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‘The Cobra at Twilight’: Will Dave Parker ever get the recognition he deserves?

Parker was snubbed by the Baseball Hall of Fame again — and it’s tragic

SAN DIEGO — There’s only one thing keeping Dave Parker out of baseball’s Hall of Fame: cocaine.

This week at the MLB’s winter meetings, the group of 16 members who make up the Modern Baseball Committee decided that a guy who played 19 seasons and whose decorations include two World Series rings, seven All-Star Games, three Gold Gloves, three Silver Sluggers, two batting titles, an MVP award and, most importantly, a legendary nickname, doesn’t deserve to be enshrined. The Cobra apparently doesn’t belong in Cooperstown. And after you see MLB Network’s documentary — The Cobra at Twilight, which premieres Thursday — about Parker’s life, career and current struggles with Parkinson’s disease, you’ll understand his snub was a lifetime in the making.

Casual baseball fans of a certain age probably don’t remember Dave Parker. A behemoth of a black man from Cincinnati, his impact on the game was one that centered on both his play and who he was. Parker was a five-tool player and his mouth was one of the best in sports. “When the leaves turn brown, I’ll be wearing the batting crown,” was one of his go-to phrases, and the famous photo of him at his locker wearing a shirt that says, “If you hear any noise it’s just me and the boys, boppin” is so popular that Pirates players and fans wear it to this day. Parker had swag, substance and zero humility.

By today’s standards, he was an everyday superstar athlete. But for his day, they didn’t make them like Dave, and people couldn’t handle it. Surely, Pittsburgh couldn’t. His teammates called him the Black Adonis and he routinely threatened to beat them up if they didn’t play better. But when that guy became a millionaire, it set into motion a series of events that made it nearly impossible for him to get the recognition he deserves. When he walked into a courtroom in 1985 and admitted he was a serious cocaine user who had not only brought his dealer into the team clubhouse but also on the team plane while he was a Pirate, his shot at the Hall pretty much went away. It’s an unfortunate stain that affects Parker’s legacy, which, for a sport that once celebrated drug users who could crush the ball out of the park, feels unfair.

Don’t get it twisted. The Cobra was a handful. He demanded a trade in his second season. He liked cameras. He wore a Star of David necklace because he was David and he was a star. When he broke his jaw, he straight rocked a two-tone hockey mask at the plate besides his helmet, a look that could easily be described as: terrifying.

“Roberto Clemente was kind of that quiet, low-key superstar,” Tony Dungy, who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers at the time, says in the film. “That’s what Pittsburgh looked for. Now you get this guy who is as good as anybody, and that’s not his personality. Dave had swagger. I likened Dave to James Brown. Say it loud, and I’m black and I’m proud. You always knew he was there. This was an era when you were getting the Muhammad Alis, you were getting the African American stars being outspoken. It’s OK to be proud of your heritage. It’s OK to be a guy who draws attention, and that was probably a good message at that time.”

In 1979, Parker signed a five-year, $5 million deal and became the first baseball player paid a million dollars a year. This immediately put a target on his back and exposed a reality that still hasn’t changed with regard to black athletes. The toxic idea is simple: Black dudes are ungrateful for the gifts God gave them that allow them to entertain us, and therefore if they are remunerated in a way that allows them to live life in an excess as seen by white America, they are subject to physical and psychological abuse, which we’ll all consider fair. If it doesn’t look like they’re working hard, then why should they be getting rich? It’s a perverse brand of racism that certainly still permeates many sports fans’ attitudes.

At one point in the film, a reporter asks Parker if he ever feels guilty about his contract because “kids say they would play for free.” To think that a grown man could fix his face to effectively tell Parker he doesn’t deserve to get paid for being good at his job is just beyond me. Dave replies sharply, and it’s a passing moment in the film but a massive eye-opener regarding the era. While counting other people’s money is still very much big business in sports punditry, we understand that guilt is the last thing anyone’s ever going to feel about getting paid. Back then, not so much.

“In that time, Pittsburgh liked its heroes humble, I think it particularly liked its black athletes humble,” Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette describes in the film. “Here’s Dave, he doesn’t have a humble bone in his body. This brash black guy, wearing earrings, dressing a little unusual, back in the ’70s, that turned some people off.”

Parker probably deserved to be league MVP with the Cincinnati Reds in 1985, but it was widely known that the Baseball Writers’ Association of America did not want to give the award to a man who they described as a “druggie.” Yes, that is the same BWAA that determines who gets into the Hall of Fame. Why is it so tragic? Because the stigmas we believe to have outgrown still are impacting lives and legacies in an unfortunate way. So, while as sports fans and citizens we can pat ourselves on the back for growing as people and a society, a player’s drug use 40 years ago is now keeping a hobbled player from being honored in the highest way. That penalty doesn’t fit that crime.

To be clear, the point is not as simple as a conspiracy theory, which is the scariest part. It’s that over time, an “unlikable” guy who was arguably slighted and maligned becomes a narrative that fulfills itself in negativity. The general common knowledge of Parker’s mere existence decades ago shaped a feeling that when it comes time to take stock, we overlook him somehow. The damage was done long ago.

“I think when you dominate your generation, you should be in the Hall of Fame,” Harold Reynolds, former MLB player and analyst, said Monday. Reynolds hosted a screening of the film at the winter meetings and described how as a high schooler, his entire team watched Parker win the 1979 All-Star Game MVP award in Seattle with a couple of dazzling throws from right field. “I looked at a lot of these guys. I think [Don] Mattingly is, I think when we start talking about what did you do in your era, in your generation? When you’re the best player in your generation, then you’re in Cooperstown, simple as that.”

For the past seven years, Parker’s battle with Parkinson’s has slowed the Cobra to a cane-assisted crawl, a far cry from the fearless baserunner who commanded respect. The film chronicles Parker looking back on his life and career and describing his daily activities. The jarring juxtaposition of his physical presence and his current condition is obvious. But the story of who Parker was as a mentor resonates the most. Eric Davis, a World Series champion and Cincinnati Reds two-time All-Star, credits Parker with molding him as a rookie, and Gary Sheffield, who is on the 2020 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, had similarly kind words from their time together with the Milwaukee Brewers.

The film is not a hagiography designed to shame anyone into voting Parker into the Hall of Fame. But it is a pretty unflinching look at how truly unprepared baseball and America were for some of us, and quite clearly, continue to be.

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at The Undefeated. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B, and remixes — in that order.