A Couple Tribe Fans Share Their ‘Brush With Greatness’: Reliving Yesteryear

DoLance Parrish swing bw you have a story? A Cleveland Indians ‘brush with greatness’?

Such a story may involve a well-known player, although this is not a necessity.

My buddy Paul shared one.

“So, we’re sitting there with all this gear he signed for us. Balls, photos… and a large orange poster we’d made for him, for the day. ‘Lance Parrish, You Da Man.’ Ha. …Uh, we were younger then.”

As college kids attending Bowling Green in 1994, they’d make the occasional trip to Toledo to take in a ballgame. The promise of prime seats and volume beer drinking made any home game a viable option; on that weekday evening, there was an added attraction. Lance Parrish had just been picked up by the Detroit Tigers, and would be in the lineup for their Mud Hens affiliate.

A borderline Hall of Fame candidate, Parrish had enjoyed a long career, mostly with those Tigers. He was a core member of their successful run in the 1980s, a premier catcher with some pop in his bat. In recent years, Parrish had bounced between a number of teams, including the proverbial ‘cup of coffee’ with the fans’ hometown Cleveland Indians.

The Tribe had signed the veteran in May of 1993. He represented catching depth during a stretch when the position was a bit thin due to injury. A quick check reveals Lance Parrish played in ten games for the Tribe, all in May.

Parrish’s final game for the Indians was in Minnesota. He was a defensive replacement in the ninth inning in a tied game which the Tribe had earlier led by four. Tribe pitching surrendered a single and a double without retiring a batter. Parrish rose from behind the plate for the intentional walk to Kirby Puckett. The first pitch ticked off of his glove for a passed ball, and the winning run scored. The Indians released Lance Parrish two days later.

By now, his career was about over, and his addition to the Mud Hens presented a great opportunity to see him play. The young fans’ arrival had coincided with the opening of the park’s gates, and the public’s direct access to players behind the outfield seats had allowed them to get photos and autographs.

Lance Parrish was extremely gracious. He posed for photos; he signed various items. He didn’t rush. He shook the kids’ hands, and went on about his business.

“The game that night was a yawner. Toledo was losing in the ninth inning, 9-1. With two outs and a man on third, pitcher Mike Christopher (whom also spent a short stint with the 1993 Tribe) uncorked a pitch that hit the dirt six feet in front of home plate. The ball bounded to the backstop; Parrish had flipped off his catcher’s mask and both he and Christopher were laughing out loud. Parrish retrieved the ball, directly in front of us. I offered, “It’s not that funny, the score is now 10-1.”

“Parrish stopped. He glared at me. The sparse crowd was locked in to the tension. A friend I was with followed: ”That’s about as funny as that passed ball up in Minnesota last year.””

Some onlookers chuckled. Not Lance Parrish.

The Mud Hens retired the final batter on a ground ball. The veteran catcher “ran up the line to back up the throw to first. I wondered why a 37 year old catcher would be doing that in the ninth inning of a lopsided game. I slowly realized he was not taking the direct route to his dugout, but rather was running straight toward us.”

The 6’ 3”, 230lb (listed, anyway) Parrish thrust his hand through the backstop net, pointing and shouting. “I give you guys the courtesy before the game, and then you go and pull a bullshit stunt like this. If you’ve got anything left to say to me, you meet me out behind the bleachers after the game.”

The evening had suddenly taken a very dark turn. The fans’ hero, whom had earlier been as friendly as could be, now wanted to kick their ass.

“Now I am scared. I am nervous. I am shocked. I can’t believe it. What just happened? The last of the ninth goes by quickly, and it is time to leave. But I need to mend this fence before I go. At Ned Skeldon Stadium, all players exited the field through a tunnel underneath the first base side bleachers. I know this, and so I know that the Mud Hen players packed up their gear and walked across the field before going into the clubhouse. So when I see Parrish walking up the steps and out of the 3rd base dugout, I yell out, “Lance! Lance, come here! What’s the big deal? I was just screwing around with you!” He stops, looks, and then just points to the tunnel. Oh great, what am I going to do now? I am walking along the first base stands, pleading with him to stop and talk this out. Just before he enters the tunnel, he stops, points, and yells at me, “Outside! Outside!” He enters the tunnel, pounding a bat on the fencing on the inside of the tunnel. We made what might be the wisest choice we’ve ever made. We (literally) ran to the car and got the hell out of there.”

***

After a moment of bemused reflection, I piped up. “I’ve got a story.”

(Saying it in one breath) He had a terrible temper and busted things up with his bat and threw a ball at a photographer and at a fan and was known as Joey until he underwent treatment for alcoholism and was alleged to have taken performance enhancing drugs and used a corked bat and threw a forearm at Fernando Vina and admitted losing a lot of money gambling and tried to run down kids who threw eggs at his home on Halloween and was arrested for stalking an ex-girlfriend- GASP, gasp. Almost made it through the entire litany of what you’ll typically read about Albert Belle. I didn’t get to removing the “Do Not Remove” tag from his mattress, leaving the toilet seat up, or not eating his brussel sprouts as a toddler.

albert belle joey debutYou knew all that stuff. You were there for most of it. And I know I shouldn’t make light of it like that. Yet the angry, bitter disposition of Albert Belle fed his intensity, and his intensity fueled his ability as a feared power hitter. I was on board with that, perhaps to a fault- I was weary of the early 1990s, good-but-soft Cleveland Cavaliers, and I reveled in Belle’s role as the feared bully on the suddenly-dominant Cleveland Indians. He was the original sports figure to be accompanied by the introduction to AC/DC’s Hells Bells. It was powerful.

I had an early encounter with Belle, in 1993. It was on August 15 (yep, I looked it up). I had taken my family to a late-season game against the Texas Rangers. The Tribe was out of the race (go figure), but they had some young talent and were going for the series sweep. Starter Jose Mesa was attempting to win his tenth game of the season, and he was facing Nolan Ryan. Kenny, Carlos, Albert, Sorrento, and Thome were in the lineup that day. Sandy was a late inning replacement. The Rangers’ Julio Franco was their DH (yes, I shouted, “HOOLEEOOO”). Juan Gonzalez went yard on Mesa in the first inning. To the hushed crowd, the home run from Juan Gone looked like a popup on steroids (how fitting). Appearing to reach its apex above the top facing of the old stadium, the ball drifted like a knuckleball to the seats beyond the fence in left field. You hear about balls that ‘get out in a hurry'; this was the opposite of that. Much of the rest of the game was nondescript. Belle’s groundout scored Wayne Kirby in the 4th, but the Tribe lost, 4-1. We did see Nolan Ryan pitch seven innings and earn the final win of his career.

But since the Indians were moving on to the new ballpark at Gateway the following season, the game in 1993 was a lot about soaking in the sights and smells of old Muni.

“Well before game time, I was walking our two-year-old daughter through the outer concourse on the ground level. Surprisingly (for that stadium), there was a fan-friendly activity set up there on that day: a photographer was taking photos of anyone who wanted a ‘baseball card’ of themselves. I draped a Tribe jersey around her shoulders, and put a toy batting helmet on her head. The photo was taken while she was still in pre-cry mode. She’ll love this when she gets older, I told myself. When that was over, we continued walking along the concourse in the direction of the outfield seats.

“Suddenly appearing, twenty feet in front of us and closing, was Albert Belle. He was walking slowly, in full uniform, carrying a bat in one hand. His demeanor seemed reasonably pleasant, and we briefly made eye contact. Still holding hands with my daughter, it was my turn to be conflicted. Should we stop? Should we say something? It was very early, yet he had his uni on. Should we pretend we don’t see him? That would be pretty stupid. I would interrupt my brief stare to acknowledge him, but he had-a-nas-ty-rep-u-tay-tion-as-a-cru-u-el-dude. I took a second to decide… until I found myself turned, gazing at the BELLE 8 on his back. Before the moment completely passed, I made eye contact with a couple guys in a nearby concession line who were also wondering, “What the–?”

I later learned there was a batting cage under the bleachers, and that Belle spent countless hours there- before and after games. Our encounter with Belle happened to coincide with his trip from the cage to the clubhouse. In future seasons at the new Jacobs Field, Belle would be known to take BP in between at-bats.

***

So that’s my story. How about one of yours, below? Or DM me at @googleeph2. Thanks!

  • mgbode

    always love player stories. i have to admit that in my younger days i would have likely met lance aftewards if so challenged.

    anyway, my best story I’ve already told on these pages quite a few times. involves Manny Ramirez playing for Canton-Akron and actually being gracious to stop for autographs at the chain link by the players lot after the game and told us kids (at the time) about a HR-derby the players would have before the game the next day.

  • Mike Bogucci

    i would share my boog powell story, but its too long for this comment section…

  • Greg Popelka

    Mg, did they have an impromptu hr derby?
    Mike, by DM I meant a direct message on twitter. Some way, I’d like to get that story. Always have been fascinated by the F Robinson Tribe.

  • 5KMD

    Several years ago my buddies and I went up to Detroit and caught a game on daylight savings Saturday in the fall.
    It was one of the years between 2000 and 2004 (I was in graduate school in Toledo those years).
    We go to a bar after the game and Charles Nagy was there with others (I believe Chuck was in the bullpen those days). I’m in the bathroom and Nagy pulls up to the urinal next to me and it seemed he was quite, um, intoxicated.
    He looks over to me and says, “Don’t forget to turn back your watch tonight buddy (that’s when we still wore watches to tell time my younger friends).
    And yes, it was as awesome as I have made it sound.

  • Bob

    During the heyday of the ’90’s, on an 8th (+/-1) grade field trip I beat Jim Thome at one of the water-squirting-racing games at cedar point. And holy smokes his wife was hot.

    The other story involves waiting around (by a fence near the players’ exit I guess…..I was rather young than) to get an autograph outside the old municipal stadium. Some players came by to sign, my dad said to appreciate those players. Joe Carter just ignored us and drove on by. Later on, My dad and I went to tower city and met Chet Lemon and another of the Detroit Tigers in their hotel lobby.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    OK two not great stories.

    Two days after Jose Mesa blew the World Series, I was flying back to my high school in Milwaukee. I was 14 years old, and as I got to my gate at Hopkins, wearing my Tribe cap, I see a lone young man sitting in the gate area next to mine, reading a paper. It’s Jaret Wright, 1997 hero, two days after starting Game 7 of the World Series, just… sitting there. I didn’t want to bother him, so I just sat down a section away, eyeing him for about 10 minutes, debating over and over again if I should go ask for an autograph. Finally, I see a few other people walk over quietly, see him sign for them, so I decide I’ll go for it. I walk over, say “Mr. Wright?”, he looks up, I congratulate him on a great start, mutter something about it being too bad, he nods and takes a pen from me and signs my cap. I still am struck by how impossible it would be just a few years later to see a Game 7 starter waiting in the airport for a flight without anyone around him.

    Better story: A couple friends of my parents – he a diehard Tribe fan, she a diehard White Sox fan – went down to Florida for spring training. I believe this is right after Albert Belle went to the White Sox. In the middle of the night, they see a car stranded on the side of the road, and for some reason decide to pull over. It’s Albert freaking Belle, out of gas. They drive him to a gas station and back, and he tells them to come to the game and get his attention afterward. She’s about 4’6 (really), and after the game when the reporters are thronged around him, he’s ignoring them, and she’s jumping up and down behind them trying to get his attention. He sees her, pushes through the crowd with his usual scowl, signs a whole bunch of stuff for her which we all know is crazy for him to do, says thanks, and marches off. Everyone else there was completely confused.

  • mgbode

    yes, they did. had to beg my dad to go back the next day (and go early), but we did and I think my little brother still has one of the balls we got. the players didn’t pay much attention to us nor signed anything (they were too busy goofing around and having fun with themselves), but it was still cool.

  • Greg Popelka

    These memories are all great. I used to stand outside the Indians’ player exit after games. One day it was so hot. Asphalt and stadium brick radiating extra heat. Rick waits signed, and Rico Carty was going to bypass us. I was standing there and must have been young enough to guilt him into signing. He did do with a pained expression. I couldn’t believe how big his hands were His knuckles seemed big as golf balls. Skin was like dried, cracked, weathered leather