The Cobra Playlist

Dave Parker was most effective as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He won an MVP in 1978 and a World Series in 1979. (via dbking)

Dealing with Parkinson’s disease is tougher than handling a Nolan Ryan fastball on a chilly April evening. The most simple tasks become a chore. I need to think twice before lifting my grandchild in the air or even carrying her school bag to make the bus stop on time. My golf swing lacks the power of someone my age and even working with young baseball players can be a challenge. There are nights I’ll be watching a game, and my body reminds me that I have the disease. When this happens, I slowly rise from my recliner, make my way to the stereo, reach for my headphones, and drift into yesterday.

The melodies of my life remind me of the good times. Sometimes the bad, but the best thing about recalling the regrets is that I am alive to feel something, that I’m still here boppin’. Sometimes it takes a Bobby Womack song or a James Brown thing to get me into the right kind of funk. This is what I listen to, to keep me going, to open my memory boxes, recalling all that has gone on before.

“If I Could Build My Whole World Around You,” Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

1967 was a year of impending turmoil, with social pressures bubbling under the surface, especially for a 15-year-old boy like myself. Vietnam staring me in the face, that scared all of us. My mom and dad, and the parents of all my friends, made darn sure we were not failing in school and always involved in activities that could somehow keep us out of the war. When I wasn’t watching news reports coming back from Saigon, I was keeping my mind distracted with my job as a popcorn vendor at Crosley Field, home to the Cincinnati Reds, just a few blocks from my house, the baseball cathedral of my youth. I drowned out the thoughts of war and civil unrest with sports and best friends; on the football field, catching touchdown passes from my man Tim Williams; making deep jumpers on the basketball court with my childhood pal Conny Warren, or hitting lightning-fast line drives that drove in my friend Bill Flowers. In many ways, life could never be better.

We remember so much about the introspective Marvin Gaye from “What’s Goin’ On,” the mid-70’s cool dude Marvin Gaye from “Got To Give It Up,” or even late-stage “Sexual Healing” Marvin, but it was ‘60s Marvin & Tammi Terrell that made me feel hope and optimism. Just look at them. They were so young, their whole lives ahead of them in that moment. You could just feel their chemistry, their love, the emotional bond between them whenever you watched them on some TV variety show. The following years weren’t easy for many Americans, and I was 18 when I heard Tammi had passed away in 1970 at the age of 24. I never met Marvin, but I don’t think he was ever the same after her death. But when you saw them together, when you heard them belt out a song like this, you believed we were all gonna be ok.

“Walk The Rockway,” Rufus & Chaka Khan

In the late 70s, the Pirates had battled the Phillies for three seasons without getting back to the playoffs. My teammates and the organization were determined to change that. There were many hard-fought battles just like in previous years. We needed a place in Pittsburgh to blow off steam once the games ended. If you wanted live music, there was Chauncy’s. If you wanted to get down and boogie, there was Heaven – that was my spot.

The club had this glass-encased entrance emptying into a foyer that opened to a wide staircase leading to the VIP area. Much like Studio 54 in New York City, the upper level had balconies where you could look down at the action on the dance floor. They did it right – artificial clouds of smoke filled the club and this song played there a lot in ’79. I loved Khan’s rich, vibrant voice, and Rufus knew how to keep time with a beat as well as anyone of the era. I would drop in to Heaven often with John Milner, who joined us in 1978. We got close during that spring training and we ran around together for years. I miss The Hammer. Died way too young. Chaka Khan was in the background for many of our good times at Heaven, but that is another story.

“It’s Too Late,” Carole King & Billy Paul

In March 1971, I was assigned to the Pirates’ Waterbury farm team. I was flattered to be promoted to Double-A, but I thought with the numbers I put up in my few at-bats during spring training that I was good enough to make the ballclub. I know, I was only 19 and the Pirates were Eastern Division champions, but I didn’t care.

I drove with my girlfriend at the time from Pirate City in Bradenton up the east coast on I-95 to Connecticut in my 1970 Pontiac Grand Prix, gold with a tan top and cool white walls. Just getting that machine to 100 mph, racing the Mustangs, Corvettes, and Dodge Dusters that tried to pass us on the highway and whipping them all every chance we had, that was a thrill. We laughed about the lack of radio station music we liked. No Isley Brothers, hardly any James Brown. We kept hearing Janis Joplin – she had the number one song in the country at the time – and my girlfriend joked that I was her Bobby McGee.

On the field, I was pressing almost immediately at Waterbury and finished the season down at Single-A Monroe in North Carolina. There was a whole lotta driving for me that year, and after that first trip, much of it was alone. Eight hours in the car by yourself isn’t fun for anyone, and by the time I was demoted, Carole King and her songs constantly kept me company. It was a nice change of pace from my Sly & the Family Stone 8-tracks. The musical revelation came a couple of years later when I heard this Billy Paul cover.

His signature hit was “Me & Mrs. Jones,” and you can hear the heartbreak and remorse in his voice with every note. Once I got to Pittsburgh, I actually met Billy through mutual friends, and we hung out a few times together. Another good dude we lost way too soon.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

“Harlem,” Bill Withers

It was April 1973. I arrived at Watt Powell Park in Charleston, West Virginia. I was not happy to be with the Triple-A team. Again, I wanted to make the big club, but as you probably know, the Pirates had won three divisions in a row, and five players in the starting lineup batted .300. The roster was just too stacked and my manager Danny Murtaugh didn’t want me wasting away on the bench.

So showing up to that first game didn’t have me in the best of spirits. And then I met Bill Withers. He had a hit song a year earlier with “Ain’t No Sunshine.” He was born and raised in West Virginia. The local Chamber of Commerce was there for Opening Day. Bill was back in the area for the town’s annual Morris Harvey Festival. At the time, Withers was celebrated as a blue-collar airport worker who had managed to break into the music business past his 30th birthday. We spoke for quite awhile before the ceremony. “Your time will come, Junior,” Withers said to me when I told him about my situation, “Just hang tight.” I may not have completely listened to those words of wisdom, but I listened to his music every day on the way to the ballpark that season. I just love how the tempo builds as the song moves along. His “Just As I Am” album was the soundtrack for my time in Charleston.

“There’s No Easy Way,” James Ingram

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the great Ingram, who lost his battle with brain cancer recently. He was another Ohio product like me. I really enjoyed his ballads, and this one has extra significance. The moment I hear the first note, I instantly think of 1983. My time in Pittsburgh was coming to an end and it wasn’t an easy exit. Everyone knew I wouldn’t be back and I think we all needed a break from one another.

Old age gives you the perspective of regret. When you’re in my position now, retired and pretty comfortable, you have some time on your hands, and every day is the post-game show recapping your life. I don’t like how it ended in Pittsburgh. Cincinnati created a new, incredible home for me, and I am eternally grateful for that opportunity to play 81 games a year in front of my family and friends, but I never had the proper closure with Pirates fans that they deserved. I’m working real hard on that right now.

“China Grove,” The Doobie Brothers

Whenever I think of the clubhouse, this is the first song that comes to mind. I know we had the most soul in the league in that room, but Stargell loved this band, so we played it all the time. The memories during these years – Jerry Reuss holding court, laughing with the beat reporters; Rennie Stennett and “Sangy” (Manny Sanguillen) cracking jokes in their native Panamanian tongue; Al “Scoop” Oliver sitting at his stool, holding his bat, quietly preparing for the game; me, snapping towels at Frankie Taveras as I chased him through the clubhouse; wildman pitcher Bob Moose standing at his locker, psyching himself up before a critical start; Willie going around taking photographs when players weren’t looking.

Stargell loved his camera – he would hang the photos up on the bulletin board for all of us to see. He got a funky snapshot of this rookie second baseman, Willie Randolph, that we enjoyed for a couple of weeks. We all called Randolph “Slick” because he was from New York – Brooklyn, to be exact. Even as a first-year player, you could see Slick had the concentration needed to be great at this level. He was like Scoop in that way. We missed Dave Cash a lot – he was so cool, we nicknamed him “A.C.” We loved Rennie to pieces, too, but we just knew Slick was gonna be a legendary Pirate for a long, long time. But that’s another story.

“Me & Baby Brother,” WAR

If Willie Stargell was the spiritual father of our team, then Dock Ellis was the fun older sibling. I first met Dock at 1971 spring training and I would run around with him every March down in Bradenton until I finally made the club to stay in ‘73. Then all bets were off. Dock took me out wherever he went in those years, and when we weren’t together, he would bring the good time to me. Ask Slick, he roomed with Dock for a few months, he’ll tell you the same thing. Randolph was all business. On the road, ‘ol Slick was one beer and then straight to the hotel to rest for that next day’s game. Dock would have none of that, bringing people back to the room at all hours of the night. Heh, poor Slick. It got especially bad on West Coast trips. Being a native of Los Angeles, Dock had lots of friends in the entertainment business. Let me paint this picture. 1975, I’m in my suite at the L.A. Biltmore, 1 a.m., there’s a knock at the door. Who’s there? Dock and half of the band from WAR. Not gonna lie, it was a good time. A late, late night, but a darn good time.

“Summer Madness,” Kool & The Gang

Most people know them for their celebratory anthem and for their slow-dance hit “Cherish” but there was a time early in their career when Kool & The Gang busted out some kick-ass instrumentals. Check out “Chocolate Buttermilk,” which they released in 1969. You’ll think you’re listening to old-school Chicago. When I think of “Summer Madness” it reminds me of the frustrations of 1974, when I began the season in the starting lineup but injuries kept me on the bench for a good part of the year. It’s not my favorite memory, but it reminds me of the drive, the ambition, and trust in my skills to be a dominant player. It was like Kool & the Gang were using their music to refresh my memory of Bill Wither’s advice. Just enjoy the ride, son. Your skills will get you there.

“Spill The Wine,” The Isley Brothers

The Isleys were our hometown music. They also came from the Cincinnati area. I brought those 8-tracks with me wherever I went. I hear this one now – a cover from a WAR song, as you probably know – and I remember playing it as I drove to the beach parties Stargell used to throw the team after spring training workouts. Didn’t matter if you were a 5-time all-star or a rookie struggling to make the roster. Will made everyone in Pirates’ camp feel like a part of the family. It was the first time I tasted steamed fish. Steaks hot off the grill, ribs, everything you could imagine. I remember sitting on a towel looking out onto the gulf when Dock, sporting aviator sunglasses, had a frosty screwdriver in one hand and a KOOL cigarette in the other as he introduced me to his agent, Tom Reich. This was before most players had agents. It was a new idea to many of us.

“Mr. Reich is gonna make your ass rich,” Dock said as Tom blushed. I took a walk with Tom down the beach that day and we talked for hours. Waves crashing against the sand as Tom built a roadmap for my career. “Your talent will take care of you for a long time,” Tom said to me, “But you have to take care of your talent. I’ll take care of everything else.” It was the best business partnership I ever had.

“Mothership Connection,” Parliament

Now y’all didn’t think I was gonna forget this one, did you? Man, George was the soundtrack of those late 70s years for me. Stargell was the daddy, Dock was the big brother, but Larry Demery, well, we were boys from pretty much from the moment we met at spring training in ’73. He sure could throw. Larry usually hit mid 90s on his fastball and on a good night approach triple digits. He had a body like Pedro Martinez and was just as tough. We were very influenced by Dock, so as a pitcher, Demery didn’t take nonsense from anybody. Larry could be outspoken, Larry said what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it, but I never met a ballplayer who had a bigger heart.

There was many a night when we were out driving the streets of Pittsburgh after games heading to the clubs, George Clinton’s distinctive voice broadcasting from the car stereo. Larry drove this four-door Lincoln Continental with turquoise interior. My Parkinson’s isn’t strong enough to make me forget those late nights with Larry, blasting the P-Funk as we rolled up to the club.

I remember being out at a bar with Larry one time in April 1976. The Phillies were making their move to take over the division. You play this game with an air of invincibility, but you gotta be aware of what’s comin’ up behind you, and in ’76, that was Philadelphia. They had the best young third baseman in baseball in Mike Schimdt. A great slugger in Bull Luzinski. Lineup protection with Dick Allen, who was still dangerous on any given day. And the best left hander in the game at the time in Steve Carlton. Standing at the bar enjoying rum and cokes, I thought that if my teammates saw me strut into the clubhouse, cool and confident, wearing a badass message that there would be nothing to worry about. Because that’s the mindset you need to succeed at this level. So that’s where the t-shirt came from.

As I lay back in my recliner, listening to these songs, I review my life and think about the good and bad times. The at-bats I wish I had back, the walk-off home runs I celebrated, the people I grew close to; my childhood in Cincinnati with Timmy, Conny and Bill Flowers. Scoop, Stargell, Sangy, Stennett and Demery in Pittsburgh. The long nights overlooking the Florida shoreline planning my future with Tom over numerous drinks. Mentoring Barry Larkin, Eric Davis and Kal Daniels in my later years with the Reds. Heh-heh, playing cards on the plane with Rickey during my seasons in Oakland. Spending quality time with a young Gary Sheffield at my late stop in Milwaukee. These lifelong friendships, wondering what I could’ve done different in Pittsburgh toward the end. The successes, the regrets, and I feel blessed that I am still alive to have all these feelings. The music plays a vital role in getting my spiritual engine going.

I was talking with one of the fellas just last week. We were joking about that late night out in the clubs in Pittsburgh, where, upon leaving, we opened the heavy doors to the entrance and were met by the blinding sunrise. But of course, that’s another story.

Maybe I’ll even tell you that story one day.

Maybe I’ll tell them all.

Dave Parker was a seven-time All-Star over his 19-year career. Parker won two batting titles and the 1978 MVP, as well as two World Series rings, as a member of the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates and the 1989 Oakland A's. His upcoming memoir, Cobra, written with Dave Jordan and published by University of Nebraska Press, is due for release in 2020.
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Dave Studemanmember
3 years ago

This was tremendous. Thank you.

Jetsy Extrano
3 years ago
Reply to  Dave Studeman

Incredible article. For 2019 I’m going to remember this one. Thanks guys, and all the best to Mr. Parker.

The era of streaming music has its problems, but I love the ability to listen to the soundtrack here.

Also I can’t believe I’ve been in the same club as Dave F. Parker.
(Huh, closed by court order as a “nuisance bar” in 2004.)

Dennis Bedard
3 years ago

This article is one of the best this site has ever published, and that is saying a lot. My favorite is this gem about the ’73 Pirates: “The roster was just too stacked.” Ya think so?

3 years ago

this comment is straight from LF
parkinsons’s is really epstein barr virus
Dr Anthony Williams has got your cure my friend
you deserve great health and it can be yours

Adam Arnold
3 years ago

I’ve been reading The Hardball Times for a very long time. Wow and thank you.

3 years ago

Tremendous article! Thank you, Mr. Parker, for sharing your music and your memories.

3 years ago

I know what book I’ll be getting next year.

3 years ago

Terrific article, reminds me of awesome articles on The Players Tribune.