Dave Parker grew up in the West End with the cheers from Crosley Field ringing all around him. Occasionally, he’d meander over to the players’ entrance of that bygone ballpark and watch Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson zoom into the parking lot in their white Thunderbirds.
Parker didn’t want an autograph. No, he wanted something more useful. So, he’d ask for a glove. Because he didn’t own one — he grew up playing stick ball with a rubber ball, so a glove wasn’t necessary to Parker’s life — and because he wanted one. Pinson later would remember Parker as the “green-eyed bad boy,” but Robinson was the one who presented Parker with something tangible.
One day, Robinson saw Parker, strode to the trunk of his car and pulled out a Rawlings glove. He walked over to Parker and presented him with the gift.
“I just wanted something I could play with,” Parker says a few decades later while remembering the exchange with the now-National Baseball Hall of Famer.
Though Parker doesn’t know where that glove is today, that moment had an impact on his life. At 8 years old, with the exhaust of those Thunderbirds fading into the atmosphere and the feel of a new glove on his fist, Parker knew exactly what he wanted to be.
Like Ron Oester would discover a few years later at Riverfront Stadium, Parker wanted to be a baseball player.
By the time a young Oester began hanging out at the players’ parking lot, the Reds had relocated downtown. Oester wanted autographs. So he’d take a scorebook and collect signatures from players like Jack Billingham, Dave Concepcion and Bernie Carbo.
And, of course, Oester’s idol: Pete Rose. Most of those souvenirs have faded away — one exception is a photo featuring Oester as a youngster with Concepcion — but those meetings are still bolded in his memory. Especially interacting with Rose.
“He was my idol growing up. Meeting him was something you just don’t forget,” Oester says. “I loved the way he played the game. He gave 100 percent all the time. I tried to play like that.”
And look where Oester’s hard work has landed him. Look at where Parker’s boyhood dreams have completed their journey. Both will intersect Aug. 8-10 for the Reds Hall of Fame induction weekend, where Oester and Parker will be enshrined along with Ken Griffey Jr. and 19th century ballplayer Jake Beckley.
Parker, Oester and Griffey are Cincinnati natives who as kids watched some of the most important players in the franchise’s history. Eventually, they became those kind of players themselves.
“This is more special than anything I’ve been involved with, even a World Series,” says Oester, a member of the Reds’ 1990 championship team. “I always dreamed of playing for the Reds. What a great, great honor.”
Oester, who played at Withrow High School, remembers hearing about Parker — a standout at Courter Tech High School a half-decade earlier — and he followed Parker’s career after the Pirates selected him in the 14th round of 1970 draft. Parker was in the majors three years later, and by 1975 he was a bonafide batting champion contender, smacking 25 home runs to go with 101 RBIs, a .308 batting average and a league-best .542 slugging percentage. While with the Pirates from 1973-82, Parker won two batting titles and an MVP award while making four All-Star squads.
That paved the way for Parker to make history as the first ballplayer to earn $1 million per season when he signed a five-year, $5 million deal that so enraged some Pittsburgh fans that they flung batteries at him when he was on the field.
“Pittsburgh people treated me well,” Parker says, “until I signed that contract.”
By the end of his tenure with the Pirates, Parker had suffered through a stretch of three seasons where he missed a combined 202 games because of injury. His power numbers had plummeted, and his batting average had fallen severely.
He was a free agent, and you had to wonder if, at the age of 31, Parker’s career was off-track for good.
But then Cincinnati came calling, and for Parker returning home was an easy decision. His ticket request list skyrocketed, and in 1985 he put together one of the best seasons of his career, belting 34 home runs with a league-leading 125 RBIs and a league-best 350 total bases.
“It was a shot in the arm,” says Parker, who played for the Reds for just four seasons before moving to the American League for the final four years of his career. “It was just what I needed. The fans supported me when I got here. They embraced me. They made it an easy transition.”
Oester, on the other hand, never needed to make a transition. He never left.
Born in Cincinnati, Oester played his entire career for the Reds and still lives here to this day. From 1980-90, Oester played 1,276 games of blue-collar baseball — never wearing batting gloves — all while trying to honor his idol who he played with and for.
But for all his accomplishments — he finished fourth in the 1980 Rookie of the Year vote behind Steve Howe, Bill Gullickson and Lonnie Smith; he led the league in putouts by a second baseman with 367 in 1986; and he blasted more than 1,100 hits during his career — Oester counts his final season in the majors as one of his proudest.
While Parker helped the Pirates to the 1979 World Series title, Oester helped win one for his hometown team. Though he mostly served as a pinch-hitter in 1990, he hit a career-best .299 that season, scored the winning run in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series against Pittsburgh to send the Reds to the World Series and in the final game of his career slapped an RBI single up the middle in a 5-4 victory vs. Oakland in Game 2 en route to a Reds championship sweep.
Talk about a picture-perfect way to end your career.
“It was definitely my most fun year of them all, even though I wasn’t a starter,” Oester says. “To get a World Series ring, that’s what I played for.”
It’s the last World Series title the Reds have won, though when the franchise traded for Ken Griffey Jr., in the offseason before the 2000 season, the city thought The Kid perhaps could return the team back to the glory of previous decades.
When Griffey stepped to the microphone at the press conference welcoming him back to town, the former Moeller High School star smoothed the bill of his fresh, new Cincinnati Reds hat and breathed out the words, “Well, I’m finally home.”
Unlike Parker and Oester, though, Griffey didn’t have to wait beside the players’ parking lot to meet his heroes. Instead, he was inside the clubhouse, hanging out with his dad and all of his Reds colleagues.
Much like Parker, Griffey was already a star before he put on his Reds uniform. Griffey, at the time, was 30 years old and considered a real threat to break Hank Aaron’s record of 755 career home runs. And even though he probably could have made much more money on the free agent market because he was largely considered the best all-around player in the game, Griffey agreed to a nine-year contract worth $116.5 million (somewhere on that day, Parker must have been gnashing his teeth in frustration).
When Oester — a Reds coach at the time — threw batting practice balls to Griffey, he was amazed.
“He was the most impressive guy I’ve ever thrown batting practice to,” Oester says. “He’d start in left field, and he’d hit balls out of the park. Then, he’d go to center and hit line drive home runs to center. Then he’d go to right field and do the same thing. You couldn’t throw him a bad pitch. He’d always hit it hard somewhere.”
The problem for Griffey: His body couldn’t keep up his end of the bargain.
In 2000, Griffey played in 145 games and smashed 40 home runs in his first Reds season. He never played that many games again. He never again hit that many homers in a season. And as he began missing more and more games, that immense contract became an unwieldy weight around his battered body. Although he recovered from a career-threatening injury in which he tore his hamstring completely off the bone, hitting .301 with 35 homers and 102 RBI in 2005 to win the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award, Griffey’s nine-year tenure in Cincinnati was a tad disappointing.
“The hometown hero comes back, and you have visions of that parade and the championships,” says MLB.com national reporter Anthony Castrovince, who covered Griffey and the Reds during the 2005 season. “I talked about that with him. He had those visions of doing that for his hometown. His body didn’t cooperate. It was frustrating for everybody — for him and the fans. By the end, hopefully people understood Griffey the guy and how much he cared. That guy wanted to be on the field. Baseball was still fun for him.”
Since Griffey played his final game in the big leagues in 2010, he’ll be eligible for the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2016, when he almost assuredly will make it in on the first ballot.
Beckley, the final Reds Hall of Fame inductee this year, is already in Cooperstown after a standout career from 1888-1907. Nicknamed “Eagle Eye,” he was acquired by the Reds in 1897 and was the team’s starting first baseman through the 1903 season. Though he played in the Dead Ball Era, Beckley batted at least .300 in six of his seven seasons in Cincinnati, his .325 career average is third-best in club history and his 244 career triples still ranks No. 4 in baseball history (when he retired in 1907, it was actually the top mark in the history of the game).
Beckley died young at the age of 50 in 1918 from heart disease — the headline in the next day’s Pittsburgh Press read, “Umpire calls old Jake Beckley out” — and he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame posthumously in 1971.
While Beckley, a native of Hannibal, Missouri, is probably largely unknown to many Reds fans in this day and age, the men with whom he’s keeping company this weekend all made Cincinnati proud. Because they were from Cincinnati, because they grew up watching Robinson and Pinson vroom past in their Thunderbirds (by the way, you should have seen the look on 21-year-old Eric Davis’ face during his first spring training when he watched Parker pull his Porsche into the parking lot) and because all of them played so well for their hometown team.
“It makes it all the more special, going in with a couple guys like that,” Oester says of Griffey and Parker. “I feel like I should just be sitting in the background and watching.”
REDS HALL OF FAME WEEKEND
Friday Aug. 8:
5-7 p.m.: Meet and greets with Reds Hall of Famers at the Hall of Fame and Museum.
7:10 p.m. Reds vs. Marlins
Postgame ceremonies to honor more than 20 Reds legends, including members of the 2014 induction class, plus fireworks.
Saturday Aug. 9:
2:30-4:30 p.m.: Meet and greets with Reds Hall of Famers at the Hall of Fame and Museum.
Pregame on-field ceremonies to induct Ken Griffey Jr., Ron Oester, Dave Parker and the late Jake Beckley into the Reds Hall of Fame (6:30 p.m.); free Hall of Fame commemorative print to all fans in attendance.
7:10 p.m. Reds vs. Marlins
Sunday Aug. 10:
1:10 p.m. Reds vs. Marlins
Induction Gala featuring the 2014 Reds and Reds legends in attendance to honor this year’s Inductees, plus dinner and live entertainment, at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center.
More info: reds.com
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