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.
You 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!