s is a nervous disorder that affects nerve cells in the brain, the ones that produce dopamine, and is symptomized by hand twitching (which is what Parker’s doctor noticed) and slowed movements and speech. Dopamine is what helps transmit signals from the brain to the rest of our bodies, so when you see that fat fastball you swing at it and launch it to where no opponent can catch it. Or when you want to express a thought verbally, the words flow from your mouth. Or when you decide it would be better to keep that thought to yourself, your mouth stays closed.
Keeping his thoughts to himself was never much Parker’s style.
He was brash and outspoken growing up. He went from being that kid who was getting Frank Robinson’s glove instead of an autograph to a teenager selling lemonade on hot days or, every chance he could, hotdogs and popcorn during night games at Crosley Field. He was one of five friends from Courter Tech High School who were drafted by a pro team: Parker by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 14th round in 1970, Bill Flowers by Cleveland in the second round that same year, while buddies Adolf Carter and Tim Williams were picked by Houston and Montreal, respectively, in the 1969 draft. Conny Warren was drafted by the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and the ABA’s Denver Rockets in 1973 after playing at Xavier.
Parker made his major league debut on July 12, 1973 at the age of 22.
"I felt I could have played in the major leagues at 19," said Parker. "I played the game all out. I always hustled. I always put stuff on my back. I always wanted to be the guy that at the halfway point jump on my back, I’m going to take you to the Promised Land. I would do that. I would predict things like batting titles — When the leaves turn brown I’ll be wearing the batting crown — but just the way I played the game. I inherited it from the style of baseball that’s played in Cincinnati."
Parker ended up playing 19 years in the big leagues, winning World Series titles with the Pirates in 1979 and with Oakland in 1989. "The Cobra" was a career .290 hitter, got on base at a .339 percentage and had a lifetime slugging percentage of .471. He had 339 home runs and 526 doubles among the 2,712 hits he accumulated in his career. He won three Gold Gloves, two batting titles and five times he finished in the top five of MVP balloting, including winning the award in 1978 and finishing second in 1985 after returning home to play for the Reds.
He was elected into the Reds Hall of Fame last summer. The ceremony also featured two other Cincinnati kids in Ron Oester and Ken Griffey Jr.
Cameron Satterwhite is also a Cincinnati kid. He grew up in the same Roselawn area where Parker lives. He played on the ball fields where the Urban Youth Academy was built. He went to high school at Moeller, where the likes of Griffey Jr. and Barry Larkin played, and played at the University of Cincinnati on a team that included current major leaguers Josh Harrison and Tony Campana.
"Growing up in Cincinnati, knowing that there is somebody who came from a similar background as myself and played at the highest level and did well there is awesome," said Satterwhite, who is now the assistant director of the Urban Youth Academy. "I can remember my dad talking about Dave Parker as a kid and watching videos of him even as a high school baseball player and just aspiring to be Dave Parker."
Satterwhite got his first opportunity to meet Parker last summer when the academy opened up the doors to its new permanent home.
"Seeing Dave was, to me, like seeing Ken Griffey Jr. I was kind of awestruck," said Satterwhite. "I actually had to dig deep and go introduce myself to him and say "Hey, we would love to have you involved" and "Thank you for everything that you did as a player coming from the city of Cincinnati because you made it cool and interesting for me to play baseball as an individual." Every time he comes in now he’s a friend but just thinking back to that first time I was completely awestruck."
It’s the same initial feeling Parker had for Robinson, Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente when he met them for the first time. These were baseball icons. These were players that Parker wanted to be associated.
Parker’s image is one of several current and former Reds players adorned on the walls inside the academy. When Parker is in the cage helping young players, they can see his image on a giant poster as they work.
"It doesn’t matter the skill level, it doesn’t matter what the age is, Dave will work with the kids and each one was equally as important," said Satterwhite. "You could tell just by watching him how important it was to really instill not only the skill set but the values that he came up with and that he’s learning and experiencing as a former professional into the kids as well."
When Parker was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s he didn’t know much about the disease. It stunned him to learn there is no cure for it, only treatments. He tried alternative routes initially but noticed how they didn’t work well to calm the hand twitching or slowed speech. He’s now on medication as well as keeping an active lifestyle.
At the age of 63 his hair has grayed but he is no less gregarious and his 6-foot-5 frame still casts an imposing figure. He is still "The Cobra." He is thoughtful with his words but no less afraid to voice his opinion than he was when he was predicting batting titles or telling his childhood friends Tim Williams and Conny Warren that he would one day be earning a million dollars playing baseball. Parker was the first player to average $1 million in MLB when he signed a five-year deal with the Pirates in 1979.
The foundation is an extension of Parker. His wife, Kellye, is a director. Conny Warren, who now owns his own accounting business, is part of Parker’s team. The foundation sponsors a Memorial Day youth tournament called the Cobra Classic.
Parker wasn’t perfect as a player or person. His boisterous style turned off some people and he was part of baseball’s infamous 1985 cocaine trial. His numbers didn’t lie, however, and he was always there to mentor younger players.
Eric Davis was a rookie with the Reds in 1984 when Parker joined the team as a free agent. The two met again during last summer’s Reds Hall of Fame ceremonies. Parker greeted Davis by calling him "son."
That was and still to this day defines their relationship.
"He reminded me of my father so much, even though my father didn’t play professional sports but when he came here in ’84 he kind of strong armed and adopted me," Davis said of Parker last August. "A lot of the things that I have done and accomplished are because of him. The most important thing that I’m proud of is: He taught me how to be a professional. Even though at the time he came here he was going through some trials and tribulations in Pittsburgh that was his number one thing, to do as I say not do as I did. That always resonated with me."
Parker is still teaching the game, passing it down to a younger generation. There’s a way he learned to play baseball and he wants to make sure that way continues.
"Baseball is not the most popular sport like it was when I first came up and started learning how to play and I’m trying to improve the popularity of baseball," said Parker. "What better way to do it than to work with kids and let them have some success and catch on to what I’m trying to teach?"
For more information on Dave Parker’s foundation, including how to donate, visit www.daveparker39foundation.com or contact by phone at (513) 588-0062.