Local man has fond memories of being a ‘boy of summer’

Today, Mark Parker is an enrolled agent at Kline’s CPA Group, in Huntington, but in 1978 he was a pitching prospect for the Chicago Cubs. Parker played five seasons in the Cubs’ minor league system, advancing all the way to Triple A, just a phone call away from the major leagues.
Today, Mark Parker is an enrolled agent at Kline’s CPA Group, in Huntington, but in 1978 he was a pitching prospect for the Chicago Cubs. Parker played five seasons in the Cubs’ minor league system, advancing all the way to Triple A, just a phone call away from the major leagues. Photo by Steve Clark.

Originally published April 7, 2016.

Mark Parker spent the summer of 1977 sharpening his skills in the outfield. A baseball player at Huntington College, he was hoping to deliver on the promise he’d shown local major league scouts during his recently completed junior season.

However, as he worked on becoming a better outfielder, something funny happened.

He ended up becoming a better pitcher.

“I was doing a lot of long throwing and I’d do different exercises to try to get where I had the arm speed to be a major league outfielder,” recalls Parker. “And in doing so, I come out my senior year to pitch and all of a sudden my fastball is eight to 10 more miles per hour, probably. I could tell, too. I just knew. I just had more pop on the ball.

“And then I just was lights-out pitching my senior year.”

Parker performed so well that the Chicago Cubs drafted him as a pitcher in the seventh round of the Major League Baseball amateur draft in 1978. Upon graduating from Huntington, he signed a contract with the Cubs. A few days later, he boarded a plane for New York, off to start a career in the minor leagues that would span the next five years – and see him come ever so close to taking the field for Chicago’s lovable losers.

Parker’s career began in Geneva, NY, where he played a half season for the Cubs’ Single A affiliate. The team was comprised of prospects drafted out of college, like him, as well as high school. The diverse collection of talent came together to form a formidable team.

“We did very well that year … we won our division easily and ended up winning the championship game,” says Parker. “I got to pitch in the championship game and won it.

“So, I went from having a great year in college to my first year and it all seemed pretty easy at that point in time. The Cubs thought very highly of me after that year.”

The organization was so bullish on Parker, in fact, that it invited him to a special instructional league in Arizona that fall.

“They would usually invite their players that they thought were potentially going to move up and make the major leagues,” he says, “And maybe they wanted to work with them, pitchers especially, maybe work on a changeup, a different pitch.”

The instructional league proved to be a prelude to something even bigger: The Cubs moved Parker all the way up to their Triple A affiliate in Wichita, KS, the following season, just a phone call away from the major leagues.

“That was a big adjustment for me, because the talent level had increased significantly,” says Parker.

He was in good company, as one of his teammates had also been promoted straight up from Single A. The two roomed together and grew accustomed to sitting on the bench, waiting their turns as the club’s more experienced players got first dibs on playing time.

“Got in a few outings and then they decided they didn’t want us sitting, they wanted us pitching,” says Parker. “So, we got the call to move to Double A.
“We both hopped in our car and drove to Texas, middle of the night.”

Parker arrived in Midland, TX, and was relieved to be in a situation where he’d get the opportunity to play more. The season turned out to be a challenging one, with Parker’s team playing almost exclusively in small ballparks that were unforgiving to pitchers.

“It’s a hitters’ league,” he says. “The parks are made for hitters, the wind blows out every night. Our team ERA was, like, 5.50.

“That was kind of a wakeup call.”

The experience gave Parker an idea of what he needed to do to improve.

“The hitters, you just didn’t throw your fastball by them,” he notes. “You had to learn to pitch … I couldn’t just overpower people like I did in college or in Single A.

“Now I needed another pitch. I needed to locate fastball, change speeds and so forth.”

Participating in the Arizona instructional league again after the season helped him do that. He worked on adding both a changeup and a slider to his pitching arsenal.

The following spring, the Cubs promoted Parker back up to their Triple A affiliate, now located in Des Moines, IA. Unlike his last stint at that level, he remained there the entire season. Though Parker didn’t have an outstanding year, he displayed enough growth to keep the organization pleased.

“Still was thought of as a prospect in the Cubs’ eyes,” he says. “They had high hopes for me.”

In 1981, Parker saw how high those hopes were: The Cubs assigned him to their 40-man roster heading into spring training.

“I got to pitch in some major league games, spring training games,” he shares. “Got to pitch against some pretty well-known players.”

Parker pitched well in his first game. His fondest memory from it, though, was made at the plate, rather than on the mound.

“The very first major league spring training game, I was pitching and then my time came up to hit and usually they pinch-hit for you, usually you only pitch a couple of innings,” says Parker. “But right at the last second, the manager said, ‘You’re hitting.’”

Parker’s heart started racing.

“I didn’t even have a bat,” he says. “I didn’t even know what helmet to put on. I grab a helmet, grab the first bat that felt halfway decent in my hand.”

Then, something miraculous happened.

“On the very first pitch … I hit a line drive down the left-field line for a double.”

Since getting drafted, he’d gotten precious few opportunities to bat. As a result, his hitting skills had sharply declined. So, the fact that his best hit since Huntington College came against major league talent left him standing on second base, in disbelief.

“So, there’s my claim to fame,” he says, grinning. “I’m 1 for 1 in major league spring training. Hitting 1.000.”

Parker may not have gotten any more chances to bat, but he did receive more opportunities to pitch. He performed admirably and remained with the Cubs until the final week of spring training, when they narrowed their roster down to the 25 players they’d be taking into the season.

Though Parker missed the cut, he returned to Des Moines and had his best season yet, winning 10 games while posting a career-low 4.36 earned run average.

“Was really the top starter for the Cubs and really had high hopes of being called up in September, like what usually happens,” Parker says.

But the call never came. Parker speculates that the Cubs’ fiscal conservatism prior to being sold is the reason why.

“Rumor was they were really tight on money back then,” he says. “So, if they didn’t have to call up anybody and pay them to sit on the bench, they didn’t.

“I don’t know that that’s entirely true, but it was kind of disappointing.”

That year, the Wrigley family sold the Cubs to the Tribune Corporation, which brought in former Philadelphia Phillies manager Dallas Green to run the team.

“What typically happens, he brings in all his coaches, they bring in all their staff, so all the guys that knew me, that drafted me, were no longer in the organization,” says Parker. “So, 1982 comes around and I’m not the high prospect that I was once.”

Parker returned to Des Moines, but was demoted from a starting pitcher to a reliever.

“Now I’m 26 years old and I ended up getting some arm trouble because I wasn’t a reliever,” he says. “Went on and off the disabled list twice. I could see the writing on the wall then at that time.”

Though Parker was disappointed by how the season went, he didn’t let that stop him from training vigorously in the offseason, hoping for one final shot at making it to the majors.

Parker went back to Des Moines in 1983, but was released at the end of spring training.

“It was time to call it a career,” he says. “I was close, but didn’t quite get the call to Chicago, like every little kid dreams of.”

Parker returned to Huntington and finally put the accounting degree he’d earned in college to good use. Today, he works as an enrolled agent at Kline’s CPA Group.

Parker played baseball and other sports recreationally for many years, but now feeds his competitive fire with a steady diet of golf and bowling. He still follows baseball, keeping tabs on the New York Yankees, his favorite team since childhood, as well as the Cubs.

He looks back on his baseball career with no regrets.

I’m glad I did it,” he reflects. “It was a great experience.”