Trying to choose my favorite baseball card from the 1980s is like trying to pick the most important cell in my body. I love and need them all!
Even narrowing it down with the qualifier “One of” as outlined in Day 12 of the 30-Day Baseball Card Challenge is tough, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I just had to follow my heart home.
And, when it comes to baseball, the Cincinnati Reds are the only home I’ve ever known.
Hot Stove Buzz
After the Baltimore Orioles and hotshot Cal Ripken finished off the Philadelphia Phillies and two of my favorite players — Pete Rose and Mike Schmidt — in the 1983 World Series, I was left with the cold, hard realities of my first baseball offseason as a bona fide fan.
First, I was in for a long five months until Spring Training got underway in 1984.
Second, that version of the Phillies was likely done considering their average age in 1983 was 53.
And third — worst of all — my Cincinnati Reds were a bad baseball team. I had the misfortune of choosing the franchise as my own just as they were bottoming out and the last vestiges of The Big Red Machine fell off the vehicle.
In particular, the Reds finished 74-88 in a 1983 season that would be Johnny Bench‘s last.
Things looked bleak.
But then I started hearing some buzz about off-season player movement. Now, back in those days, “buzz” consisted of a weekly article in the Indianapolis Star or maybe a mention of baseball on a Sunday afternoon baseball broadcast or the nightly news.
Very occasionally, a buddy at school would claim to have some inside information about a trade or potential trade. Scoops were hard to come by, but they did turn up now and then.
Somewhere along the line of picking through the diamond grapevine that late fall, I caught wind of an intriguing concept called The Winter Meetings.
Apparently, this was where representatives of all 26 (at the time) Major League teams came together in December each year to discuss baseball’s future in all its various forms. More importantly, it’s where major player deals went down.
I pictured the Winter Meetings as some sort of hardball Shangri-La — and I still do.
Red Hots in Cold Nashville
As it turned out, the 1983 Winter Meetings held in Nashville, TN, had plenty of action to excite Reds fans.
During those gatherings — or at least within a few days’ proximity — we saw …
- Rose sign with the *gasp* Montreal Expos
- Joe Morgan latch with the Oakland A’s on for one final season
- Tony Perez return home to the Reds (yay!)
These moves were surprising, heartwarming, and sad all at the same time. None of these guys were the sparkplugs they had been with the Reds throughout the mid-1970s, but they were living legends.
It was comforting to know they’d be around for another year.
But the big bomb dropped on December 7, the Wednesday of the 1983 Winter Meetings.
Big Dave Comes Home
On that cold winter day, the Cincinnati Reds signed Dave Parker to a free agent contract, and my whole world changed.
By that point, of course, Parker was damaged goods.
His once lithe body had plumped and rounded as he entered his 30s, and that potent left-handed swing lost some of its swagger. Worst of all, The Cobra’s image had been tarnished tremendously by whispers of rampant cocaine usage among the Pittsburgh Pirates that ultimately resulted in the Pittsburgh Drug Trials of 1985.
But I had just lived through a 1983 season where the biggest stars the Reds had to offer were Mario Soto and maybe Gary Redus. It was a lackluster bunch that gave fans very little reason to come to the ballpark each day, and they largely forgot the team even existed. Cincy finished 11th in the NL in attendance that summer, with just 1.1 million paying customers.
The Parker signing changed all that.
Not only was he a hometown boy — he’d grown up in Cincinnati — he was a name.
He was a legitimate home run threat, when Redus had paced the Reds with a bleak 17 homers in 1983.
Even if the Reds had to rebuild Parker, and they did, he gave us all hope.
Even though just a couple hours separate Cincinnati from Pittsburgh and both are long-standing river towns, the move to the Reds gave Parker a new lease on his baseball life.
It started with his face.
Gone was the carefully planned beard that helped define him at Three Rivers for over a decade, replaced by the smooth cheeks and upper lip dictated by Marge Schott’s ban on facial hair.
Gone were the wheels (even though Parker thought he could still run, he couldn’t; see 11 steals in 21 attempts).
In their place was an even rounder 33-year-old who appeared in more than 150 games (156) for the first time in five years. The Cobra was more like a garter snake, managing just 16 homers and 74 RBI, but he looked like he had more to give.
Attendance increased by 150,000 that year, helped in large part by Rose’s return to the Riverfront in August. But Parker was undoubtedly a draw, the marquee name Cincy had lacked in recent seasons.
His presence also helped me convince my parents to take me to my first Big League game in June, and I was beyond thrilled when we snagged seats in the right-field lower deck, right behind Parker. He waved in our direction a few times, and I went hoarse calling his name.
My mother, delicate flower that she is, even came up with a new nickname for Parker: Hip Pockets.
Parker was my new favorite Red, and I couldn’t wait to see what he could do in 1985 during his first full year under Rose’s managerial tutelage and playing alongside Eric Davis in the outfield.
The Missing Piece
But before I could put the 1984 season behind me, there was one unfinished bit of business that I needed to take care of, and I knew I’d get my chance in November.
Specifically, I’d spent all summer just dying because I didn’t have any cards of Big Dave in a Cincinnati Reds uniform. There essentially weren’t any to be had, but that didn’t make the wait any easier.
Finally, around Thanksgiving, I went to the big pre-holiday card show at the Indianapolis Convention Center where I knew several dealers would have the 1984 Topps Traded set for sale (as well as the Fleer Update set for the first time ever).
No, 1984 was the year that Dwight Gooden burst onto the scene, and everybody was eager to see his cardboard debut. Heck, I had never even seen a picture of Gooden to that point, so the anticipation of that first card had me drooling
Add in AL Rookie of the Year Alvin Davis and Rose’s God-awful Expos card, and Dave Parker was merely an afterthought.
That all changed as I shuffled through the 132-card set with the blazing white stock and came to card #90.
There was Big Dave Parker, grinning at me from the lower left-hand corner of the card as he powered through the strike zone in the main photo. In that shot, he looked like he might slam the ball a thousand feet or smack 60 homers in a season.
I was sure he would.
I couldn’t wait for the next season to get started and, even now, the 1984 Topps Traded Dave Parker card puts me in the mood to watch some Reds baseball.
What more could you want from “a” — if not the — favorite baseball card?
(Check out our other player card posts here.)