Lance Parrish embraces the opportunity to help young players chase their dreams, and he’s doing so in the organization where he made six of his eight All-Star appearances. The 62-year-old former catcher manages the West Michigan Whitecaps, the Low-A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. Parrish broke into the big leagues with Detroit — the Motown home of Aretha Franklin — and went on to play for 19 seasons.
Parrish joined the coaching ranks shortly after hanging up his shinguards, and he became a minor-league manager soon thereafter. As fate would have it, he later found himself on the outside looking in, wondering if he’d ever get back in the game. He was skeptical that would happen, but then the Tigers came calling. He couldn’t be happier.
Lance Parrish: “When it was getting toward the end of my playing career, Sparky Anderson told me that if I had the desire to stay in the game, his recommendation was to go right into it as soon as my playing days were over. I think he was trying to give me a heads up that it’s not that easy to stay out for any length of time and then get back in whenever you feel like you want to get back in. He said, ‘If I were you, I’d jump right into it and see if it’s something you want to do.’ I took his advice.
“At first, I kind of moonlighted as a minor-league catching instructor with the Kansas City Royals, when Bob Boone was their manager. That was in 1996. Then I went to the Dodgers. In 1997 and 1998 I coached in San Antonio, Texas, in Double-A. My first year there, Ron Roenicke was managing and we won the Texas League. That got me off on the right foot, and I learned a lot from watching Ron manage. Ron is very astute when it comes to details. I learned about managerial style, how to relate to players, structure — he’s a very structured guy — things to work on throughout the course of a baseball season.
“The Dodgers had a way of doing things. They were very ‘by the book’ as far as the ‘Dodger way’ of doing things. Which I appreciated. You need to have some direction, and whether it came from Ron or from someone else in the organization — be it the hitting aspect of it, the catching aspect, or whatever — there has to be some structure. There have to be guidelines to follow, and the Dodgers were very well set up that way. It helped me to have a better understanding of how things work.
“I never really paid any attention to that when I was playing. I was a catcher and I did my job behind the plate. I didn’t pay attention to what the guys in the outfield and the infield were doing behind the scenes; I just saw what they were doing during the course of the games. To be able to take a step back and get behind the scenes was a good learning experience for me. If you’re going to be a manager, you have to know how to do everything. You have to know how everything works.
“In 1998, I coached the first half of the season, and in the second half I managed. There was a shakeup in the Dodgers organization. They fired Bill Russell, who was the manager in LA, and brought up Glenn Hoffman from Triple-A to replace him. They moved Ron up from Double-A to manage the Triple-A team, so Charlie Blaney, the farm director, asked me if I wanted to manage the second half of the season. I said, ‘Absolutely.’ That’s where my managerial career really started.
“I tried to take little bits and pieces from all the guys I played for — what I thought their strengths were, the direction they pointed the club in, the way they dealt with players. I’ve tried to incorporate all of those things into my managerial style. For me, managing is not just Xs and Os.
“At this level, winning isn’t the primary goal. If I was managing in the major leagues, it would be the exact opposite. Up there, you manage to win every game. Down here, player development is the priority. We’re trying to help guys move up the ladder.
“Your team is going to change over the course of the season. We might have a couple, three guys doing really well, and they’re helping you win games, and the next thing you know they’re all gone to next level. Then we have to take a step back and start all over. We regroup and try to play with the same purpose and intensity that we had been. You’re always replenishing at this level. It’s a constant cycle of starting over, starting over, starting over. That’s just the way the minor leagues work.
“Looking back, Les Moss was the guy who got me to the big leagues. I’ve said all along that if it wasn’t for Les, I wouldn’t have made it. He was an ex-catcher, which was beneficial to me, but he was also an astute baseball man who knew how to do pretty much everything. It was incredible. Anytime someone was having a rough time doing something, Les always seemed to know the right drills to do, the right areas to attack, to get them back on track. He certainly did that with me.
“Les was my manager in Double-A and Triple-A, and then he replaced Ralph Houk as the manager in Detroit for half a season until Sparky came on board. I thought Les was doing a pretty good job, but when Sparky became available they turned him loose so they could hire Sparky. But I loved Les. He made a tremendous difference in my playing career.
“I played for a lot of managers. Toward the end of my career, I was playing for a different guy every year. Lee Elia, in Philadelphia, is someone I learned a lot from, especially how to relate to players. Lee has a great personality. He knew when to kick somebody in the butt and when to go up and give somebody a hug. You have to know how to do that.
“When I was playing for the Tigers and weightlifting was first coming into the fold, our strength and conditioning coach was a guy who’d worked under Bo Schembechler at the University of Michigan. He always said that Bo had this way of undressing a player on the practice field and making him feel like nothing, but before the end of the day he’d make sure he built that guy back up. He’d praise him so that he felt good about himself before he walked off the practice field. There’s a balance there, and I’ve always tried to remember that.
“Have I done the same? Maybe not to the extreme that some other guys have, but I think I get my point across. I let people know when I’m not satisfied with the way things are going and the way they’re going about their business. It’s part of what I do. I have to do that.
“I was out of the game for six years. I was let go by the Dodgers when I was managing here in the Midwest League, in 2007. I was the first manager of the Great Lakes Loons. De Jon Watson became the farm director that year, replacing Terry Collins, and after the season was over they told me they weren’t going to renew my contract.
“I had to have some repair work done on my body. I had to have a knee replaced and a shoulder scoped, and I figured I’d get those things done, work myself back into shape, and jump right back into the game. Well, it wasn’t that easy. I was trying to get my foot back in the door, and for six years I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get a job with anybody. To be honest, I didn’t think I was going to get back in the game.
“Then, out of the blue, the Tigers called. They asked if I’d be interested in managing their Double-A team in Erie, Pennsylvania. This was in 2014. I said, ‘Absolutely.’ So I managed there for four years, and this year I moved down here to West Michigan.
“The game has changed since I got let go by the Dodgers. Computers have become a big part of the game. Analytics and sabermetrics have become a huge part of the game. Before I left, they were just scratching the surface with that stuff. Now every team is heavily invested in it. A whole new terminology has infiltrated the game of baseball, and we all have to know it. If you don’t know it, the game is going to pass you by.
“There’s been a lot to learn. You don’t just wake up in the morning knowing all about analytics. We’ve all had to read and study. Some of us are more advanced than others, but we’re all working our way up the ladder as far as understanding all of that stuff.
“A lot of it doesn’t play into what I do here on a day-to-day basis. I’m pretty much directed as to what I’m able to do with certain things. For instance, shifting and moving guys around defensively is an organizational call. I do have some freedom to move guys if I want to, but in some organizations it’s absolutely mandatory to do certain things. As a minor-league manager, that’s something you need to adjust to.
“Coming here from Erie wasn’t an adjustment. As I’ve said all along, I was asked to coach for the Detroit Tigers and to be a teacher. That’s what I am. It doesn’t really matter what level I’m doing it at. I enjoy the opportunity to pass along the things I learned, and I enjoy the opportunity to help these guys realize their dream.
“Everybody aspires to move up, and it would have been nice to have the opportunity to manage at Triple-A, but I’m happy here in West Michigan. This is a great place to be. My ego is something I’ve pretty much pushed aside. I enjoy working for the Tigers and wherever they want me to go, I’m happy to be there.
“How long will I keep at it? It’s either until I decide I don’t want to do it anymore or until they kick me off the boat. It’ll be one or the other. Right now, I’m enjoying the opportunity.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.