Even on the doorstep of 40, Dave Parker's body is massive and muscled. It is fed, surprisingly, on a delicate diet: Such things as sushi and Thai food, fruit, tofu-pasta and yogurt.
Mark McGwire, his former Oakland Athletic teammate, calls Parker a big teddy bear.
To the Angels, he is a statesman and a presence, meant to hit 20-some home runs, drive in 90-plus runs and inject the kind of swagger they think can help this team win.
He was the National League MVP with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1978 and a two-time NL batting champion. With Willie Stargell, he was one of the leaders of the "We Are Family," World Series champion Pirates of 1979.
He became known as the Cobra, for the threatening waver of his bat.
"At that point I held my bat real high, with like a coiling motion, a cobra before it strikes," Parker said.
Later, he was one of the players who admitted drug use when called to testify in the 1985 drug trafficking trial of Philadelphia caterer Curtis Strong.
When the Angels acquired Parker, a 39-year-old designated hitter and first baseman who will turn 40 June 9, it took not only Dante Bichette, a 27-year-old with years of productivity ahead, but also a player to be named.
"I've had a career a lot of people look at, and I look at, as a full-circle thing," Parker said. "I went from the best player in the game, to the lowest thing they've seen in the game, to a leadership. Now I've got leadership qualities, and I'm a good offensive producer. It's been interesting."
Parker discussed his past and future in a recent interview at the Angels' facilities in Palm Springs:
Q: People must keep coming to you, wanting to ask, "Aren't you getting old yet?" Seems like you were supposed to be old about 150 home runs ago.
A: Yeah, true. I've been through since I was 30. Somehow I keep producing. Believe me, a player like me who's a pretty much outspoken player, innovative in the things I do on the field, if I weren't productive, I'm sure I still wouldn't be around. Basically I've been improving myself since 30. Basically after 35, everybody wants to know, "How much more have you got left?" I really am a strong believer that when a player loses it, he loses it mentally way before he loses it physically.
Q: Was it easy for you when you were young? Do you look back now and laugh at how easy it was?
A: It was easy. The whole formula. You come to spring training, you could be 10 pounds overweight, the next week you're down to playing weight and ready to go. Normally you go through the stiffening period now. The first week after stretching those muscles you haven't used all winter, you become a little stiff. When I was 21, 22, 23, I didn't even know what that was. So you kind of look back on those years and miss 'em.
Q: Did you start taking care of yourself, anticipating, "Hey, I want to keep playing, I want to be able to beat it?"
A: I've been working year 'round since probably '82. It's just an everyday thing, an everyday grind, once you get beyond a certain age. You want to compete with these young men, you've got to keep fit year 'round.
I always wanted to play to my uniform number, 39. I did that last year. Then the fact that I'm closing in on a few personal goals I've set for myself over the last few years, to try to get to 3,000 hits (He has 2,592). Of course to try to get 400 home runs (He has 328). I'd have to have a few years of 30 to do so. But those are the type of challenges I set upon myself. I still have an extremely quick bat. I've got that intangible, that bat speed and strength, so I'd like to get a few years of 25 or 30. I don't think it's that impossible to do. I'm 60 some-odd away from 400 home runs. If I can get 3,000 hits and 400 home runs, it's only a handful of guys that have done that (Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Stan Musial and Carl Yastrzemski).
Q: Would it be easier to think about quitting when you hit those numbers?
A: I can quit the day I get my 3,000th hit. I'd be more than content. The thing with me is I still have pride. I don't want to be one of those guys that's considered a hanger-on. I've been in the top five or six in RBIs the last few years (His 92 RBIS last season were seventh in the AL.) That means a lot to me.
Q: Talk about the years right before you got to Cincinnati. Your numbers were down, you were injured. Later those were the years concerned in the drug trial.
A: Pittsburgh was just a horse-(bleep) city to play in. People resented me for one, I think basically because I'm black. No. 2, I'm outspoken. And it just made it virtually impossible for me to play there. Along with that I had some injuries. I had the knee surgery, I had the strained ligaments in my wrist, I had Achilles tendon problems. I just went through a few years of not being healthy. That wasn't conducive to playing baseball. I really felt that it had a lot to do with, you know, my color. Barry Bonds is in the same situation. He's a similar player. He's outspoken. I think that the people of Pittsburgh felt, it's a syndrome of you've got to apologize for being successful if you're successful (as well as) black and outspoken.
Q: You think Pittsburgh is a racist city?
A: It wasn't a town that was very receptive to me being there after I signed that million-dollar contract. It was fine when I was just one of those guys that blended in with the salary structure of the game. But they never could identify to supply and demand, they never could. I really felt a lot of it was racially motivated. Ain't no need to try to get around it, it's true.
In defense of the city of Pittsburgh, what I went through there, at that time the steel industry had went kaput. The coal industry was pretty well shot. It was a frustrating time for them. Here I was, an outspoken guy at this time with an earring in his ear and being outspoken, it just wasn't acceptable form.
Q: You wore the earring back then?
A: I put my earring in in the World Series in 1979. A lot of people don't realize that. I've had this for years. When I went to Cincinnati I didn't wear it for a year.
Q: Did they ask you not to?
A: No. It was just something I did.
Q: What are your favorite seasons?
A: I would have to think in terms of, it was very enjoyable to go to Cincinnati. The four years I was there I averaged 28 (27) home runs, 108 RBIs, which was outstanding. Even after getting out of Pittsburgh--we're always getting back to Pittsburgh--I'm out of Pittsburgh three years prior to the drug trial. I'm pulled back in it. And I'm out of Pittsburgh for three years. The same year that they had the trial in 1985, I hit 34 home runs, hit .313 (.312), drove in, I believe, 125, and definitely should have won the MVP (Willie McGee of the NL champion St. Louis Cardinals did). It was all because of the Pittsburgh trial that prevented me from doing so.
Q: You think the public association . . .
A: That and Dick Young (the late New York Post columnist) had a personal campaign against all the guys involved with drugs, like you can't vote for these guys. He emphasized myself and Keith Hernandez because we was both having great years. But I definitely should have won the MVP in '85. Nobody in the National League had a better year than Dave Parker that year. Pittsburgh, I don't know, if there's a black cloud in my career it was those last few years in Pittsburgh, and just association with that trial.
Q: Do you think that stays with you, the memory of your involvement in that trial?
A: I couldn't care less. I mean, you know, drugs is a society problem. It ain't just isolated to sports or entertainment. I mean, there's people that are doing brain surgeries that probably have dabbled in drugs. There may be some, hypothetically saying--who knows?--judges and lawyers involved in the case could have been involved. So it's a problem in all society. It's one that I think is pretty much non-existent in baseball now because of basically the rules that have been issued. It's something that happened. You've got to stand accountable for everything you do. I definitely stood accountable for mine and actually got pretty much victimized and paid for it heavily. I stand accountable for all that. I was involved, I was involved recreationally, it wasn't no time like there was any rehab, yet still I went through all that, and probably paid the heaviest penalty of all.
Q: You talk about what the drug trial did to you. What about the gambling and tax situation and (Cincinnati teammate Pete) Rose? What do you see there?
A: Rose's situation, I think Rule 21 "specifically states the gambling rule. It's a cardinal sin. It's like the 10 commandments of baseball. When you infringe on that, you expect to be penalized. Heavily. I think the one thing Rose made the mistake of was not coming clean. I mean, lies have a tendency to grow and grow. If he had come clean and said, "Hey, I've got a problem, they rehabilitate drug users in the game of baseball, why not rehabilitate a gambler?" But Pete felt that he was bigger than the system, and when you get to a point like that, it leads to crisis. He just thought he was bigger than the system. That's why it got to the point where he just did things blatantly, and he felt because he was Pete Rose, that he wouldn't be penalized.
Q: What about the Hall of Fame?
A: There's no way you can deny him the Hall of Fame in my eyes. He was an outstanding player, played the game the way it should be played, at 100%. I respect him for that. It's really sad. I'm one of the biggest lobbyists for him to get in the Hall of Fame, because he earned that.
Q: Is the Hall of Fame something that sits heavy in your mind?
A: I would like for it to happen. I think that my numbers now are better than some people in the hall. But basically I'm a strong believer that you can't take the Hall of Fame honors to Kroger's.
Q: What's that?
A: You can't take them Hall of Fame honors to Kroger's, which is a grocery store. Basically, financial security is what I've worked for and I've achieved that, and that's Hall of Fame enough for me. My family, my kids are going to get a good college education and have their legacy there for them when it's over. That's important. That's more important to me than anything else.
Q: When did the whole idea of clubhouse presence really start?
A: It's always been there, I just never received credit for it. I was a very big leader in Pittsburgh. I was the type of guy that could get the guys fired up to go out and do what was necessary to win, and Stargell was basically the stabilizer. When I say stabilizer, he was the type of guy players would go to when they had problems, but the fiery part of getting them up and getting them out there, that was the role I played. It was like good cop/bad cop type situation where I was the one to get them fired up and Stargell was the stabilizing type they'd trust. The clubhouse presence was always there, it was something that was never written about until I got to Cincinnati.
Q: Does the leadership come naturally or do you consciously think about the effect? If I do this, they'll react?
A: It's just my personality. I'm just a guy that grew up in a total fun-loving environment. I try to create that everywhere I go. Basically what I'm doing is a reflection of me as an individual, me naturally. I'm not staging or putting on anything. I think my approach to the game is an all-out approach, whatever it takes to win. I've always been that way.
Q: Going to Oakland, what was that like for you. Was that another rebirth?
A: It was kind of sad, in regards to I was at home (in Cincinnati, where he grew up and went to high school), I was productive. There was no reason for me to be traded other than, you know, Pete's insecurities, feeling that I had more pull, I guess more clout with his players than he did. That was a large part of it. It was said in his book too. He apologized, said he treated me for the fact that I had more authority over his team than he did. I think it was kind of sad I was leaving somewhere for no more than some other individual's jealousies. Because 28 home runs a year and 108 RBIs, you just don't trade that, OK?
Secondly, he dropped the negative leadership on me, as sort of a reason to the public for me to no longer be a Red. It was just something he threw out there, negative leadership. That was a sad situation. I go to Oakland, and Tony (Manager La Russa) comes out and says, "If there's negative leadership, I haven't seen it." I go there, and the initial thing was a very sad thing, but after getting in, getting to know the players and getting into the scheme of things at Oakland I really adapted to that and enjoyed my two years there as well.
Q: Seems like time after time you've had these numbers, yet then it's time to move on.
A: That's the way it is, you know? One thing that I take a lot of pride in, people say, "Well you know, how many teams have you been with? You know, all these labels you're picking up on your suitcase?" But if you think, every time I've been moved, it hasn't been because of my production. Milwaukee I think it was a thing of them balancing their books, moreso than doing what was best for the team. Milwaukee's one of those closed or small markets, and I wanted an extension or a renegotiation, and they had a decision to make to deal with your best offensive producer or move him for a player younger that will be paid less that can give us a portion of the production that he did. So that was a business decision that they made. It wasn't because of my production because I hit .289, had 21 home runs and 92 RBIs last year, and it wasn't with a supporting cast that I'll be with this year or that I had in Oakland, and I still put up some good numbers.
Q: What about when you hear that the Angels traded away their future for an old guy? How do you feel about that?
A: First of all, it wasn't me that moved Dante Bichette. You look out in left field, and you see Luis Polonia. Who would you rather have in the front of your lineup, Bichette or Luis Polonia? Then you look out at center field, and you see Junior Felix, who has as much potential as any young player I've seen. I mean he hits from both sides with power. He's an outstanding defensive player, and he can steal 60 or 70 bases. I didn't move Dante Bichette. Those young players moved him. I think the one thing with me being here is that the organization of the Angels is putting the emphasis on winning now and for those who think that Dante is going to be more productive than me, then maybe we'll have to wait until the end of the season to see who got the best of the trade.
Q: So now I ask the question, how much longer? Obviously 3,000 hits is an issue.
A: I'd like to play two more years after this, but it depends. I'm not going to be one that's going to work for a minimum salary. The first time I don't have the offensive year I feel I should have and I'm healthy, I'll be ready to hang it up then.
Q: Do you think it's sad when you see players playing on, in any sport, beyond their productivity?
A: I think it is, especially when the guy is pretty much set financially. There's no need to take away from the way he's considered as a player. There are some with obligations or financial problems where they've got to hang on, but I mean if you're secure financially, I see no need to take away from your career numbers for one, and then to kind of leave that last memory of you as being, you know, borderline. I think that's sad.
Q: Not too many people get to hit a couple of homers in the seventh game and then retire.
A: It's true, but first of all the player has got to be convinced. You won't have to tell me when I'm through. I'll know. I mean, because no one knows you except yourself. I'll know when I can't hit that fastball no more. I'll know when it's too painful for me to go out and run the bases. That's what the individual has got to be able to do, sit back and evaluate himself and make the decision.
Q: When you finish playing, will you stay in the game? Coach, manage?
A: I really haven't had any desire. I feel a need to be at home. I've got a little boy who's 6 years old. His talents both in baseball and basketball just stick out like a sore thumb. Being a ballplayer, being competitive all your young adulthood, the challenge now is to go out and be productive in the private sector.
Q: Maybe even from Pittsburgh on, you probably thought every team would be your last.
A: I think after leaving Oakland would probably be the point where I made up my mind I wanted to play till I got 3,000 hits. I've got a thing about signing cards. I've signed very few cards in a Milwaukee uniform because I thought, "Well maybe this might be my last team." Now that I'm an Angel, and you know, this could be my last team, it's still gonna be pretty tough to get a signature of Dave Parker in an Angel uniform.