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Finally earning his stripes

The Tigers' Lance Parrish is catching on to the demands of his position

Sparky Anderson, the manager of the Tigers, is ruminating on greatness. He has been a major league skipper for 13 years—nine with Cincinnati, the last four with Detroit—and he thinks he has a pretty good handle on the subject. Anderson has managed good players, very good players and at least two who qualify as great—Pete Rose and Johnny Bench. Now he's discussing the merits of Lance Parrish, the Tigers' two-time All-Star catcher.

Parrish, 26, is big (6'3", 210 pounds), broad and muscular, and has tremendous athletic talent. He's batting .302, with 24 homers, and may have the strongest throwing arm of any catcher in baseball. He threw out a record three would-be base stealers in this year's All-Star Game. "Lance is a very quiet boy," says Anderson. "God couldn't give more tools to anybody who plays. He's got the potential to be the greatest catcher in the history of Detroit. I think he's already the best in the American League. He's a star, but far from great."

Anderson measures greatness among catchers by a single standard—Bench. "You can't become a junior before you're a freshman," says Anderson. "A player who's a star for three or four years, he's a student. Two more years and he's doing graduate work. A few more and he's got his doctorate." Bench graduated summa cum laude. And Parrish? "No man," says Anderson, "no man should be compared to Johnny Bench. You're not great until every fan in the game knows you: the seventh-grader in Peoria and the housewife in Montana." Anderson says Parrish still has a lot to learn. "A lot" he says.

Parrish has had his tests in Detroit. He's a sandy-haired, tanned, easygoing Southern Californian who has been transplanted to a gray, gritty Midwestern industrial city. He's the highest paid team sports figure in Detroit, making $550,000 a year in a city where unemployment is 14% and many are getting $120 a week on the dole. Fans have booed him when the team has lost.

Parrish is the latest in a long line of superb Tiger catchers, one that includes Mickey Cochrane and Bill Freehan. But in his first two full seasons as Detroit's regular catcher, he led or co-led the majors in passed balls and looked more like Oscar Stanage, the Tiger catcher who in 1911 committed a modern-record 41 errors. "I've been compared to this guy and that guy ever since I came into pro ball," says Parrish, "but the only person I compare myself with is me."

He was a hotly recruited high school football player at Walnut High near Diamond Bar, Calif., which itself is just east of L.A. His father, a deputy sheriff, had moved the family there from the coal country of western Pennsylvania when Lance was six. In his senior year Parrish attended a workout hosted by the Angels at Anaheim Stadium. As superstitious as the next ballplayer, Parrish found a harbinger in a pile of dirty clubhouse laundry. The only item that caught Parrish's eye was Mickey Lolich's Tiger jersey. Several days later he was Detroit's No. 1 pick in the amateur draft.

Parrish insists on wearing No. 13 on his uniform shirt. It's also in his contract. He's been wearing 13 since Little League. "I think I hit better on Friday the 13th," he says. "One Friday the 13th in high school I intercepted three passes and kicked a school-record punt."

The Tigers broke him in at Bristol (Va.) in the Appalachian League as a third baseman, a position he'd played only a few times. It didn't work out; in 68 games he made 20 errors. He returned to catching the following season at Lakeland in the Florida State League. There the Tigers tried to convert him into a switch hitter. That didn't last long, either. The experiment was dropped at the end of the year. Through 1976, he'd put together some impeccably modest credentials; in three minor league seasons he'd never hit above .221. He wasn't a patient hitter. The line on him was that he was a sucker for an outside curve.

But in 1977 he batted .279 and had 25 homers for Evansville in the American Association, and his manager, Les Moss, touted him as the next—you guessed it—Johnny Bench. For his part Parrish insists that the comparisons with Bench haven't bothered him. "I modeled my catching after him as a teen-ager," he says. He even catches one-handed like Bench, keeping his throwing hand behind his right leg.

Parrish married Arlyne Nolan after the '78 season, while playing winter ball in Puerto Rico. She's a former Miss Diamond Bar, Miss Hollywood, Miss Southern California and first runner-up Miss California. It so happened that she'd roomed at his parents' home during her senior year in high school. "It was nice to find out the best-looking girl in school was going to stay at your house," says Parrish, who is 21 months her junior. But they didn't date seriously until four years ago. Their wedding banquet was hamburgers at a Dairy Queen in the Virgin Islands.

Parrish came up to the majors for the end of the '77 season. He was a hitting man's catcher, not a thinking man's. Behind the plate, he'd sit back on his heels and wait passively for the ball to come to him. "All the time he was catching, he was just thinking about hitting," says Pitcher Milt Wilcox. Parrish threw out runners (he was second in the league in assists in '79) and hit .276 and .286 in '79 and '80, respectively, but he still wasn't thinking much about calling pitches.

"A catcher like Bench was in total control of the game," Anderson says. "He knew what to call when a certain pitcher got in trouble, how that pitcher reacted when he got ahead or behind, what he could get over in a jam. A catcher just doesn't put down his fingers and wait for a pitch."

Anderson thought so little of Parrish's thoughtlessness that last year he unburdened him of the task of calling pitches and, with the help of Pitching Coach Roger Craig, called them himself from the dugout. The team ERA in 1980 had been 4.25. "Either we had nine horrible pitchers," says Anderson, "or something was going wrong." Anderson believed that that something was Parrish.

"I felt like a dead mass behind the plate after that," Parrish says. "It took me out of the ball game." Opposing batters often made comments. "I tried to block them out," he says.

"I wanted to teach him a lesson," says Anderson. The lesson ended after Freehan, who coaches Tiger catchers in spring training, intervened on Parrish's behalf. Freehan felt that Parrish's progress was being impeded.

"If it was meant as a lesson," says Parrish, "I didn't learn much. I've been calling pitches all this year and our team ERA is one of the lowest in the league." Anderson laughs at Parrish's remarks, and says that they just prove his point.

Parrish hit .224 with 10 homers in last year's short season and is now having his best year. And he's selecting pitches better, too, whether he's behind the plate or alongside it. He no longer lunges for what Tiger Batting Coach Gates Brown calls "55-foot curves"—deliveries that swerve and bounce five feet in front of the plate. "Last year when Lance would get behind on a 1-2 count, you knew he'd find some way to strike out," says Brown.

Parrish's catching has improved, too. He's snapping off throws to first more often and guarding the plate more aggressively. "He still doesn't do those things as well as he should," Wilcox says, "but he's improved. And he's started coming out to the mound to talk to pitchers."

Parrish not only talks to pitchers, but he also now stands up to Anderson. In spring training they disagreed on weight-lifting. Parrish was bench-pressing 425 pounds. Anderson didn't want him bench-pressing anything. Parrish argued and lost, but he made his point. He now does his lifting during the off-season.

Early this month, after the Tigers had fallen from first place in May to near the bottom of the AL East, Parrish became the first Tiger to imply that Anderson was part of the problem. Parrish told the press that the team lacked motivation. Anderson shot back: "Motivation is like 'communication.' I don't really understand what it means. Does it mean I should get up and dance?"

"It's his job to figure that out," said Parrish.

Anderson has figured out what Parrish needs to do. "I'm waiting for the day he walks through my door and says, 'Here's my game plan, this is how I'm going to take this pitcher through this ball game,' " says Anderson. Johnny did. "Lance may never walk through that door. I'll never tell him to. When that day comes, though, he's graduated. But he's got to do it for 10 years before it's greatness."

If that happens, it will be the benchmark of Parrish's career.