Dave Parker is Fighting to Stay in First Place
“That’s one of the greatest ball players of all time, Buddy. Shake his hand.” Dave Parker, who has grandkids of his own now, took the child’s small hand in his own— the same hand that used to fire off balls like a cannon from right field— and gave it a gentle but firm shake.
“You got a good grip there. What position do you play?” No response. Parker measures a towering 6’5” standing, and has an imposing presence even seated. I don’t blame the kid for being awestruck, even if he wasn’t entirely sure why. The man emanates greatness, perhaps more so for the recent challenges in his personal life and his attitude towards them. In early 2012, Dave Parker was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD). “There’s nothing easy about [this disease]. It’s been very humbling. I was always the best athlete at anything I picked up.”
We met up recently in Cincinnati and “The Cobra” explained to me how his attack on the field— which earned him National League MVP in 1978, seven trips to the All-Star game (in 1979 he was also the MVP of that game), two World Series titles, three Gold Gloves, three Silver Sluggers, and 339 career home runs— translates to dealing with PD. “I was super-competitive at baseball, and you’ve got to be competitive [with Parkinson’s] because you’re fighting for your life. You’re competing to maintain a good quality of life as some things pull away and deteriorate. It’s like baseball, when you’re fighting to maintain and stay in first place.”
For Parker, the key in this fight is staying active. Parker’s older sister also has Parkinson’s, however, he says her disease has advanced more quickly than his, something he attributes to health issues that prevent her from exercising much. Dave exercises everyday, mostly riding his bike and walking, with the occasional golf game thrown in the mix. “I want people to know that life is not over just because you’re diagnosed with Parkinson’s. You don’t have one foot in the grave.”
So far Parker’s symptoms are relatively mild. Throughout our talk, his body seemed to hum and buzz as if it were an electric fence, but Parker says his right hand only tremors when he’s nervous or agitated and working out alleviates any mental dullness he may experience from time to time.
Parker is slowing down a little from his rough and tumble days on the field, but inside he’s still the great jokester fans got to know in the 70s and 80s. “I’ve always been a great verbalizer, very humorous— if you’re into my kind of humor. Now I’ve got a little less to say.” Although the words don’t come as easily or quickly as they once did, it’s easy to see how this charismatic force of a ballplayer propelled the Pirates “We Are Family” team to victory in the ‘79 World Series and helped revive the Reds in the ‘80s.
Since his diagnosis was made public, Parker has decided to leverage his fame and contacts to start The Dave Parker 39 Foundation, an organization which will provide resources for others who find themselves up against PD.
Talking to Parker, his desire to leave a positive mark on the world and make the most of both his fame and diagnosis is evident. Whether infusing a ball club with pride and hope, mentoring key players, or volunteering his time as a hitting instructor— which he still does in the Mason, Ohio area— Parker has always been active in his community. By doing so, he finds support in all sorts of places. “It makes all the injuries and everything worth it, just to shake that kid’s hand. It makes my day.”