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Starkey: Ex-Pirates slugger Parker is coping with Parkinson's

| Monday, Aug. 5, 2013, 11:00 p.m.
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The Pirates' Dave Parker swings during a game in 1980.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Former Pirates All-Star outfielder Dave Parker acknowledges the crowd at the All-Star Legends and Celebrity Softball Game on July 9, 2006, at PNC Park.

The Dave Parker in my mind is forever young.

He's the guy on the poster, larger than life, on my boyhood bedroom wall. He is menacing and powerful, wearing a No. 39 on his back and a diamond stud in his ear. He is the National League MVP, the All-Star Game MVP, the epitome of a five-tool player — the primary tool being a sledgehammer of a bat that rocks to and fro as the pitcher begins his delivery.

The Dave Parker on the other end of the line is a 62-year-old man confirming to me that he has Parkinson's disease.

I am rooting for him harder than ever.

If you watched Parker play baseball — his brand was more like football — you can't be surprised to learn that he will not let Parkinson's intimidate him.

“There's no fear,” Parker said. “I've had a great life. I always dreamt of playing baseball, and I played. I'm 62 years old and fortunate to make it to this point. I have some beautiful kids that I got to watch grow up and become adults. My fingerprints are on the baseball industry. I feel good about that. I have nothing to feel bad about.”

Parker may yet have many good years in front of him. He said the Parkinson's was diagnosed in February 2012 but has not progressed rapidly.

It first manifested in a tremor in his right hand. Other issues have cropped up.

He sounds different on the phone these days, a bit more sluggish.

“I'm nervous with public speaking, being put in any situation where I have to talk for a long time,” Parker said.

Parker disclosed his diagnosis to a few friends, including Pirates director of alumni affairs Joe Billetdeaux, who spoke with him during the team's Heritage Day in May at PNC Park.

“He looked good,” Billetdeaux said. “He said he has good days and bad days. For the most part, he's dealing with it.”

Parker is all too aware of the ravages of Parkinson's, a progressive neurological disorder with no cure: His older sister, he said, has a more advanced form of it.

According to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation, people older than 60 have a 2 to 4 percent chance of contracting the disease. Parker is not yet taking medication out of concern it could worsen his symptoms. He is opting for what he terms “natural” remedies.

“If push comes to shove, I'll take the medicine,” he said. “For now, I'm taking it day by day.”

His days are much less hectic. Parker lives in Loveland, Ohio, with his wife, Kellye. He has six grown children. The Parkers sold their interest in Popeyes Chicken in the Cincinnati area and are planning to move to Florida as soon as they sell their house.

An intimidating 6-foot-5, 230 pounds during his Pirates days, Parker plays a ton of golf, rides his bike “a minimum of an hour a day” and maintains what he terms a good weight.

“Probably some of the best shape I've been in all my life,” he said.

He also has continued to teach teenage players the art of hitting. Can you imagine Dave Parker tutoring you?

“I get their attention immediately,” he said, laughing.

This year's Pirates have captured Parker's heart. He said he watches every game. I wondered how he was feeling about the city these days, given that his tenure with the club ended so bitterly 30 years ago.

Parker's contract was an issue with some fans. When he signed in 1979 for $5 million over five years, he became the highest-paid athlete in team sports — richer than Reggie Jackson, O.J. Simpson, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, all of them — and not shy about advertising his talents. Sports Illustrated ran a cover piece under the headline: “A Loudmouth And His Loud Bat.”

As Parker's salary rose, his production diminished. Fans who'd once viewed his trademark cockiness as an asset turned on him. His admission later that he'd used cocaine late in his Pirates career convinced people that he had squandered his immense talent. Parker and his teammates insisted that he always played hard and often played hurt. He battled through six knee surgeries in his career, which he resuscitated in Cincinnati, and had both knees replaced in retirement.

Time, it turns out, appears to have erased the resentment on both ends. Parker says he long ago made peace with the city and its fans.

He could probably use their support about now, too.

“Once a Buc, always a Buc,” Parker said. “And I'll always be a Buc.”

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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