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Mike Downey

They're Standing Their Ground--but It Isn't Easy

February 22, 1987|Mike Downey

Catchers are supposed to be at camp by now, squatting and sweating, but Lance Parrish isn't, and Bob Boone isn't, and Rich Gedman isn't, and if one of these guys does not show up pretty soon, the American League's starting catcher in the All-Star game is going to be, oh, Ernie Whitt, or somebody like that.

Instead of reporting to spring training, three of the league's best catchers are doing precisely what they do so well on the diamond when a runner rounds third and barrels toward home plate. They are standing firm.

The question is: Are they smart to stand their ground, or are they stubborn mules who do not know when it would be good for them to move?

Parrish was offered $1.2 million for one year by his team of seasons past, the Detroit Tigers, and turned it down. He was offered $1 million for one year by his preferred team of seasons future, the Philadelphia Phillies, and turned it down. He has a bad back, not a good thing for a catcher to have, but Parrish fielded what was offered and believed he deserved more.

Boone was offered $883,000 for one year by his team, the Angels, and said: No way. He felt insulted. He was 39 years old, and did not have much of a batting average, but Boone believed he deserved more.

Gedman was offered $2.6 million for three years by his team, the Boston Red Sox, and said it was not enough. He has been his team's regular catcher only since 1984, and had never been mistaken for the second coming of Thurman Munson, but Gedman heard what Boston was offering and believed he deserved more.

Your first reaction to all this might be: Maybe their masks were too tight. Maybe they took too many foul tips. Maybe there is a good reason that a catcher's equipment has been colloquially described as "the tools of ignorance."

But say, for example, that you have spoken with Lance Parrish, and know him to be a sensible, thoughtful kind of guy, someone who does not deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with the word ignorance, even if you are only discussing his chest protector and shin guards.

You happen to know that Bob Boone is nobody's fool, either, and although Rich Gedman may be a complete stranger to you, at least you can say for him that he is standing his ground in pretty good company.

The problem, of course, is defending anybody who can look this sort of money in the eye and kiss it goodby. There are so many working stiffs--or nonworking stiffs--in the world who cannot relate to rejecting one-eighth of these amounts that they will not tolerate any logical attempt to support the face-value greed of these catchers or the men who represent them.

Parrish, for one, is finding it pretty difficult to be a pioneer. Like Curt Flood and Andy Messersmith before him, he is attempting, in his own way, to resist the total autonomy of major league baseball's owners, to maintain some independence and retain some say-so in the control they have over him and his brother ballplayers.

So, instead of reporting to camp, he sits home in Yorba Linda, not that far from Anaheim Stadium, and waits for a satisfactory resolution. "Do I take a stance for Lance Parrish or for the Major League Players Assn.?" he wonders. "I'm in a position to be some type of force. Do I put myself first, or jeopardize my chances of signing a contract and support the players?"

If you think it is easy rejecting a million bucks or more when there are some teams, such as the St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros, who already have examined your X-rays and have decided that your back is too big a risk, think again. Parrish is putting his career, his reputation and his bank account on the line.

He would like to sign with the Phillies, and the Phillies would like to sign him. Both parties are very much aware that they would be breaking, or at least wrinkling, the bond between baseball's owners--unspoken or otherwise--that has been keeping them from signing each other's most-expensive players.

Bill Giles, boss of the Phillies, was prepared to hurt Detroit management's feelings by making Parrish an offer. But he refused to do two things: He refused to offer Parrish more than the Tigers were offering, which would make it all the more clear to the public that it was Parrish who was betraying Detroit, and he refused to sign the catcher without first getting him to promise, in writing, that he would never take the club, or baseball itself, to court to challenge their methods.

Parrish and his agent, Tom Reich, volunteered to take the Phillies off the hook, but not the game.

"It was a real deal-breaker," Reich said. And so, on Friday morning, after being certain that Parrish was theirs at last, the Phillies withdrew their offer, Giles calling the matter "99% dead."

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