The pale blue eyes were aimlessly following the flight of a hundred lazy fungoes, looking empty and out of focus the way eyes do when their owner's brain has wandered off. And the mind of John Denny, a 24-year-old right-handed pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals who was 7-1 at the end of last week, was definitely not in Busch Stadium. It was off somewhere else, brooding.
The sun, which was steadily creeping into his shady corner of the empty dugout, seemed to be the cause of Denny's latest bit of unhappiness. After all, glaring sunlight is a plague when the soul is dark with doubt, and in the most promising summer he has ever known—a summer in which he could become the first St. Louis pitcher to win 20 games in a season since Steve Carlton in 1971—Denny is the most doubting Cardinal. "I'm 7-0, and I feel like I'm 0-7," he said, a couple of days before the Dodgers handed him his only loss.
St. Louis picked Denny in the 29th round of the 1970 free-agent draft, which, to Denny's way of thinking, meant that 679 players were considered better than him. He thus began his career in the Cardinal organization with a chip on his shoulder the size of a redwood. After bouncing around in the minor leagues for six years, Denny spent his first full season in St. Louis last year and proceeded to win the National League ERA title with a mark of 2.52. At 23, he was the youngest National League ERA champion since 22-year-old Mike McCormick in 1960.
Denny has a good fastball and a surprisingly accurate change of pace for one so young, and this season he was the first pitcher in the major leagues to win five games—hanging up an ERA of 2.91 along the way—before having to miss two turns in the Cardinals' starting rotation with a pulled hamstring muscle in his left leg. Why, then, in the midst of such abundant good fortune, is Denny so unhappy?
June 19, 1977
One source of his pique is the fact that in his seven wins he has been supported by 68 runs, an average of nearly 10 a game. "There I was with an unbeaten record and a pretty good ERA," Denny says, "and everybody was telling me how lucky I was to have all those runs scored for me. It made me mad."
And when Denny gets angry, the object of his displeasure—even when it is he—had better watch out. "Some people say that I'm too critical of myself, that I never let up," he says, "but if I make a mistake during a game and allow myself to pass it off as just one of those things, I'll end up making the same mistake again. I can't allow that to happen, so sometimes after I've made a mistake I go back behind the dugout and beat my head against the wall and make it hurt to alert myself to what I've done and to punish myself for it."
Early this season, when Denny's luck was running depressingly well, Manager Vern Rapp pulled him in the middle innings of his first three starts, partly to keep him from aggravating a tender ankle he had sprained during the off-season. Denny got credit for all three wins but took little satisfaction in them. In his third start he was trailing Pittsburgh 3-1 in the fifth inning when he was lifted for a pinch hitter. The Cardinals scored three runs that inning, and Denny, already in the showers, wound up with the victory. After the game, however, he screamed at Rapp in a voice that must have been audible on top of the Gateway Arch. "John wanted to give the win back," says Claude Osteen, the Cardinals' pitching coach. "He didn't want it if it was tainted."
Osteen has been a leveling influence on Denny this season, as he has been on Al Hrabosky, in the wake of Rapp's ban on long hair, beards and mustaches. Hrabosky and Denny both had formidable mustaches before Rapp's fiat, and there were moments of near rebellion in the Cardinal clubhouse last month. Hrabosky and Rapp have maintained an uneasy truce since the manager temporarily suspended Hrabosky for "insubordination." In spite of these problems, the young Cards have managed to keep right on surprising people. At the end of last week they were third in the National League East, only four games behind the division-leading Chicago Cubs.
Osteen has great faith in his young staff—his starters' average age is only 25.8—especially in Denny, his stopper. "I always have a lot of confidence when John pitches," Osteen says. "Even if he doesn't have his best stuff, he still busts his tail to make sure the opposition doesn't beat him. He doesn't like it when the other team scores a run off him; he takes it personally."
Denny, who claims he works best when he is angry, has been able for the most part to turn his temper into a constructive force. However, there have been moments when his churlishness has done him more harm than good. Last season his loud mouth provoked a pounding from Catcher Ted Simmons behind the dugout (Denny, it seems, spends an inordinate amount of his time behind the dugout engaged in intramural mayhem). Last week, while being rudely treated by the Dodgers, he plunked Reggie Smith with a pitch, thereby starting a middling brawl. One day he addressed members of the press as "you vultures," and lately he has been waging a one-man crusade against a trio of umpires who, he believes, are "squeezing" him with purposely bad calls.
The latest episode in this struggle occurred early last week in a game against San Diego. Plate Umpire Jim Quick and Denny had gotten into a bit of unpleasantness over Quick's calls. By the seventh inning, Quick had begun to take exception to Denny's haranguing, and with Padre Gene Richards at bat, the umpire called four straight balls. On the fourth, Quick pulled off his mask, turned to the St. Louis dugout before the ball was even in Simmons' mitt and said, "And that's a ball, too."
Denny ripped off his cap, threw down his glove and steamed toward the plate. After unburdening himself for almost five minutes, he returned to the mound. It was from that elevated precinct that he admonished Quick to put his nether extremities in gear. Quick let loose with a hasty thumb, and Denny charged the quick Quick, his head bobbing up and down like a cork on troubled waters. It took an assortment of St. Louis players, coaches and, finally, Rapp to restrain Denny from duking it out with the offending ump. The outburst cost Denny an ejection (he was trailing 2-1 at the time, but got no decision as the Cards went on to win) and a $250 fine, but he had made his point. "There comes a time when you have to stand up to them," Denny says.
If he can make it through the season without contracting terminal cauliflower head from going one-on-one with umpires, other players and the dugout wall, Denny may get to sulk all winter about having won only 20 games.