by Jon Baliles
One of Richmond’s great characters and personalities has decided to step away from spotlight that he occupied and managed so well for years (and always with a smile) after enduring incredibly long days and nights, rainouts, major league talent, loyal fans, a street art festival, a crumbling office, broken political promises, and an ocean of awful plaid pants.
Flying Squirrels CEO Todd “Parney” Parnell announced this week he will be stepping down from his day-to-day role after this season and remain as a senior advisor to the team for the next five years after 34 years in the baseball business. Parney arrived with the team in 2010 and hasn’t slept much since.
He told John O’Connor at the Times-Dispatch, “I think the key difference is I’m not going to be here from 6:30 in the morning until 1 o’clock in the morning anymore. The toll of that has been taken. I’m downshifting significantly.”
“I kind of feel like the athlete who’s stepping back a little bit when he still has a step or two left. I really wanted to — chill out’s the wrong term because I’m still going to be around — but I wanted to (leave) the day-to-day operations when I still felt like I was at the top of my game. And I do.”
And he has been at the top of his game since he arrived. I knew they would be a different franchise when they enlisted the public to help name the team in late 2009. More than 6,000 entries were received and the finalists included Rock Hoppers, Hambones, Rhinos, Flatheads, and Hush Puppies. And I recall not getting the name “Flying Squirrels” after it was selected, but then the very next day, Parney said in the paper (and I am paraphrasing) “We wanted to be fun and we wanted to be a different” and they have been all that and a home run.
And before their first season even began, they were reaching out all over the community. I was on a Chamber-led tour with Parney and then-CEO Chuck Domino in the spring of 2010 and I mentioned to them that I was so impressed by how much they had engaged the community as an organization even before the first pitch. And it has never stopped since, and the main reason for that has been Parney’s energy and passion.
The Squirrels since have led the Eastern League many times in total attendance, done great work through their Flying Squirrels charities, renovated many city neighborhood baseball diamonds, donated tens of thousands of coats across the winters to those in need, been active in the entire regional community, reintroduced corn dogs to the concession stand(!), and even hosted the 2017 RVA Street Art Festival when we added some much needed color to a rundown drab concrete stadium with some awesome art.
Dennis Bickmeier, the executive director of the Henrico Sports and Entertainment Authority and president of Richmond Raceway from 2011-22 praised Parney: “It’s not like anything I’ve seen in our profession. You have people in organizations that are out front. I think he took ‘out front’ to another level….”
Lou DiBella, the managing general partner and president of the Flying Squirrels, referred to the ebullient Parnell as a “force of nature,” and Parnell is universally respected as one of the premier minor league baseball executives. I’m happy for him. I know he needed to do this.”
Parney told Desiree Montilla at NBC12, “I was on Sandbridge Beach with my daughters, Lindsay and Sammy, in November and I just kind of blurted out I think I need to make some changes,” he told NBC12. “In my whole adult life, from the time I was 22 years old, when somebody asked me to do something at home, the answer has been let me check the home schedule, let me check the Squirrels schedule, let me check the team schedule and I needed and wanted to move past that point in my life. I’ve never felt this much peace in my professional life before.”
Lane Casadonte at CBS6 pointed out that Parney has assembled a staff that is more than capable of putting the same product on the field and in the stands night after night without his oversight, a realization that helped make his decision easier.
“We’ve had one of the best years we’ve had in over a decade,” Parnell explained. “I stand back and watch everybody on this staff do things during the games, and I’m like the proud papa. I’m moving on from the dad role to the grandfather role.”
“It’s time for me and it’s time for them,” Parnell continued. “I can honestly tell you I have never felt more peaceful in my life, except for my wedding day. It’s worked out great for everybody.”
O’Connor has a two great stories about Parney. One is about how he tried to give away his recently removed gall bladder as a promotion while working for Altoona, but ended up giving away autographed pictures of the organ because of “Hazmat stuff.”
He also wrote about how Domino hired Parney in his first baseball job way back in 1990 when Domino ran the Reading, PA. franchise. When a recent hire failed to show for his job, Domino called Parney, who he knew was anxious to break into baseball fresh out of college.
“I called Todd Parnell — he wasn’t ‘Parney’ yet, just Todd Parnell — and I said ‘Mr. Parnell, the job is yours if you want it,’” Domino recalled. “Well, I could hear the panting like a dog on the other end of the line. He couldn’t say ‘yes’ fast enough.”
And Domino brought Parney with him when the franchise was moved to Richmond and the rest is now local baseball lore, and we are better off because of it.
The Squirrels close out their regular season home schedule this weekend, but are very much in the playoff hunt with one road trip left after Sunday, so us baseball and Squirrels fans might have a chance to extend the season! So head out to a game this weekend and look for the man with the dark shades and sporting the colorful — and sometimes hideous — plaid pants; he’ll be offering everyone a handshake and a smile.
Jon Baliles is a former Richmond city councilman. His column is republishef here with permission from RVA 5×5.