Parrish Building a Powerful Case : * Angels: Veteran, with 274 home runs as catcher, has a shot at being the most productive ever at position.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The taunts about Lance Parrish's age began well before Parrish reached a very advanced one. He was only 32 or 33 when he started to receive an occasional jab, particularly in certain ballparks on the road.

"People yell, 'Why don't you retire?' " Parrish said, a smile playing across his face. "I've gotten that the last couple of years."

Why doesn't he? Well, why would he? Parrish is only 34, or rather, he is for one more day. His 35th birthday is Saturday.

The catch about the Angels' Parrish is that people tend to judge him by their own advancing age and by three mediocre offensive years that preceded last season, when he was honored as the best offensive catcher in the American League for the sixth time in his career.

They recall his 32-home-run season of 1982 with Detroit, or his 33-homer season with the World Series championship team in 1984 and assume Parrish must be getting up there by now.

What they neglect to consider is that Parrish was only 21 years old when he began his first full major league season in 1978 and 28 when the Tigers won the World Series in 1984. What's more, he plays a position at which experience and defensive ability are so valued that a good one can play well into his 40s, or just about as long as his body can bear to squat.

With that in mind, and considering that Parrish hit 24 homers last season, it's not inconceivable that Parrish could finish his career as the most productive offensive catcher to play the game.

Carlton Fisk passed Johnny Bench last year on baseball's all-time list of career homers by a catcher. Fisk, still playing for the Chicago White Sox at 43, has 335, including three this season. The only others between him and Parrish are Bench (327), Yogi Berra (304) and Gary Carter (290), who has homered twice as the Dodgers' 37-year-old backup catcher this season.

Parrish, who had five homers by May 7 this season but has added only two to that since after slumping for much of May, has 274 career homers at catcher. His 292 overall put him on the verge of reaching 300, the standard for baseball's all-time list.

"The way I've always understood it, catching is a defensive position," Parrish said with a glint in his eye that says he thinks differently. "I've always prided myself in my ability to be an offensive catcher as well as a defensive catcher. To be up there with Carlton Fisk, Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, that's nice to see.

"When I look at it realistically, I don't see any reason why I shouldn't make an assault on those records. I don't know how much longer Carlton Fisk is going to catch. They're talking about using him at first some, I know.

"My name is mentioned in the same circles as guys on the list. I think I'm capable of catching them. I don't see why I can't. I don't put a limit on how far I can go.

Parrish is also climbing on the all-time list of games caught. Former Angel Bob Boone, 43, who is out of baseball this season for the first time after a 19-year major league career, is at the top of that list with 2,225 games behind the plate. Parrish passed 1,500 last August.

"I don't rule (catching Boone) out. It's not impossible," Parrish said. "He did it. I see no reason why I shouldn't."

It once seemed that the physical rigors of catching were wearing on Parrish, who struggled with back trouble for a time, particularly after leaving Detroit for Philadelphia as a free agent in 1987. But Parrish says his back hasn't bothered him for a couple of years, with only a rare flare-up since he joined the Angels in 1989.

Last season, he re-established himself as one of the best offensive catchers ever to play the game, hitting 24 homers and driving in 70 runs while batting .268. He made his eighth All-Star team and led the Angels in home-run frequency by hitting one for every 19.9 at-bats.

"That season meant an awful lot," Parrish said. "It answered a lot of questions in my mind, and I'm sure it got some people to change their opinion about whether I could still be productive on the same level I was in Detroit."

This season, he was hitting .271 with five home runs on May 7 before stumbling into a slump. By June 2, after going eight for 61 and missing three games with a sore shoulder, his average stood at .212, and he had added only one home run.

He began to recover during the Angels' recent home stand, and had seven hits in his past 16 at-bats before missing three games this week with a strained right forearm. Parrish said he expects to play today when the Angels open a 13-game trip in Boston.

"Going through a slump is frustrating," he said. "I think early in the year, I was swinging the bat pretty well. I hit a wall, and things kind of snowballed. I feel like I'm back on track now. When I get this arm well, I might be able to pick up the pace.

"It's funny, like for example last year, the way I was playing, you almost wish you could just keep on playing. That long layoff has a way of separating your brain from your body. It takes time to figure out what you're doing again."

But Parrish says he feels "locked in" at the plate now and ready to close to a groove that could put him back on track for a season not far off last year's.

"If I can get my bat going, I normally do hit 'em (homers) in bunches," he said. "If I can string some together, we'll see what happens. I fully expect to get back on track.

"The first time I hit 30 in Detroit, I had 13 homers the first half, and 19 the second half. It's not out of reach if I get hot the second half, or possibly even before then."

His offensive ability aside, Parrish's most critical role--the one that will keep him in the game as long as body and spirit are willing--is his handling of pitchers. In 1989, he was credited with getting the Angel staff to pitch inside, and the Angels contended for the divisional title. This season, he has been on the receiving end of Chuck Finley's continued success and the turnarounds of Mark Langston and Jim Abbott, although he does not claim the credit for them.

"As I've said all along, it's just a case of going out and being successful and holding on to that success long enough to go apply it next time, Parrish said. "It's the same thing with hitting, the same thing with pitching.

Abbott, 10-14 last season, was 0-4 this season but now is 5-5. Langston, 10-17 last season, is 8-2.

"I could tell by the way Jim Abbott threw the ball early it was just a matter of time before he would find the release point and get back to his successful formula of getting ahead on hitters," Parrish said. "I felt the same way with Mark. Mark just got in a bad frame of mind. It was a bad situation. You couldn't have written out a worse situation. He threw the ball well and had nothing to show for it, and then the pressure started building. By the end of the year, he just got fed up and decided to let what happened happen. He might have accidentally backed into the answer."

Parrish has experience with arriving in a new city as a free agent, only to falter, as Langston did last year. In Parrish's first year with the Phillies in 1987, he hit .245 with 17 home runs. In his second and last year, he hit .215 with only 15 homers.

"The bottom line is you win or lose, and we lost a lot," Parrish said. "In my opinion, we beat ourselves a lot. We made so many mistakes. It was a circus."

What was worse, his defensive skills seemed to abandon him, although Parrish didn't see it that way.

"I was never really able to throw anybody out, and I blame the pitching staff for that."

Parrish declines to name names, but he said some members of the staff antagonized him with their slow deliveries and failure to hold runners.

"I think it was just their philosophy," he said. "I was about as frustrated as you can get. I even requested that they put a stopwatch on me so I could be sure the problem was me. Teams ran on us like there wasn't anybody behind the plate. On the news, I would hear something about no-hit, no-throw Parrish.

"I felt the same way Mark probably felt (last season) when I was in Philly. I understand exactly what it's like, coming to a new ballclub with a lot of expectations. When you try too hard to turn it around, it just does not happen. Not until you finally give in and go out and play do you succeed. You finally say, I can't keep fighting myself. I'm not getting anywhere.

"When you finally say, 'The heck with it, I'm going to go see the ball, try to see it and try to hit it,' all of a sudden you end up doing something right. There's a very fine line between success and failure in this game. Sometimes the smallest thing can make a big difference. The whole difference in this game between being successful and not being successful is the ability to relax. If you can't relax in this game, you're not going to be successful."

If Parrish keeps relaxing long enough, he could catch all the catchers and put his name ahead of Fisk's.

Hard-Hitting Catchers

Major league leaders for home runs hit while playing catcher. Active players bold. Age is current for active players, retirement for inactive.

Player Yrs. Age HRs Carlton Fisk 19+ 43 335 Johnny Bench 17 35 327 Yogi Berra 19 40 304 Gary Carter 16+ 37 290 Lance Parrish 13+ 34 274

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