When a player makes their big league debut it’s impossible to forecast how long they’ll stay in The Show. How long they’ll be a productive player is dependent on so many factors, and baseball is a tough, grueling game.
This September some new faces are in the Detroit uniform – outfielder Avisail Garcia, for example, has made a bit of a splash in his first week in the big leagues. Even though he’s obviously a talented player, it’s hard to tell how good he’ll be and how long he can fill a major league uniform. The average length of a major league career is less then three seasons.
35 years ago, in September of 1977, the Tigers welcomed the new face of Lance Parrish, who – like Garcia – made his big league debut after the expansion of the rosters for the final month of the season. But in the case of Parrish, he was a hulking catcher joining a team 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, would spend 19 seasons in the major leagues. But he did.
Parrish had been drafted as an outfielder/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 with 11 homers, showing off his power at a ripe age. One of his teammates was Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. 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 (perhaps all of baseball) 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 buff beach body, was even bigger than Freehan. GM Jim Campbell and manager Ralph Houk both agreed that Parrish would make a a fine catcher if he was tutored well.
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. In the 1950s, when many catchers were 5’7 or 5’8 with barrel chests and big asses (see Roy Campanella and Yogi Berra), Nixon at 6’1 and a chiseled 200 pounds was a new breed. 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 8th season in the big leagues, was the Tigers starting catcher in ’77. Though May was a respected defender behind the dish, and had displayed that he could hit for a pretty good average with the Pirates and Astros in the past, 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, once on an attempted steal of second and again on an attempt at third. 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 off O’s reliever Earl Stephenson in the 6th inning. 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 ’84 when the Tigers won the World Series. He clubbed 212 homers and drove in 700 runs in his 10 seasons wearing the Old English D.
Even more impressively, Parrish bucked the odds and played 19 seasons in the majors as a catcher. He caught 1,818 games – the 6th most in baseball history when he retired in 1995 (it still ranks 11th all-time).
Not bad for a September callup who had been a catcher for only a few years.