'Roberto was our brother': Dave Parker recalls first Pirates spring training after Clemente's death

Editor's note: The following is former MLB All-Star Dave Parker's remembrance of the Pirates' first spring training after the death of Roberto Clemente, who died in a plane crash on New Year's Eve 1972. Parker's account is co-authored with writer Dave Jordan.

'Roberto was our brother': Dave Parker recalls first Pirates spring training after Clemente's death

'Roberto was our brother': Dave Parker recalls first Pirates spring training after Clemente's death

This week marks 45 years since the Baseball Writers' Association of America held a special election to vote Clemente into the Hall of Fame.


New Year's Day 1973


“They can’t find him.”

That’s what my teammate Ron Mitchell said to me on the phone, New Year’s Day 1973.

Whenever there’s a horrible accident or tragedy, and even if it’s more search and recover than search and rescue, you never talk in terms of death. You never use that word until you absolutely know for sure. You cling to every possibility, every hope, that there’s a chance things will be OK.

“Roberto was in a plane crash last night. They can’t find anybody.”

I was out that night with friends celebrating the end of a great year and the joyous coming of a new one. This would be the year that I finally made the Pirates roster. When I signed with Pittsburgh out of Courter Tech High School in Cincinnati in 1970, I gave myself three years to make the bigs. I missed the Triple Crown by a home run for the Salem Pirates only a few months earlier. The team was calling me their No. 1 prospect. With everyone saying our outfield was the deepest in all of baseball, I knew competing with them would be tough but I never had a moment’s doubt. I batted .400 last spring training, hit a couple of dingers, a few doubles and triples. But I put that all aside when I got the phone call from Ron.

Roberto Clemente was more than a humanitarian, more than our spiritual team leader, more than a baseball angel. Roberto was our brother, and I never experienced a life shock this close to me. I started getting phone calls from friends and family, asking whether I heard what happened. Sometimes people want to connect with you over a tragedy, be there for you, and it’s genuine and all, but sometimes you just need to sit down by yourself and process what happened.

MORE: Classic photos of Roberto Clemente

My New Year’s Day was like a blur. I couldn’t enjoy spending time with my family, didn’t want to take anymore phone calls. I just didn’t want to believe it. I tried to watch the Rose Bowl like I did every year to get some peace. Curt Gowdy’s play-by-play kept me company like he did to millions of other folks. I tried to think about Ohio State taking on ‘SC — it always made me feel good watching the Buckeyes because they recruited me as a football player. I was a halfback in high school — football was my first sports love — and if it wasn’t for a senior year knee injury, I’d have red stars on my helmet rather than a "P" on my baseball cap. My sister and my mom were making our New Year’s dinner while I was on the couch in the den watching the game. Every half hour, mom would check up on me, try to smile and understand what I was going through.

“David,” she said with a shoulder hug, but I just shook my head and was like, “I’m OK.”

I lost track of the Rose Bowl at halftime, went up to my room, put on my headphones, just looked at the ceiling, spinning my football in the air over and over as I listened to my hi-fi stereo. Sly and the Family Stone, The Temptations, and our local boys, The Isley Brothers. They came from Millville, a town about 30 minutes from Cincy. I had most of their albums and their soulful ballads got me through many moments in my life. I wasn’t the kid who sat in his room for hours listening to records, but my life did have a soundtrack. What I loved most about them was that they were related, there were blood relatives in the group, just like with Sly, and that was something important to me in baseball. The Pirates’ general manager was Joe Brown, and he treated all the players like one of his own. It was a family affair, and I wanted them to be my brothers in the worst way.

I was numb over Roberto’s death. I had no deep thoughts as I laid there, no “a-ha” moments. I just mourned my fallen team leader, worked through my emotions with the Isleys, and tossed my football while missing my baseball brothers.


Spring training


Bradenton is this beach city right off the Florida Turnpike on the outskirts of Tampa. Population back then was about 22,000, but it felt like 2,000 to us. Rolling through the outskirts of Bradenton, you would arrive at McKechnie Field, which they nicknamed “Pirate City.” The ballpark was about 50 years old at the time and sure looked like it, but the surrounding complex was pretty nice — 18 acres wide with a dormitory where the players stayed.

Right behind the complex, there was a Boys & Girls Clubs building, and those kids were always running around when school let out, behind the ball field fence, staring at us during our games. There was a nice relationship between the Pirates and the Boys Clubs, which Joe Brown encouraged. Many of the players would spend their free time with the kids, shooting baskets in the small gym or playing ping pong. It was true quality interacting. In a way, they were part of the family too.

I got down to camp at the end of February 1973. Most of the guys had arrived and were checking in to their dorm rooms. You knew which players were making the team by the size of their quarters. The starters and pitching staff had double rooms with queen-size beds inside of Galbreath Hall, named after the owners of the franchise at the time. I should have known from the get-go that it wouldn’t be easy; I was assigned a single bunk with three other guys. It was me, Ron Mitchell, and a couple of other rookies.

This was my third spring training. The Pirates had blessed me with a non-roster invite in ’71 just to get a taste of major-league life. I introduced myself to the coaching staff that spring by going 4-for-4 in the first intra-squad game. I tagged our fireman, Dave Giusti — we didn’t call them “closers” back then — with a double into right-center before Joe sent me to the Double-A ball camp. Last year, I hit a dinger and went 7-for-17 in a few exhibition games before I got a pat on the ass and directions to their Salem affiliate. I wasn’t too cool with that and it took me a couple of weeks before I chilled out and started ripping up the league. Here I was in Year Three. I didn’t care about the living arrangements. I didn’t care that all the Pirate outfielders hit over .300 in ‘72. In my mind, I wasn’t going anywhere but Pittsburgh. I did my very best to get the feelings of Roberto behind me and do the work that needed to be done. And then I saw “Sangy” choked up in the corner taking questions from a beat reporter.



It was poetic justice that Roberto got his 3000th hit before the season ended. His death affected all of us, but Manny Sanguillen was closest to him. We all called him Sangy, especially Roberto. They used to run sprints together during workouts. Roberto would playfully run behind Sangy, kidding him with jokes and mock-motivational speech. Sangy was from the Dominican Republic, but he spent winters playing ball in Puerto Rico. When Roberto’s plane went down, Sangy wouldn’t accept it. He threw on scuba gear and went out with the search parties looking for Roberto’s body. He spent a lot of time with Roberto’s wife Vera and the boys, Roberto Jr., Luis and Roberto Enrique. When he entered Roberto’s house after they stopped searching, little Luis greeted him with a frown, just saying, “Daddy gone.”

The loss hit Sangy more than anyone, and all throughout camp, you would see a new beat reporter, some dude who just arrived from UPI or The Associated Press walk over to him with this serious but determined look to get the dramatic story. Sangy just had this expression that cried out, “Not again.” Sangy repeated the events of the tragedy every day for the first two weeks until he just couldn’t do it anymore. A lot of guys looked out for Sangy, not just because he was one of our leaders, but because he had another issue, a baseball issue, to deal with.

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Management was very high on catcher Milt May, a strong, capable receiver, decent arm, hit 21 homers at Triple-A two years earlier. Joe Brown said he was the best No. 2 catcher in the league, and the organization thought he could be a starter. So our manager, Bill Virdon, had the pressure to insert this 22-year-old into the lineup. Sangy was a two-time All-Star behind the plate, a career .300 hitter to that point, the fastest catcher in baseball, and Virdon was being pushed to move Sangy to replace Roberto in right field.

Now Virdon, who was in his second year as the Pirates skipper, had his own political situation going on. Danny Murtaugh was the Pittsburgh Pirates’ manager off and on since 1957. He stepped down after we won the Series in ’71 — he had some heart problems, but you see, he was Joe Brown’s best friend, I mean best friend. Joe didn’t make a move without talking to Danny. And everyone loved Danny. The players, the announcers, the fans — Danny was great because he didn’t treat the clubhouse boy like he was the clubhouse boy. He was known for his patience with young players, and for giving the veterans their space. I was sad when I found out Danny wouldn’t be the manager in ’72.

You know how they say, “You never wanna be the guy who replaces the legend?” That was Virdon, the exact opposite of Danny. Bill was a military man, but also a dependable Pirates outfielder for most of Murtaugh’s time as manager. The fans liked him all right, but he wasn’t Danny, and worse he wasn’t much older than some of the guys on the roster. Virdon ended his playing career in 1968, only two years before I was drafted.

Let me put it this way: There was a loudspeaker in the dorms at our complex, like the worst alarm clock you ever heard. “Breakfast served in 30 minutes at 7:30,” that sort of thing. I couldn’t imagine what it was like to be Virdon, sitting in the mess hall, eating by himself, poring through scouting reports when Danny walked in with his pleasant, jovial demeanor, to the delight of all the players and coaches. Virdon had to deal with a legend eating bacon and eggs two tables over every day that spring. What was worse was that the Pirates just missed the World Series in ’72 — it’s not like Virdon inherited a last-place team. If we won Game 5 in the NLCS against the Reds, we would’ve gone back to the Fall Classic, where anything can happen.

As a young outfielder trying to make the team, you can see where this was going. If Sangy plays well in right field, I’m getting sent down. If Milt May cruises through spring training, Sangy’s in right field and I’m getting sent down. So not only does Sangy have to answer every reporter’s question about his dead friend, he has to take Clemente’s old position in the outfield and not look bad. If Virdon, a former Gold Glover himself, can’t turn Sangy into an adequate outfielder, it’s his ass.

And me? They had me playing center all last year in the minors so I would get more balls hit to me and improve my fundamentals. My manager was Timmy Murtaugh (Danny’s kid) and he took great care of turning me into a quality defender (the Pirates signed me as a catcher, but that’s a story for another day). Could I play center for Pittsburgh? Not with Al Oliver there. We all called him “Scoop,” and he was, without a doubt, the most competitive dude I ever played with. Hardest worker on the team, 25 years old, hit .312 in 600 plate appearances the year before; he wasn’t going anywhere. And I haven’t gotten to Gene Clines yet — he led the team with a .334 batting average in ’72, 20th place in the NL MVP voting, and they weren’t even sure he had a starting spot because left field was being left open.

The organization wasn’t sure who would play there. Willie Stargell, another one of our team leaders, moved to first base when Bob Robertson, the Pirates' postseason star home run hitter in ‘71, fell into a slump. Virdon told all the beat guys that Willie would be the starting first baseman, and with a good spring Bob Robertson would be the everyday left fielder, where he played a total of 25 times in five years. Oh yeah, and then we had a rookie named Richie Zisk, who only batted .308 and hit 26 homers at Triple-A Charleston. He hit for average, for power, and management let the reporters assume Richie was definitely making the team.

So what did I do? I ran into the clubhouse to grab a first baseman’s mitt. I took some infield reps and played there in an intra-squad game until Virdon asked for the glove and pointed me to center field.

Now don’t think I have any ill will toward Virdon. He always came over to help me during outfield drills. Virdon was the one who improved my footwork when throwing to the cutoff man. He was patient, he was smart and, just like Timmy Murtaugh, Virdon helped shape me into the defensive outfielder I became. It wasn’t his nature to say, “Good job” or, “Nice work,” but when he gave me that slow head nod as he stepped away, I knew I made him proud. So as we entered our third day of workouts, it was so clear to me that it was all about Milt May. But even Milt knew the score. He told some dude from The Tampa Times, “I think this season is important for me because if I don’t play well, I think I may be traded next year.”

Soon the guys from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette came to me looking for a story. I said all the right things: “I don’t expect to make the club in spring training” and “I should get a call in June or July.” But they knew I didn’t believe that. A reporter even wrote, “However, the general manager concedes that Parker might force them to reconsider.” That was my goal, to get to the majors as quickly as possible.

To be with my baseball brothers.

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Even with all this competition, the camp was pretty loose and the veterans had our back. Willie Stargell was now the elder statesmen of the team. Danny would talk to Willie about being more of a vocal leader, and Stargell slowly moved into that role. Willie was pretty cautious about this because he knew the clubhouse and that one or two guys would be uneasy with someone taking over Roberto’s role so quickly. You know what? Willie was right. There were some comments about it. Willie had so much compassion for the feelings of his teammates, and that’s exactly why he should’ve been our leader. And slowly he became that man, but in the early going, Willie just went about his business and told all of us young guys, “Don’t get too high when you’re in a groove. Don’t get too low when you’re in a slump.” Basic things, but you believed them coming from Willie. He was like the older brother that you idolized. And then there was our other older brother.

Dock.

When Dock Ellis walked through the clubhouse at camp, it was like the Red Sea of Cool parted and we had some smooth cats in our room. Even our second baseman Dave Cash’s nickname was “A.C.,” he was so cool. But Dock was the smoothest talker, the sharpest dresser. What’s that word all the young folk say now? Woke? Yeah, Dock was born woke. I remember being in camp for the first time in ’71 and my teammate Layette Currence was all, “Man, I know someone who acts just like you.” We went over to the one club in Bradenton where we could hang out on weekends, The Blue Landing, and sitting at the bar in these slick bell-bottoms and paisley dress shirt was Dock, smoking a Paul Mall and drinking a Martini like some baseball James Bond.

“This is Parker,” Layette told Dock, who just nodded and extended his hand to slap me some five.

“Hey, Brother, what you drinkin’,” and everything was everything.

Dock was a brother to me and to my crew, Ronny and this pitcher, Larry Demery. These were the guys I ran with that spring when we could get a night out at The Boot Landing. When we’d get back to the dorms, we’d joke and mess with each other, then talk in the dark about where tomorrow would take us.

We were all brothers. Willie was the brother we followed. Scoop was the brother we knew would be there when the chips were down. Sangy was the brother we hugged and laughed with. Dock was the brother we hung out with.


A celebration of life


The league did everything possible to celebrate Roberto’s life. He was fast-tracked into the Hall of Fame. The Bradenton Chamber of Commerce renamed the street in front of our complex “Roberto Clemente Way.” The Commissioner’s Award was renamed the Roberto Clemente Award. The baseball community showed so much reverence and class. But once we got to spring training, we all became ballplayers again.

Johnny Bench said we were a different team without Roberto and that the Cubs were now the team to beat in the NL East. Our first exhibition game was on March 6. Milt was behind the plate and Sangy was in right field. It was the first year of the “designated pinch hitter” and we were in Orlando facing the Twins. Virdon complained that Larry Hisle would be used as a DPH against us. Minnesota won 12-4. Milt May came to play, too. He hit a dinger. So did Bob Robertson. Everyone was fighting for a job, but not just a job, a starting position. I didn’t play that day.

We were in Lakeland against the Tigers and we lost that game, too. Sangy had issues with two fly balls as he acclimated to right field. Once we got back to Bradenton, we were pissed about being 0-2. Even in spring training, no one was happy about losing. Even Dock was all business. As I walked past him on the field the next morning, Dock was telling a group of reporters, “I’m done messing around. Nothing else is going to be on my mind but baseball.” We won the next game but we started seeing the first signs of another problem. Our ace pitcher, Steve Blass, gave up two runs on five hits in three innings and was wild. We all called him “Jack Rabbit.” Ol’ Blass was one of the funniest guys in the clubhouse, great teammate who kept us all loose.

Steve would throw batting practice and he started nailing guys in the batter’s box. We laughed it off at first, like he meant to do that, but it didn’t stop. You could see the beginnings of his issues and guys would just take it. Nobody said a word — that’s how much we loved Jack Rabbit. Take a BP pitch in the ass for Jack Rabbit. He had good velocity, great location — that’s why it was such a surprise that his location was off. After awhile, he stopped throwing BP.

I finally got into a game, replacing Scoop in center. I looked out behind the openings in the worn-down outfield fence. A bunch of kids from the Boys Clubs were looking through, just watching us in their ripped jean shorts and white tees, checking us out the same way I did sneaking into Crosley Field growing up in Cincinnati to see my idol Frank Robinson. “Hey 70,” — that was my number in spring training — “70, over here!!” I tried my best to stay focused, but I heard every one of those boys, and I can’t tell you how much it warmed my heart.

I didn’t play as much as I would’ve liked, but I was getting hits. The team was so stacked and Milt just kept hitting dingers. Richie Hebner was relaxed and finally hitting because he didn’t have military duty, which always interrupted his workouts. Bob Robertson was having the spring of his life. Willie only had one homer through the first 10 games, but it didn’t matter. He was getting into shape and beginning to take on the role of team ambassador in Roberto’s absence. The kids just loved it when Willie would show up at the Boys Club, giving baseball tips or just throwing a football around. Willie wasn’t as sure-handed at first as Robertson, but Virdon wanted to preserve his knees from the artificial turf outfield at Three Rivers Stadium.

Willie carried himself with dignity, but he sure loved busting the chops of the opposing players. If you were a fast runner, Willie would snap the throw from the pitcher, then smack the runner on the tip of their toes. Not easy, either. Joe Morgan, Cesar Cedeno, Bobby Bonds, Bobby Tolan — Willie loved wearing them out at first base and keeping them honest.

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Our play during the spring continued to spiral. We were 3-6 by the middle of March. It wasn’t the end of the world for most teams, you know, things happen in games, and our organization was among the most patient and open-minded in all of baseball, but there was an expectation of all-around excellence in execution to uphold. And we were playing real sloppy.

We had a run where we made three errors in a game against the Mets; four against our current rivals, the Cincinnati Reds, who beat us 5-4 (Jack Rabbit gave up another dinger in that game); the Dodgers pounded on us 10-2. We made six errors, and I was one of them in right field. After the game, once we were all inside the complex, farm director Pete Peterson started calling players into an office. Young players. You know what that means.

Mario Mendoza, shortstop. Yeah, he was a young shortstop, but he had a real shot for that position. Gene Alley was a 10-year veteran, a two-time Gold Glove winner. Virdon trusted him, but injures had taken away some of his effectiveness, and there was still a question whether Gene could play every day. Mario was 22, a great defensive player who just couldn’t hit. Most of you know what he’s famous for.

Ed Ott, Outfield: Ed was 21; this was definitely expected. Good guy, played with me all three years in the minors. Solid left fielder with a decent bat, consistent .295-.300 hitter, but there was just no room for another outfielder. If he wanted to play regularly in the majors, he would either have to be traded or switch positions.

Ron Mitchell 1B-OF: When I heard this, I got mad. Ron hit .306 with me at Salem in ’72. I know it sounds unreasonable to think the Pirates would carry another first baseman, but he was one of my best friends on the team. It was not a good day and I was getting angrier by the second.

Dave Augustine, OF: The Pirates loved drafting high school kids back then. Dave had been in the organization since ’69. He hit .300, too — the Pirates were drowning in .300-hitting outfielders.

I knew after Augustine was cut, that only left me and Zisk. Richie was having a nice spring — but so was I. They knew what I could do. In my mind, Richie and me were both ready to hold our own in the National League.

I slapped a sympathetic five with Ron, consoling him about the demotion, when ...

“Parker,” one of the clubhouse boys called over, “Pete wants to see you.”

I know it’s irrational, but I’m still mad about it. When you compete at this level, when you succeed at this level, you don’t want to hear about a logjam in the outfield, you don’t want to hear about “seasoning.” The way it’s supposed to work is, you get hits, you get on base, you get a spot. That’s how I was rewarded all through my life in sports. I didn’t need to hear what Pete was going to say. It would some variation of, “We’re sending you down.”

I walked into his office, and I barely heard a word Pete Peterson said. The meeting itself told me everything. It was all like the teacher’s voice in those Charlie Brown cartoons, “Waaa waaaa waaa, Charleston,” which was our Triple-A team in West Virginia at the time. I was headed back to the minors.

I got up and left Pete’s office, stomped through the clubhouse exercise area, picked up a stray bat and whipped it against a lifting bench. This got everyone’s attention. Some of the guys tried to console me the way I was consoling Ron, but then the worst thing happened. Pete came out of his office and into the exercise area.

“Hey,” Pete scolded me, “It’s not your time yet-“

“It is my time and I proved it. I don’t deserve to get cut-“

Then Pete raised his hand, and for some reason, I thought he was going to hit me.

“You kids think you know everything,” Pete said in anger. “You don’t why these decisions are made.”

I whipped his arm off my shoulder. “You raise your hand to me again, I’ll knock you out.”

You heard all these voices, “Whoa, whoa,” players getting between us, and then a louder voice took over.

“Dave, Dave, c’mon, let’s go outside.”

It wasn’t Willie Stargell, who was the voice of reason, wasn’t Scoop Oliver, wasn’t A.C. Cash, wasn’t Jack Rabbit Steve Blass.

It was Dock.


'Just be cool'


That’s right, the legendary wild man who threw the no-hitter on acid was the one who calmed me down. Dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, Dock walked me onto the field and closer to the warning track so I could chill a little bit away from everyone else. He eased the tension with a smile and hearty laugh.

“You can’t be doing that if you wanna go to the big leagues,” Dock said through the tension-killing chuckle.

“Why’s it gotta be me?” I replied, saying the kind of things 21-year-old kids say. “I’m already an average hitter in the National League.“

“They don’t want you to be an average hitter. They want you to be a superstar," Dock said. "Your time is gonna come. Just be cool.”

I found out later that Pete Peterson was telling all the beat guys that I was going be one of the best hitters in the National League in two seasons, that I would be a star by ’75. He also said I had a good attitude. I wouldn’t be going home, but staying in town, headed to Triple-A spring training. After I was calm, Dock gave me space and walked back into the clubhouse.

I also found out later that the reason Richie Zisk didn’t go down was because he was out of options. The Pirates would have had to send him through waivers and some team definitely would’ve claimed him. I didn’t know this at the time, but this was one of factors related to why I was sent down. I still had all my options, and the Pirates had too many options in the outfield. It was the right decision.

I cleaned out my locker, packed up my things, said, “See ya later” to some of the guys, nodded to Dock, who winked back as he was laughing with a couple of the veteran players, and left.

Once outside the complex, two kids from the Boys Club ran over to me.

“Can I have your autograph, Mr.?”

I was really in no mood for company, but then I remembered those days in the ‘60s, hanging out in the players’ parking lot at Crosley Field, waiting for hours for any player to exit the stadium and meet us. We’d see Frank Robinson roll out with Vada Pinson. Sometimes they would smile, muss our heads and keep on walking. Sometimes they knew we would be there and have balls and gloves ready to give us. I thought of that as I asked the kids their names and signed the ball: “Dave Parker ... Pittsburgh Pirates.” Why not, right?

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After his spring training pledge about preserving Willie’s knees from all the home games on the turf during the season, and after playing every exhibition game in the infield, Bill Virdon reversed course before Opening Day. Willie spent 142 games in left field and Bob Robertson started at first. Our 19-game winning ace Jack Rabbit Blass continued to suffer from an inability to get the ball over the plate, went 3-9 in ’73 and was out of baseball two years later. Sangy was our Opening Day right fielder because Milt May hit four home runs that spring, but the experiment ended right around midseason.

Just as he called it, Milt was traded 10 days after the World Series ended. The reigning division champion Pirates were in last place by June. Bill Virdon was fired as manager in early September. Danny Murtaugh stepped into the dugout for a fourth time as skipper. The ballclub rallied, holding first place in the National League East for nine days in September, but in the end, lost the division to the New York Mets.

What truly upset me was that I wouldn’t be the first one to keep the spirit alive for Roberto in right field. I was signed as a catcher, and what I loved most in that position was the play at the plate, being in the middle of the most exciting defensive moment in baseball. Sure, the fans get it up when a second baseman or a shortstop goes straight home with it, but, oh, how they rise and scream when the runner rounds third as the right fielder launches it to the plate. Nothing in the game excited me more, and Roberto was the one who convinced me I had the arm strength to not just play the position, but to elevate it. Roberto pointed out the angle I needed to generate the throwing power to reach home on a fly or short bounce. Can you imagine what it’s like to stand next to the man you idolized growing up and then have him reveal the secrets to change your life?

Roberto knew, more than anyone, that I would one day replace him in right field, and there he was, handing me the keys to his kingdom. That’s what hurt the most; that the moment I was given to uphold his legacy would be delayed another day.

Leaving Pirates’ camp for Triple-A spring training on that sunny March afternoon, I was still upset, but part of me was filled with the spirit of The Spinners, those great balladeers singing side by side with their musical brothers, “Whenever you call me, whenever you need me, I’ll be there.“

Real soon.

Dave Parker made his MLB debut with the Pirates on July 12, 1973. During an 11-year career in Pittsburgh, he was a four-time All-Star, won two batting titles, won the 1978 NL MVP award and helped lead the Pirates to the 1979 World Series title. He retired in 1991 after playing parts of 19 seasons in the majors. Parker now volunteers his time at the Cincinnati Reds Urban Youth Academy near his home in Ohio.

Dave Jordan is the co-author of "Fastball John," the memoir written with former National League Rookie Pitcher of the Year John D’Acquisto. He is also the founder of Instream Sports, the first athlete-author website. Follow him on Twitter @instreamsports.

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