It was a warm evening in Lakeland, Fla., and at 6:10 p.m. Denny McLain walked out onto the high grass of a practice diamond behind Lakeland High School, just as he had been doing nightly for three weeks. He wore a gray shirt, with DETROIT TIGERS written on the front, and a pair of orange sweat pants, with the number 44. His hair was bleached white in patches from the sun, and, at 195 pounds, he was at the lowest weight he has carried in many years, although press books have listed him as lighter. A group of youngsters gathered near him on the pitching mound. He took a scuffed baseball and threw 13 pitches with it, nearly every one of them the sort of pitch that keeps a good hitter awake at night—low, hard and nicking the edges of home plate. That unique McLain pitching style, compared by many to a ballet step, was on exhibition for anyone to see, but only three people sat in the scruffy stands.
Next week McLain will come back to major league baseball after having been suspended, and his return could be the most closely watched and discussed sports event of the year. Virtually every comeback by a pitcher at this point in a season is accompanied by reports that read, "He's returning after an elbow..., a shoulder..., a knee." McLain, of course, is coming back after "a head." Suspended by Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, after disclosure by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED that he had been a financial backer of a gambling book in Michigan (SI. Feb. 23)—because, said Kuhn, "his own gullibility and avarice had permitted him to become a dupe of the gamblers with whom he associated"—McLain has not worn a Tiger uniform in anger since last September. He has not seen the Tigers play this season, watched them on television or heard them on the radio. Every morning he carefully reads the box scores and finds out what he can. "You can learn quite a bit from a box score," McLain said last week at his home in Lakeland. "Most of the hitters I already know, and I played against Alex Johnson [the league's newest high-average hitter] in winter ball."
McLain will be pitching before a packed house at Tiger Stadium against the New York Yankees, a team he has beaten 13 times and lost to seven times. Tiger Stadium has long been known as a hitter's park, and any pitching mistake usually ends up about 380 feet away on the green seats. McLain gave up 42 homers in 1966 and once when he was considering opening a restaurant he said he would call it The Upper Deck.
"My intentions are to pitch nine innings my first game back," McLain says, "but that will be up to the Yankees, I guess. My arm feels good. I was ready to pitch on opening day if I hadn't been suspended. God gave me a good body and I have never misused it. If you've got to be suspended I'd say that the best place to spend the suspension would be in Lakeland, because the people here are used to ballplayers and don't bother you.
"The difficult part of this thing for me will be reaching the competitive peak a pitcher needs. I have played a lot of golf, and never against anyone I knew I could beat. I want to keep that competitive edge." On a recent Friday, McLain shot a 75 at the Lone Palm Golf Club, despite a temperature in the low 90s, and he was beaten by a par 72 thrown at him by a friend. He came off the 18th green sizzling mad, a perfect indicator that his competitive edge, such a big part in his winning 55 games while losing only 15 during the last two seasons, was chromium hard.
"Look," he said, "sitting this thing out has not been easy, but in some ways it has probably helped. Maybe it's the best thing that ever happened to me, if you can believe that. Ever since winning 30 [in 1968] I've looked in the mirror and seen a face and a man who was not 26 years old but 40 or 45. This thing is behind me now, and I have convinced myself of that. If I were older it would be so much more difficult to come back, but at 26 there is enough time left to pick up the pieces and try to put them back together."
McLain returns to baseball at a time when the Tigers, with a real opportunity to advance in the standings, face the most difficult portion of their schedule. Starting June 30, the night before McLain's scheduled first start, the third-place Tigers play 14 games in 13 days against the Yankees, second in the American League East, Baltimore in first place and Boston in fourth.
"I've always thought of myself as being a stopper," McLain says, "and if I do my job and hold the other teams off I know that the Tigers will score runs. I might not get the win but the team will, and that is what matters. The club hasn't been pitching well, and I feel that I can help that situation out. I could get as many as 23 starts between the time I return and the end of the season, and it might be possible that we could win 15 to 17 of those games.
"Some people maintain that when we won the World Series in 1968 we dominated the American League. I don't think we did. I believe we just got out in front and stayed there and played good sound baseball all year long. Last year Baltimore got too far in front too early for anyone to catch. I have talked to Mayo Smith once a week since I was suspended, and he keeps encouraging me and tells me he can't wait for me to get back. During the time I have been away a lot of things have gone through my mind, and I think I understand things better than I did before.
"Last week I managed an American Legion game between Lakeland and Tampa. We [Lakeland] won 1-0, and after the second inning I was calling every pitch from the bench. I guessed along with the opposing pitcher and guessed curve twice when he threw curves, and that allowed us to steal two bases, and we scored our only run after one of those steals. I found myself pulling hard for our team, and that wasn't like it was for me on the days when I was not pitching. I used to just plop down on the bench and say very little. Now I think that for the first time I can understand the torture and anxiety of the major league manager. When we got our run I said to the guys: 'Hold onto that, it might be all we're going to get.' "
McLain's reputation as a pitcher is not built solely on his 31-win season. In his first professional start in Harlan, Ky. in 1962 he pitched a no-hitter. He not only won in his first game as a Tiger, he also hit a homer. During his first full season in Detroit he became the biggest winner on the club with a record of 16-6, and that same year he came on in relief to strike out the first seven men he faced—a major league record. The following season he won 20 games to become the first Tiger to do so in five years. McLain also is one of the best bunters in baseball, having led the league in sacrifice hits in 1968 with 16.
Although McLain has been pitching since February, the concentrated part of his training to get back into shape started on June 2. "That first day," says Jim Handley, the coach at Lakeland High School and a former player in the minors, "Denny ran 12 50-yard sprints, did about two miles running up and down the bleacher seats, did 50 pickups and played 45 minutes of basketball. He went at it hard and hasn't stopped yet."
This month McLain has started nearly every afternoon with a round of golf and followed that at 6 p.m. with baseball and calisthenics on the Lakeland High field. The field itself provides an almost eerie setting in which to work out one's problems and dreams. There are neither base paths nor baselines, and the grass is high. Two sides of cardboard boxes were on the infield grass last week, along with a ripped plastic drinking cup, a Sprite can, a Cracker Jack box and an orange-juice container. A business card lay near the mound, reading, "Talbert Gray presents fashions on Father's Day." Youngsters from the Lakeland area joined McLain, standing at the plate, to simulate game conditions.
"Oh, we got on him," one of the youngsters said last week, "did we ever get on him. Most of the kids are Yankee fans, and when we'd go up to hit against him we'd say things like, 'I'm Roy White of the World Series-bound New York Yankees.' In his early workouts some of the kids got some hits off him, but then McLain pitched like McLain and he had the last laugh."
Friday evening Denny McLain sat on a car hood with a group of kids around him, and one of them said to him, "It won't be long now before Mel Stottlemyre becomes baseball's next 30-game winner as he leads the Yankees into the World Series." McLain looked at the youngster, but his smile really said nothing. An hour and a half later, though, after a rugged basketball game, the boy asked McLain for a ride home. "Call Mel Stottlemyre," McLain said. "Let the next 30-game winner drive you home." (But McLain drove the youngster home, anyway.)
Every fourth day McLain has been pitching the equivalent of a nine-inning game, and at times he has felt strong enough to throw 170 pitches. "My fastball is good," he says, "a little bit better than I thought it would be, and my control has been sharp. I just want to go back to Detroit without any fanfare at all. I don't know how or when I will get there, but that will be figured out. A lot of people don't think I take the game seriously enough, but let them watch me after what I've gone through. It's all going to be between those white lines now. I'm coming back, and I have a better outlook on things than I ever had. It's time for me now to start picking up all the pieces."