June 19, 2024

Smoyer Park Field Dedicated in Honor of Tommy Parker As Event Draws Cross Section of Princeton Community

FAMILY AFFAIR: Tommy Parker, center, the longtime manager of the Princeton Post 218 American Legion baseball team, enjoys the moment with members of his family last Thursday afternoon as the baseball field at Barbara Smoyer Park was dedicated in his honor. The dedication was memorialized by the unveiling of a plaque citing Parker’s “hard work and dedication to the lives of Princeton’s youth,” listing his contributions as founder/GM/coach of Post 218 from 1990-2022, a longtime coach of youth baseball and youth football, and a local leader in civil rights, worker rights, and youth athletics. It marks the first time that Princeton has dedicated a field in someone’s honor. (Photo provided courtesy of Princeton Recreation Department)

By Bill Alden

With the sun shining brightly midway through last Thursday afternoon, the soccer fields and baseball diamond at Barbara Smoyer Park were quiet with practices and games hours away.

But there was a buzz around the pavilion building in the center of the park as a crowd of around 100 had gathered to honor Tommy Parker, one of the shining stars of the Princeton community.

The throng was on hand for a ceremony dedicating the park’s baseball field in the honor of Parker, the longtime manager of the Post 218 American Legion baseball team and a community activist. The dedication was memorialized by the unveiling of a plaque citing Thomas A. Parker’s “hard work and dedication to the lives of Princeton’s youth,” listing his contributions as founder/general manager/coach of Post 218 from 1990-2022, longtime coach of youth baseball and youth football, and local leader in civil rights, worker rights, and youth athletics.

The emcee for the event, Princeton Recreation Department Executive Director Evan Moorhead, opened the event by noting the throng on hand to support Parker as he became the first person to receive this honor from Princeton.

“You can say a lot of things about Princeton folks but we will turn out to celebrate and honor one of our own, and Tommy Parker is certainly one of our own,” said Moorhead. “Tommy Parker certainly is an original Princetonian, somebody who grew up in this community. The Parker family resonates Princeton. The Parker family is a Princeton family — that is why it is so great to see so many people here.”

With Parker, who has been battling health issues, sitting in a wheelchair at the ceremony, he was surrounded by family, friends, and former players as well as town officials, including several Council members and Princeton Mayor Mark Freda.

Moorhead noted that Parker’s impact on the community extended far beyond playing fields.

“If anybody says American Legion Post 218, right away you are going to think about Tommy Parker,” said Moorhead. “It wasn’t just the youth sports, it was beyond the football and the baseball. It was community service, dedication of time that he gave to community organizations, committed to worker’s rights and human rights. The list goes on and on.”

Following Moorhead, Andrew Koontz, the chair of the Princeton Recreation Commission, asserted that Parker richly deserved to be the first person in town to be honored with a field dedication.

“I first got to deal with Tommy, not through sports, I got to know Tommy back in the’90s in politics,” said Koontz. “That is the thing about an activist such as Mr. Parker, they step up in all aspects of life, whether it is leadership, in youth sports, or leadership in public policy. The man did it all. In terms of this kind of recognition, he is perhaps the best name I can think of to kick off this kind of honor. If there are others that we are going to honor, it is really Tommy Parker that sets the standard. It is a testament to what he has done for this community that it brings us all together.”

Longtime Princeton baseball official Jon Durbin, the current general manager and assistant coach for Post 218 who has also helped lead Princeton Little League, N.J. District 12 Little League, and West Windsor-Plainsboro Babe Ruth Baseball, detailed some of the main qualities that make Parker special.

“The first is just his steadfast commitment to a core set of principles in life,” said Durbin. “He never wavers from what he thinks is right and what should be done in the short term or the long term. Those of us who know him well know that about him and that is where his incredible strength comes from.”

In addition, Durbin cited Parker’s penchant for bringing out the best from anyone who comes into his orbit.

“The other thing that I wanted to mention is the strength of his faith. I am not necessary talking about his religious faith, but his faith in every individual person who enters into the Parker universe,” said Durbin, crediting Parker’s wife, Joanne, with helping to create that supportive environment. “If you enter into that family’s universe, then they are going to do everything they can to help you succeed and to make this town a better place.”

For Durbin, the beat of his life has been changed by his contact with Parker.

“For those of you who played for Tommy, you probably remember him quite often talking about the importance of rhythm — rhythm as a player, rhythm in our life,” said Durbin. “I am thinking, ‘What the heck is he talking about?’ Rhythm is about basketball players and shooting, rhythm is about pitchers, but he was talking about right fielders and center fielders and second basemen. The more I listened to him talk, it is the belief and concept that he has that if you as an individual can get into a good rhythm each day in your life, get into the flow of it, do the little things right, anticipate things, you can accomplish amazing things. Tommy would push it further — it is not just about you, if your other teammates or your colleagues at work or your family members can get into a rhythm, then we have a chance to dance. When we dance, the sky is the limit to make our teams, our families, our town, the best places they can be.”

Mercer County American Legion League chairman Rick Freeman noted that Parker helped change his life as well over their 35-year friendship.

“A couple of things became very evident — he is fiercely devoted to Post 218 and fiercely devoted to his players,” said Freeman of Parker, who received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the MCALL in 2022. “Our meetings in the 1990s were crazy, but we quickly learned that Tommy was more than a big man with a big heart, he was someone who was always able to take the long view of things while most of us were stuck in the present. He could see the long view and steer us in that direction and made us a stronger league. He is always someone who I have looked to for advice when I needed it. The good lord in his infinite wisdom brings people into your life for a reason, and I am grateful that he brought Tommy into mine.”

Jim Healy, who helped found the Post 218 baseball program with Parker in 1989, detailed how the players responded to Parker right away.

“We started the first season, we lost every game and we couldn’t be happier,” said Healy. “The kids were happy, they had Tommy.”

Parker’s sister, Sally Kornegay, read a letter from one of his former players that summed up his approach.

“You are blessed with a compassion that transcends all obstacles that life has to offer,” said Kornegay, quoting the missive.

Concluding the event, Parker’s son, Taariq Parker, speaking for the family, expressed their appreciation for the town’s support and honor.

“I want to thank you to everybody for coming, I think the last few years we have all been reminded just how strong a community Princeton can be,” said Parker. “We have had some trying times, no one has not shown up. The way you have helped any mother, been there for my sisters, and helped my father progress during his recent health struggles has been great. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for being a part of this and giving my dad much deserved praise.”

As a beacon of light over decades for Princeton, it is fitting that Tommy Parker’s contributions will be commemorated forever in the park where he enriched so many lives.