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100 greatest Tigers #31: Lance Parrish

Detroit's Big Wheel
Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Lance Parrish could have played football, but chose baseball instead. The 6 foot 3 inch gym enthusiast topped 210 pounds. In the seventies, he was football size, but declined a UCLA scholarship. The Detroit Tigers grabbed Parrish in the first round of the 1974 draft with the 16th pick. They landed one of the finest receivers of his generation. Parrish evolved into an eight time All Star, Gold Glove catcher, and one of the main offensive cogs in the Tiger lineup during the 1980s.

Detroit chose third baseman Lance Parrish in the 1974 draft. Parrish moved through the minor league system. While playing in Lakeland, he switched from third to catcher. At the time, Aurelio Rodriguez manned third base for the Tigers. Parrish's arm, build, and Rodriguez's presence motivated the team to make the change.

Parrish made his Tiger debut in 1977. He appeared in 12 games, hit .196 with 3 home runs and 7 RBI. In 1978, Parrish made the team as a backup. The catcher batted .219 with 14 home runs, 41 RBI, .678 OPS in 85 games. The 23-year-old assumed full time duties in 1979 finishing with an .800 OPS, 19 home runs, 65 RBI, and .276 average.

Steady improvement throughout his baseball career paid off in 1980. The hard work led to his first Silver Slugger award and All Star berth. Parrish batted .286 with 24 home runs, 82 RBI, hit 34 doubles, slugged .499, and posted a .825 OPS. He was the best catcher in the league that season.

The all star took a step backward in 1981 when the player's strike limited him to 96 games. However, the Tiger roared back in 1982 with an historic season. Parrish broke the American League home run record for catchers when he knocked 32 balls out of the park. He added 87 RBI, batted .284, and posted a .867 OPS. His return to his 1980 form led to another Silver Slugger and All Star appearance.

Some believe 1982 was Parrish's finest season. In the 2000s, the Detroit Tigers website listed 1983. Although his average dipped to .269, the catcher hit 27 home runs, and set career highs in runs (80), hits (163), doubles (42), RBI (114), and total bases (292). Additionally, Parrish slugged .483, posted a .796 OPS, won his third Silver Slugger, made his third All Star team, and won his first Gold Glove.

The offensive output from their all star catcher led the Tigers to dub Parrish "Big Wheel" because he made the team go. Big Wheel helped Detroit to the 1984 World Series championship despite a dip in the batting average. He batted just .237, but still hit 33 home runs, knocked in 98, and finished with a .730 OPS. Once again, Parrish made the All Star team and won Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards. On top of this, he caught Jack Morris' no-hitter versus the White Sox. In the World Series, Parrish hit .278 with .864 OPS, and a key home run off Goose Gossage in Game 5.

The Tigers dipped precipitously in 1985, but Parrish remained an All Star quality receiver. His average improved to .273 and his OPS increased to .802. The catcher added 28 home runs, 98 RBI, and won another Gold Glove to accompany another All Star appearance. By this point, Parrish was the best catcher in baseball.

Parrish liked to work out in the gym and lift weights. Manager Sparky Anderson frowned on weight lifting believing that muscles interfered with baseball skills. As a result, Parrish and a few other Tigers worked out in secret. The regime helped sculpt Parrish's frame. Despite the hard work, he suffered a back injury which limited the 30-year-old to 91 games in 1986. He still managed another All Star berth and Silver Slugger with 22 home runs, 62 RBI, and .824 OPS, but his days in Detroit had come to an end.

The Tigers Big Wheel decided to test free agency and moved to Philadelphia. Phillies fans did not show Parrish any respect after two subpar seasons. He batted .215 and .238 in Philadelphia, but did make the 1988 NL All Star squad. However, Parrish was never the same player outside of Detroit. He played for six teams from 1987-1995 and enjoyed only one more Parrish-esque year in 1990 with California. He retired in 1996 after failing to make a terrible Pirates team. He returned to Detroit as a coach in 1999, color commentator in 2002, coach again in 2005, and then manager of Detroit's AA affiliate the Erie Seawolves in 2014.

Lance Parrish was the best catcher in baseball for a time. He appeared in eight All Star games, won six Silver Sluggers, accumulated three Gold Gloves, caught a no-hitter, and was a member of the 1984 World Champs. Additionally, the Tiger set the home run record for catchers in 1982. With the Tigers, he batted .263 with 212 home runs, 700 RBI, and .786 OPS. Overall, Parrish blasted 324 home runs, knocked in 1,070 runs, batted .252, and posted a .753 OPS. He ranks sixth all time in home runs and 10th in total bases by a catcher. As a result of his success, teammates dubbed the catcher "Big Wheel."