The curious case of Bill Parsons

Baseball writers referred to Bill Parsons as "towering," "strapping" and "hard-throwing." Newspaper accounts describe his fastball as "blazing." Parsons was the American League Rookie Pitcher of the Year in 1971. By 1974, however, he was gone from the major leagues at age 26.

There was no Mark Fidrych career-ending injury. This is not a David Clyde tale of a No. 1 pick debuting at 18 years old and being underdeveloped and oversold. Bill Parsons' case is so unique it happened only once in a century. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only one pitcher since 1883 won at least 13 games and made at least 30 starts in each of his first two seasons, but won just five or fewer games the rest of his career -- Bill Parsons.

A 6-foot-6 basketball and baseball player at the University of Utah, Parsons got "fed up with all the school work" and was selected by the Seattle Pilots in the seventh round of the 1968 amateur draft. As the franchise moved to Milwaukee, Parsons moved up the charts, leading the Puerto Rican Winter League in strikeouts and opening the 1971 season with the Brewers as a 22-year-old rookie. Pitching for a dismal Milwaukee team that went 69-92 and finished last in the AL West by 32 games, Parsons had a promising season: 13-17, 3.20 ERA, with 12 complete games, including four shutouts.

Parsons opened the 1972 season 6-2, but five straight losses cost him his starting spot. By July he had returned to the rotation and pitched 44 of a possible 45 innings during one five-start span, over which he went 3-2 with a 0.82 ERA and two shutouts. Parsons finished 13-13, 3.91 and was considered the organization's future ace. When other clubs showed interest in Parsons, Brewers manager Del Crandall said, "He is much sought after, yes, but this is the kind of pitcher on whom you build your staff around because of his potential, his arm and his great attitude."

Then came 1973.

Crandall picked a former Milwaukee Braves teammate, Bob Shaw, to be the Brewers' new pitching coach. Shaw was a pitching academic with an analytic approach. Described as a driving perfectionist, Shaw could theorize delivery mechanics into endless detail and might have been ahead of his time, introducing his pitchers to slow-motion film as well as new stretching techniques and conditioning exercises. Under Shaw in 1973, Milwaukee's Jim Colborn went from mediocre reliever to 20-game winner and later enjoyed his own long career as a major league pitching coach. Bill Parsons' experience with Shaw went quite differently.

Parsons' approach to pitching could not have been more simplistic. He was tall and threw hard fastballs from a no-windup style. His idea of being crafty was to mix in an occasional changeup. With Crandall's support, Shaw began a complete overhaul in spring training. Parsons was made to pitch from a full windup and develop a reliable breaking pitch, a hard curveball, which both Crandall and Shaw insisted he throw frequently when behind in the count. Parsons started the home opener April 13 after the Brewers' first two games at County Stadium were postponed by a 15-inch snowfall. He walked six without a single strikeout but held the Orioles hitless until Paul Blair's two-out single in the seventh inning. He'd won the home opener, but Parsons would win only two more games in the big leagues.

By the end of May, Parsons was 1-4. He'd abandoned the full windup and gone back to his old style. His ERA was 5.20 and the youngster known for his blazing fastball had struck out just 11 batters and walked 40. "Maybe there's something wrong with my head," Parsons told the Milwaukee Sentinel. "I throw strikes in the bullpen, but when I get out on the mound I feel like I'm in a different world. It's a depressing experience."

When asked about Parsons, Shaw told reporters, "Frankly, he's fouled up." Crandall merely shrugged his shoulders and said, "I'd rather not talk about it."

On June 11 and 16, Parsons won consecutive starts, his first victories since the home opener. He was winning again but was hardly impressive, totaling eight walks and only four strikeouts in less than 11 innings. He'd gone back to Shaw's full windup but his lack of confidence in the new mechanics continued. "It's still odd, because it's something I have to think about," Parsons said to the Milwaukee Sentinel. "I haven't lost confidence in my ability to become a winning pitcher again, but right now 90 percent of my troubles are in the head. When am I going to snap out of it?"

His next two starts proved catastrophic.

Against the Red Sox at County Stadium, Parsons allowed home runs to the first two batters he faced. He walked the next two and was replaced without retiring a batter. Against Cleveland, he recorded only two outs in a first inning that included two walks and a wild pitch. Parsons would not pitch again for 18 days while he and Shaw went through daily sessions searching for answers. Shaw had Parsons spend time each day studying his pitching form in front of a mirror, which the Milwaukee Journal wrote "produced mixed reactions among Parsons' teammates. Many thought it was degrading." Brewers announcer Bob Uecker, seeing Parsons at the mirror, joked, "That's the way, Bill. What's the count? Two strikes and five balls?"

Finally on July 13, Parsons again appeared in a game. With the Brewers trailing the Oakland A's 11-2 in the ninth inning at County Stadium, Parsons came on for mop-up duty. He walked his first batter, Joe Rudi. Then he walked Mike Hegan to load the bases. Ray Fosse doubled before Parsons walked Dick Green. Crandall pulled Parsons, who'd faced four batters, issuing three walks and allowing a two-run double. Days later, Bob Shaw resigned after less than one year as pitching coach. Parsons told the Milwaukee Journal, "It is partly my fault. I'm sure it put pressure on him. I'm sure my situation had something to do with it." Shaw cited "restrictions imposed upon me" and "differences of opinion" with Brewers general manager Jim Wilson as reasons for his resignation. Years later, Shaw told the Milwaukee Journal that he'd in fact, been fired.

The Parsons problem became the top priority for Shaw's replacement, Al Widmar, who shelved Shaw's full windup. Widmar told the Milwaukee Sentinel about Parsons, "Once he gets rid of that roadblock, he should be his old self. He's been our best pitcher. Sometimes little things can ruin a guy." Parsons pitched in just five more games and finished the season 3-6, 6.79 with 30 strikeouts and 67 walks in 59 2/3 innings.

At spring training the following March, Crandall would interrupt writers at hello, saying, "Don't ask me about Parsons. I don't want to talk about it." Parsons pitched 12 innings that spring, giving up 15 hits and walking 10 batters with only one strikeout. He cleared waivers, was optioned to Triple-A and eventually traded to the A's, spending virtually the entire season in the Pacific Coast League. Parsons pitched just two innings for Oakland that season. On Sept. 28, 1974 with the A's hosting the White Sox, Parsons came in from the bullpen to open the seventh inning, holding a 6-5 lead. Jorge Orta doubled. Bill Stein flied out to center field. Parsons then walked Bill Melton and Ken Henderson before he was removed after retiring only one batter. He never pitched again in the majors.

In December he was sold to the Cardinals and the following July was dealt to the White Sox to complete an earlier trade. Yes, Parsons was the player to be named later. He spent 1975 pitching for minor league teams in Denver and Tulsa and was out of baseball at age 26.

What happened to Bill Parsons? "I just listened to too many people," Parsons told the Milwaukee Journal. "What they wanted me to do wasn't what I needed to do. I was thinking about too many mechanical things and I didn't think about getting people out. In the state of mind I was in, I couldn't get my mother out. If you have confidence in yourself, you're going to make your pitches. It's as simple as that."

Bill Parsons' case was anything but simple. In fact, we've seen its like only once in 128 years.

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