Dave Parker describes his experience with Parkinson's disease

People might look a little differently now at ex-Pirates slugger Dave Parker, a one-time National League MVP known for his size, swagger and fierce competitiveness during a 19-year career.

Now they might notice a tremble in his hand. His words come out a little slurred. His strides aren’t what they once were.

But when speaking about his own four-year battle with Parkinson’s disease at a conference in Green Tree Saturday, he will make sure patients, family caregivers, medical professionals and others attending know he’s still a fighter, and that everyone with the disease should stay active and spirited in meeting it headlong.

“All my life has been about challenges,” Mr. Parker said in a phone interview from his Cincinnati home today. “I’ve still got that competitiveness in me. You’ve got to play the hand that’s dealt, and that’s the approach I’m taking.”

The centerpiece of the Pirates’ last World Series club is the keynote speaker at Saturday’s Living Well With Parkinson’s Disease Conference at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Green Tree. The event is presented by the Cahouet Center for Comprehensive Parkinson’s Care at Allegheny Health Network and the Parkinson Foundation Western Pennsylvania.

Like the late Muhammad Ali before him, Mr. Parker is one of America’s great athletes dealing with the physical impact of a disease that affects more than 1 million people and has no cure. It typically affects motor functions such as movement and balance and can impair speech and other abilities.

It often shows up first in tremors, which is how a doctor detected it in Mr. Parker in early 2012 during a routine physical. A regular golfer, Mr. Parker had begun noticing some trembling in his right hand but had no idea it was something as serious and permanent as Parkinson’s until the doctor observed it and sent him to a neurologist for formal diagnosis.

Mr. Parker says he has been able to manage the disease through a medication, Carbidopa, and a regular workout regimen — weightlifting, stretching, stationary bike, treadmill — either in a gym or at home. He forgets thoughts sometimes, though, and knows his words don’t come out as perfectly as they once did for a man famous for his confident banter.

“The key, really, is to be active,” he said. “To go out and socialize and walk and exercise. Parkinson’s has a tendency to make you want to sleep and not be active, and you’ve got to work beyond that. For me, I’ve got to take an athlete’s approach to it — force myself to go to the gym. ... I’m managing the disease pretty well though — I know what to expect.”

One change is how others perceive him. He runs into people who come up to hug and encourage him — a big man who was always a dominant presence, now appreciative of the support he receives from others.

“I recently saw a friend of mine, my high school third baseman, and he walked up to me and grabbed me real tight and he just started crying. I told him, ‘I’m all right, don’t worry about me, I’m taking care of it.’ But for him to walk up to me and squeeze me and cry like he did, that touched me. I get that all the time now ... but I don’t want nobody to feel sorry for me. I’ve got to play the hand that’s dealt.”

Mr. Parker started the DaveParker39 Foundation in his hometown to begin raising money to assist Parkinson’s awareness and programs. He runs an indoor baseball clinic across the street from his home. He still golfs, though he says he can’t hit a drive 345 yards like he once did.

“Now it’s 270 or 280. I don’t know where it’s going to go, but it still goes.”

As to what he’ll be telling people Saturday, he said, “Don’t let the disease beat you. Stay active, if you want to maintain your quality of life. You’ve got to live with it, and there’s no way to get around facing that we’ve got it, but we can get it treated.

“Look at it as a challenge.”

The conference in Green Tree runs from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday at the DoubleTree, at 500 Mansfield Ave. Those interested who have not yet registered are still invited to attend the event, which has a $25 fee.

Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.

First Published November 4, 2016 1:56 PM

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