IT'S HIS KIND OF TOWN : After Nine Years, Parent Knows the In and Outs in Yuma

Times Staff Writer

Mark Parent's Two-Star, Three-Star Maybe, Guide to Spring in Yuma:

the Dunes Country Club, next to the Padres' spring complex:

"There's this guy in the back named Thurmond. I still don't know his last name. Maybe that is his last name. But here's how it works:

"You walk in. You ask for Thurmond. You go back there and say, 'How are you, Thurmond?' He says, 'Fine, and you?' Next thing you know, they're giving you the biggest piece of prime rib known to man."

Next week, when Mark Parent takes the field at Desert Sun Stadium for the Padres' first exhibition game, you will see them.

The locals. Crowding around the fence, sticking out their hands, their smiles.

Parent will take off his catcher's mask and swing his 6-foot 5-inch frame around and wave.

He knows. These people have not come to see Tony Gwynn or Benito Santiago. They have come to see him.

Parent knows them, too, near

ly all of them.

"All the faces, I know," he says. "I'm not too much on all the names, but I'm not so sure that matters. I know the faces. I'll never forget the

faces."

The program says Mark Parent lives somewhere in Northern California, in a mountainous place called Anderson. But his baseball soul is here, in the desert, a place he has spent every spring for most of the last decade. That's nine consecutive years. Only three Padres have been here longer--Tim Flannery, Andy Hawkins and Eric Show. Flannery came here just two years before Parent, and Hawkins and Show were one year earlier.

Nine wasted years? The three aforementioned players have an average of six years' big league experience each. Parent has 2 1/2 months. Not one time has he left here in April with the big league team.

This is why, when the people crowd around him in next weeks, they will be there to say, "I told you so."

This spring, for the first time, Mark Parent has a major league job. Unless he forgets where the shin guards go, he will be in Houston opening night as the backup to the rookie of the year,

Benito Santiago.

OK, so it's not the greatest job in the history of organized sport.

"I could say I have a chance to be the starter," said Parent. "But then they would put me in the funny farm."

Nine crazy years. Nobody knows the different shades of Yuma like Mark Parent.

2) Best Food When You Want to Eat and Play Pool at the Same Time--Lutes' Casino.

"Me, Hawkins and Goose (Gossage) used to go in there and eat and play pool all night. Nothing else to do in that town but eat and play pool.

"The best burgers, too. A good burger is one where you can eat three or four at a time."

So you want to drive to Yuma from San Diego for a weekend of sun and fast food? The prevailing myth says it will take three hours.

Mark Parent says it will take you considerably less.

"Once after I got sent down to the minors, me and a buddy had to drive back to San Diego and catch a plane that left in 2 1/2 hours," he said. "I don't know how long it took, but I got there with time to walk on the plane. On parts of that highway, you can fly."

Once here, you want to stay in a Yuma hotel? Parent can tell you about hotels. He has stayed in four.

"Yeah, there's four different hotels here," said Parent.

3) Best Example of Urban Renewal--The new Days Inn, where the Padres are staying for the first time this spring.

"It's like a candy store. Anytime you find something in Yuma that's new, it's like a candy store. It's got a big bed and carpet and cable TV. It's a palace."

4) Worst Example of Urban Renewal--The new Days Inn.

"I don't think anybody knows this hotel used to be a drive-in. We used to climb out on the second-story balcony of the Motel 6 next door and watch the movies for free. Not every movie. Mostly the horror movies. On those, you don't need any sound."

Why is Mark Parent still here? Are there any other baseball players who have been with one organization for nine years and not played a single big league season there?

"I'm not sure," Parent said in answer to both questions. "I'm not sure what has happened."

There are rules that concern this. After six years with a club, if a player is not on the major league 40-man roster, he becomes a free agent.

But after Parent's sixth season, even though he was still in Class AA, the Padres put him on the 40-man roster. They sent him down that year and the next and the next, but each spring he remained on the 40-man roster.

The Padres needed his never-been-hurt durability. There was an inherent trust in his presence.

In other words, he was not good enough to start but too good to let go.

"You can never have enough catchers," said Jack McKeon, Padre general manager. "You have to keep as many around as you can.

"And look at Mark, he was only 17 years old when he started. He's still just 26. And he's a No. 1 backup in the big leagues, not a bad job. If he had been released before now, he might not have this position."

Seemingly headed for a career behind baseball's best catcher, Parent doesn't know how to accept this new position.

"I think it will be great to work with Benny, a guy who has a chance to be the best catcher ever," Parent said. "But it sounds funny for me to say I've got the job I want. I mean, I'm a backup. I think I've certainly paid my dues to get here.

"I don't want to ask to be traded or anything like that, but I do wonder sometimes if I would do better elsewhere. I guess if they are going to always keep me, they must need me."

5) Most Strictly Enforced Desert Law--Jaywalking.

"They had just put a Wendy's in, brand new. It was right across the street from the Motel 6. We had to get there, get those burgers, so we just ran across the street without going to a crosswalk.

"All of a sudden, this cop comes flying down, says he's going to put me in jail. Then he says he's going to give me a ticket. I say, 'Fine, give me a ticket.'

"He starts yelling at me again and I said, 'C'mon, man, I'm hungry. Just give me the ticket.' He walks away. Never did give me the ticket."

This is how long Mark Parent has been coming to Yuma: On his first visit to the clubhouse, he bumped into Dave Winfield. Dave sCash. Ozzie Smith.

The year was 1980. He sensed right away that his time here would be weird.

"We're all walking out on the field for our first practice," he recalled. "But nobody can find Jerry Coleman, our manager. Then I look over and there's Jerry, on another field, doing a commercial for La Mesa RV.

"I think, so this is the big leagues."

He didn't get much closer until the spring of 1986, after his first season at Class AAA Las Vegas. He lasted until the final cut, when he lost out to Bruce Bochy.

It happened again last season--final cut, final day, when Parent lost again to the veteran Bochy despite hitting .316. That, said Parent, was the worst.

"I had done everything right. I even had a better spring than Benito," Parent said. "Not to make it crushed my world. It was like falling in love with your wife, thinking about her day and night, and then seeing her walking down the street with somebody else.

"And you know what Larry (Bowa, the manager) said? He said he couldn't give me any reason."

Part of it was Bochy's fine season in 1986, when he had 8 homers and 22 RBIs in 63 games. The Padres' reasoning also may have been related to Bochy's guaranteed contract.

When Parent was called up to the big leagues near the end of the 1987 season, what happened? Santiago went on a 34-game hitting streak, and Parent did not start once.

So this year, Parent is not believing anything.

"I'm going to be standoffish about it," he said. "I'm not planning on making this club until I earn it. I'm not counting on anything."

Bowa said he should count on a little more than that.

"He has to realize the catching position is such a fragile one, we could be needing him any day," said Bowa. "And you don't just give guys like him away. I've seen guys come into their own after nine years. It could happen to Parent."

And if it doesn't, well, at least Parent will always have Yuma. And vice versa.

"Yuma kind of follows me around," he said. "Last season in San Diego, I saw a bunch of people from here; they have driven over. They came down next to the field and said, 'Hey, we told you this would happen. We knew you would make it.'

"I thanked them, and then they wondered if I remembered them. I said, 'Are you kidding me? I'll never forget people like you.' "

6) Most Exciting Nighttime Activity--Driving through a nearby mountain with Andy Hawkins at the wheel.

"We're going to Yuma from San Diego after a physical exam. We're in the mountains. It was snowing.

"Hawkins turns to me and says, 'Hey, don't worry, I drive in snow all the time.' Right about then, our truck starts spinning.

"We knock down three reflectors, spin four times. We stop and Hawkins says, 'What is that outside our back window?

"I say, 'That's the cliff.' We darn near went over, about 10 feet away from it. But we survived. Oh well."

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