At the batting cage, in the clubhouse, on buses and on charter flights, no one did more than Parker to keep colleagues at ease. Not Bob Uecker, Dan Quisenberry or Richard Pryor had anything on Parker, whose material was more akin to Pryor's blue truth than to Uecker's or Quisenberry's.
Yes, Parker undermined his career, and, during the seasons in which he was far from his best, he did undermine his teams. I wish he hadn't. I wanted to vote for him each year of his eligibility, but didn't until last year when I found a troubling inconsistency in my evaluation process.
I had voted for Hernandez each of the nine years he was on the ballot, dismissing his off-field issues because I had seen first-hand the impact he had on the Mets of 1983-89 and knew he had been a force with the Cardinals before that. Those problems may have been a factor in why the Cardinals made him available for trade in '83. It didn't seem to matter when he was on the field, though, from what I saw and what I heard from others.
Last year, for the first time, I applied the same approach to Parker. I hadn't seen him play nearly as often as I had watched Hernandez, but when I did cover Pirates games over the years, Parker always appeared to be an undiminished force in every way. His subpar production in his final three years with the Pirates, 1981-83, said something wasn't right, though. We learned in '85, during the Curtis Strong drug trials, that Parker allegedly could have had drug issues in the the early '80s.
But by 1985 he was again a formidable force, then for the Reds. One of the six first-place votes for Parker in the 1985 National League Most Valuable Player Award balloting was mine. He drove in the most runs in the league that year, 125, also leading the league in intentional walks -- while no teammate scored more than 82 runs. No teammate had more than 66 RBIs either. The term one-man gang comes to mind, and the Reds finished in second place, with the fourth-best record in the league.
Parker was one of the elite players in league as he had been from 1975 through '79. In four seasons with the sluggish Reds, he averaged 32 doubles, 27 home runs, 108 RBIs and 82 runs.
Give me Hernandez at first base, Parker in right and White, Joe Morgan, Jeff Kent, Craig Biggio or Willie Randolph at second base, and I'll take my chances.
Put Larkin at shortstop (or Jeter, Ozzie, A-Rod, Ripken), and my team would win a lot of games even if my third baseman were Morgan Fairchild, my catcher were Phoebe Buffay and my outfield were Peter, Paul and Mary.
To me, Larkin was for those Reds teams what Hernandez was for the Mets, what Parker was for the Pirates and Reds, what Sal Bando was for the great A's teams, what the late Ron Santo had been for the Cubs and what Thurman Munson was for the Yankees teams of the '70s -- the soul of the team. That he played the most critical defensive position well above average and was a multidimensional offensive force might constitute HOF credentials without a thought of his professionalism. He was the real deal.
That leaves Alomar. I voted for him -- uncomfortably -- not because I promised a year ago that I would, but because he deserves to be in the Hall: He was the most talented second baseman I ever saw. He made plays others didn't, couldn't. And he was a terrific offensive player, too.
But I'll take Morgan, White, Kent, Biggio or Randolph as my second baseman.
As I wrote a year ago, Alomar wasn't always interested in the game he was playing, not when he played for the Mets and, as it turned out, not always when he played for other clubs. During the fallout from my expressed choice to withhold my vote one year, I had an on-air conversation with a radio interviewer in Baltimore who said during Alomar's time with the Orioles, the second baseman performed as expected four games out of six and that he often seemed disinterested. And Bill Livingston published this in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
"In the 2001 American League Division Series against Seattle, in the fifth and final game, Roberto Alomar gave less than his best for the Indians. Maybe Alomar was upset with manager Charlie Manuel because he left Bartolo Colon in to face the Seattle Mariners in the seventh inning of the fourth game. The Mariners rallied for three runs, wiping out a 1-0 deficit and forcing a fifth game in Seattle.
Then again, maybe Alomar had too much milk with his cereal the morning of Game 5. You never knew with him. In the first inning, he grounded into a double play that retired the side. Bulk mail moved faster than Alomar to first base. In the third, one run was already in with one out, the Tribe was down, 2-1, the bases were loaded against junkballer Jamie Moyer, who had already been touched for a walk and three hits in the inning. Alomar swung at the first pitch and bounced into an around-the-horn double play. He 'ran' to first only if you use the term loosely.
"I ripped Alomar for his 0-for-4 game in the 3-1 season-ending loss and, more, for his lackadaisical attitude. This was not picking on a player for one bad day. That can happen to anyone. His lack of effort, however, struck at the core values of the game."
Those condemnations were consistent with what I witnessed. But when Alomar played for the Padres and Blue Jays, I saw none of that. He was beyond special. But I did wonder why a middle infielder of unmatched skill would be traded so often. The reasons I was given usually were a tad murky.
But Rickey Henderson didn't have the Pete Rose gene either, and I voted for him.
* * *
And one thought about Bert Blyleven: Two-hundred-fifty losses are quite an obstacle for me, no matter how little support he received or how poorly the defense played behind him. I saw Tom Seaver, Fergie Jenkins and Steve Carlton routinely rise above the play of their teams. Two-hundred-fifty losses strongly suggests Blyleven did not.
And one thought about the voting process: The Baseball Writers' Association of America remains best equipped to have the responsibility of voting. But new and varied issues have made the process far more difficult than it was even five years ago. It's an observation, not a complaint.