Morris and Parrish formed star battery for 1984 Tigers

The game can’t start until the pitcher delivers his first pitch to his catcher. A “battery” is the central part of the defensive unit in baseball. Good pitching and good catching go hand in hand.

The 1984 Tigers had an All-Star catcher and a future Hall of Fame pitcher on the mound, two players in the primes of their career. Their success that season was integral in a world championship.

This is the fifth installment of a series of articles that profiles members of the 1984 World Series champions.

Parrish worked hard to become a great catcher

When catcher Lance Parrish joined the Tigers at the tail end of the 1977 season, the team was looking to get younger and better. No one, not the most wildly optimistic Nostradamus of the baseball world, could have predicted the muscle-bound Parrish, just 21 years old and learning a new position, would spend 19 seasons in the major leagues. But he did.

Parrish was drafted as a third baseman out of high school in southern California in 1974. Just a week after the Tigers signed him, Lance was in Bristol, Virginia, playing for their Rookie League club. He led that team in homers, showing off his power at a ripe age. The next season in spring training, the organization decided to turn Parrish into a catcher. The reasoning was simple: the minor league system was well-stocked with outfielders and Aurelio Rodriguez was entrenched at the hot corner in Detroit. Also, veteran Bill Freehan, the best catcher in the American League for a decade or more, was winding down his great career. Parrish, at least physically, was similar to Freehan: both were tall and strong, with massive shoulders. Parrish, blessed with a beefy body, was even bigger than Freehan. GM Jim Campbell and manager Ralph Houk both agreed that Parrish would make a fine catcher if he was tutored.

To ensure that Parrish had a good mentor, they brought in Russ Nixon to manage the Lakeland Tigers in 1975. Nixon was a baseball lifer who had caught for 12 seasons in the big leagues. Nixon shared something in common with Parrish – he too was a big guy who made the transition to the catcher position as a young player. He helped Parrish learn his way around the “tools of ignorance” that season.

Fortunately for Lance, in 1976 he was promoted to Montgomery, the Tigers Double-A team, where his manager was another former big league receiver – the stern Les Moss. At Montgomery, Parrish first played with Alan Trammell, Tom Brookens, Jack Morris, and Steve Kemp, among other future Tiger fixtures. Moss was so good with younger players that the organization moved him up to their top club at Evansville in 1977, where Parrish, Morris, and Brookens jelled. That season, Parrish’s third as a catcher, was the first after Freehan’s retirement and the club was delighted with their young prospect’s progress. Still, they brought in Freehan to work with Parrish during spring training, especially on blocking pitches in the dirt. Parrish was a big body, but he was not naturally skilled at springing himself left or right to block errant pitches.

At the plate, Parrish was major league ready. He hit 25 homers at Evansville, leading the team. That production earned him his September callup. Milt May, in his eighth season in the big leagues, was the Tigers starting catcher in ’77. Though May was a respected defender behind the dish, he was nothing more than a placeholder in Detroit. The Tigers had groomed Parrish to be the successor of Freehan, their 11-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glover.

On September 5, in the second game of a doubleheader with the Orioles at Tiger Stadium on a Monday night, Parrish made his big league debut. Hitting fifth in the order, Lance hit into a grounder to second base in his first at-bat, against right-hander Rudy May. Later he drew a pair of walks in the Tigs 5-0 loss. In that game, Parrish showed off his right arm – twice gunning down Al Bumbry. Two days later, again in the nightcap of a twinbill against Baltimore at The Corner, Parrish was behind the mask again, and this time he belted his first home run. It was a line drive into the right field lower deck. He may have been a little late on the fastball, but Lance had the power to take it out the opposite way.

The Tigers were pretty sure they had their catcher of the future, the man to pick up where Freehan left off.

That’s just what “Big Wheel” did, playing for a decade in Detroit, winning three Gold Gloves and making five All-Star teams. In 1982 he set an American League record for catchers with 32 home runs. He was the cleanup hitter in 1984 when the Tigers won the World Series. He clubbed 212 homers and drove in 700 runs in his ten seasons wearing the Old English D.

In April of 1984, Parrish was behind the plate to catch a no-hitter from Jack Morris at Comiskey Park in Chicago. He handled the lively split-finger pitch that Morris had that day, playing balls out of the dirt on the way to teh frist no-hitter by a Detroit pitcher since 1958.

Parrish bucked the odds and played 19 seasons in the majors as a catcher. He caught 1,818 games, the sixth most in baseball history when he retired in 1995.

Not bad for a September callup who had been a catcher for only a few years.

Morris thrived in big games

There was nothing Jack Morris wanted more than to be in control when he was on the mound. Anyone who watched Morris during his prime knows that the right-handed hurler was usually in command when he took the ball for his club.

“There’s no one I’d rather have pitch a big game for me than [Morris],” Sparky Anderson said.

He pitched his share, winning both of his starts in the 1984 World Series, and later spinning his famous masterpiece in Game Seven of the 1991 World Series for the Twins, the game that many point to as the greatest game in baseball history.

But one game, even in such a bright spotlight, does not define a pitcher. Fortunately Morris accumulated many other impressive credentials in a career that ended with 254 victories.

When Morris came up with the Detroit Tigers in 1977, a starting pitcher was expected to finish what he started. This was the era of Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Don Sutton, and Nolan Ryan – workhorses who started 40 games per year. When the ace of the staff was on the hill he was expected to give the bullpen a rest, and if he got into trouble he was supposed to pitch his way through it. It had been that way for generations. Morris followed in the cleat steps of those aces before him. The righthander with the bushy mustache was the ultimate workhorse.

During his 18-year career, Morris completed 175 games, 68 more than any other pitcher during that span. If you extend the time frame to ten years before Morris debuted until the modern era, Morris’s 175 complete games are surpassed only by Bert Blyleven and Jim Palmer, both Hall of Famers.

The value of Morris’s endurance can further be illustrated through quality starts. A quality start is any start of six innings or more where a pitcher allows three earned runs or less. Since the early 1990s, the expectations for starting pitchers were dimmed – just go six innings, anything beyond that is gravy. Roger Clemens made a second career of that, for example, pitching six innings before turning it over to the bullpen. Morris was the exact opposite.

Of his 527 career starts, Morris threw 297 quality starts. More than half his starts were quality starts, but they were not the sort of quality starts we see today. A deeper look shows that Morris had an exceptional number of long-inning quality starts. For his career, one in every four starts he made was a quality start of nine innings or longer. When he took the ball, he held it and didn’t come out of the game easily.

Morris was an ace for a long time (he made 14 opening day starts), pitched deep into games even when he didn’t have his good stuff, and did it regularly for a decade and a half. No other pitcher comes close to Morris from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s in complete games, innings, quality starts, starts, or wins.

Then there was Morris’s clutch value. All he did was start, dominate, and win seven postseason games in 1984 and 1991 as the Tigers and Twins won the World Series behind his right arm. At one point he had a 7-1 post-season record before struggling in four starts for the Jays in 1992. He wasn’t quite Bob Gibson or Curt Schilling in the postseason, but he wasn’t far off, and he was a huge reason three of his teams won World Series titles. He won post-season honors as Series MVP in 1984 and 1991.

For close to 15 years without fail, Jack Morris took the ball every four or five days, pitched deep into games, and won big games. That’s what aces were supposed to do.

In 1984, Morris won ten of his first 11 decisions, he had ten wins before the end of May, on a pace to win more than 30 games. But he leveled off, of course, eventually becoming so frustrated that he refused to talk to reporters. Thankfully, Morris figured things out and was a star in the postseason, pitching three victories.

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