• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

WHEN I TOOK BP OUT TO THE BALLGAME

I first met Benny Parsons while at the Philadelphia Daily News and reported on his wins at Daytona and Pocono and Dover. I was a card-carrying member of the Baseball Writers Association of America back then, too, and while doing interviews in the Phillies' clubhouse discovered that Benny and Phils' second baseman Ted Sizemore grew up together in Detroit but hadn't seen each other in years. I invited Benny to Philly when he came north for Dover's fall 1978 race, and had the pleasure of reuniting him with Sizemore. BP died Tuesday, at age 65, of complications from lung caner. Below is what I wrote in the Daily News on Sept. 15, 1978:

Benny Parsons had dinner at the White House Wednesday night. A picnic on the south lawn. Roast beef, country ham, cole slaw, the music of Willie Nelson. He stepped out in a three-piece white suit.

Benny Parsons ate at the Vet last night. A snack in section 320, row five. Hot dogs, pizza, coffee, the antics of the Phillie Phanatic. Wore a sports shirt and blue jeans.

"Going to the White House was an honor," said Parsons in that gentlemanly way of his. "But this is a thrill."

Ted Sizemore thought so, too. He and Parsons grew up together in Detroit, scuffling around Palmer Park, both dreaming those big dreams of glory.

Parsons zoomed on to win the Winston Cup Grand National championship and the Daytona 500. Sizemore hit it off at Michigan en route to becoming the Phils' starting second baseman.

The have raced to the top of different worlds, not seeing each other for some six years. The Daily News reunited them yesterday afternoon before the Phillies transformed the Cubs' playoff hopes into an endangered species with an 11-5 victory. It was one of those giddy, back-slapping, gosh-golly-gee, two-kids-in-a-toy-store sessions.

Sizemore gave Parsons and Dave Marcis, both of whom will compete in Sunday's Delaware 500 at Dover Downs International Speedway, the grand tour. Gus Hoefling, the strength and flexibility guru, had them cracking on the weight machines, at one point lifting the 6-0, 195 Parsons off his feet.

Danny Ozark hosted them in his clubhouse office for a half-hour. "Do they change the tracks every year," the manager asked his guests.

"No, but the weather changes the racetracks," explained Benny, who now lives in Ellerbe, N.C. "That's the biggest thing we have to fight. The more worn-out a track is, the harder it is to get the car handling right."

"Just like AstroTurf," Sizemore said. "The last year we played on the old surface it was like playing on the street, like playing on ice."

Bullpen Coach Carroll Beringer wanted to know if stock car drivers really ran moonshine in the old days.

"That's a true story," Parsons admitted. "They used to haul moonshine from Monday till Saturday and have arguments about who was faster. So they raced on Sundays. That's how it really started."

"What amazes me is watching the pit crews," said owner Ruly Carpenter. "It takes me a long time just to change a tire."

"I feel like we should get outta here and let you work," Parsons eventually said to Ozark, who also expressed interest in Janet Guthrie's racing exploits.

"I was gonna ask you for another hour," Danny replied. "In here is the hard part. Out there (motioning toward the field) is like driving. Things happen and you can't always do much to control them."

Sizemore, who chopped a single over third baseman Rodney Scott's head in the fifth inning to score Mike Schmidt, plans to join Parsons' pit crew for the Nov. 5 Dixie 500 in Atlanta. Ron Reed, who still lives in Georgia, will also be there.

"Hey, we're gonna be down in the pits," Reed said excitedly after earning his 13th save. "But I know one place you won't get me and that's behind the wheel . . . Those guys earn their money. Anybody who goes 190 mph bumper-to-bumper should get a lot of money."

Parsons and Marcis, who had never been to a baseball game before, surveyed the carnage from the first-base stands. For once, they were fans, not professional athletes, watching the action instead of creating it.

"Watch that guy," Benny said, pointing to a vendor who finessed mustard on hot dogs like a child running his tongue across the chocolate icing on a freshly baked cake. "I was at a game at Dodger Stadium a few years ago and there was this peanut seller who really had an act. He'd throw those bags of peanuts underhanded, behind his back, he could have thrown a bag in from left field.

"The is about as big a deal as going to the White House," Benny Parsons reaffirmed. "This is fantastic."