"Today I like just walking, taking the dog out at six in the morning and walking. And I like to open my own mail."
This is an article from the Dec. 14, 1987 issue
Denny McLain and his wife, Sharyn, drove together to the Humane Society animal shelter in Tampa on Oct. 16, thinking they might find a dog or cat to bring home. During their tour of the shelter, they drifted apart. After a while, Sharyn, wanting to go home, began looking about for her husband. She found him in the cat pound, talking to the cats. There were rows and rows of cages, and they were filled with screaming, crying cats, and he was telling them that he would be back one day to set them all free.
"Ready to go?" she asked him.
"We can't leave these cats in here," he told her.
She laughed, thinking he was joking, but he wasn't. "He was serious," Sharyn says. "He had this long, sad look on his face."
"They're all in cages," he told her. "You know what that's like? I know how they feel. This is not right!"
Sharyn grabbed him by the hand and pulled him out of the room. "Let's get out of here," she told him. "The people here will think you're insane."
"They were all bunched together," Denny says. "It was the same feeling I had when I was first locked up [in Seminole County Correctional Facility, in Sanford, Fla.]. It was like a holding tank. No individual cells. It was so cramped that you could hardly turn around without asking permission. Guys going to the bathroom right in front of you. You were totally violated. It's a degradation you can't understand until you've gone through it."
Coming upon those caged animals in Tampa moved McLain deeply because his own memories of the unforgettable pain of being caged were too fresh. The scene was too familiar. He left the animal shelter so shaken that six weeks later, recalling it, he still became agitated. "Seeing those cats, my God!" he said. "And I thought I was a big, tough guy. All of them were crying to get out of there. Me, too. That was me! Anytime you're behind bars, all you want to do is go home, no matter where home is."
On Sept. 4, to the cheers of fellow inmates wishing him well, Dennis Dale McLain, 43, walked out of the Federal Correctional Institution in Talladega, Ala., where he had just finished serving almost as many months in prison (29½) as games he had won pitching (31) for the Detroit Tigers in 1968—the year he was the dominant player in baseball, the American League's Most Valuable Player and winner of its Cy Young Award. He had gone to jail on March 16, 1985, the day a jury of nine women and three men in U.S. District Court in Tampa found him guilty of racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering (including loan-sharking), extortion and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute it.
Specifically, the government convinced the jury that in 1981 McLain had been involved in obtaining a usurious $40,000 loan for a disco owner named Alton Dale Sparks from bookmaker Seymour Sher. When Sparks failed to make his loan payments, including interest at a yearly rate of 130%, Sher threatened Sparks with bodily harm. Sher later introduced Sparks to Frank Cocchiaro, a reputed underworld figure who, testimony revealed, told Sparks that the money Sparks owed belonged to him and that if Sparks failed to repay it he would cut off Sparks's ears. For his part in these and other activities McLain was convicted on the racketeering, conspiracy and extortion charges, for which he received three concurrent eight-year sentences.
The rest of his 23-year sentence resulted from a conviction on the drug charge. Prosecutors successfully argued that in 1982 McLain's golf bags, stuffed with cocaine, were flown on his plane, a Piper Cheyenne, from Fort Lauderdale to Newark, where the drugs were to have been sold. McLain didn't make the trip, nor did he load the golf bags onto the plane, but prosecutors charged that he had obtained the cocaine from a Florida drug trafficker and masterminded the distribution scheme, which, although it was bungled, netted him some $40,000.
McLain acknowledges that he had been a bookmaker, but says that he's innocent of all the charges brought against him. The day after the verdict came in, Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich ordered him held without bail while he awaited sentencing. He appeared to be in for the long drumroll, a minimum of almost eight years if he behaved himself.
McLain's lawyer, Arnold Levine of Tampa, filed an appeal, protesting that the trial had been a "circus." How could McLain have gotten a fair trial, Levine asked, when the judge had allowed jurors to stand in the jury box, eating food and drinking coffee during testimony? How could McLain receive a just verdict when, Levine charged, Kovachevich had pushed the trial forward with undo haste and ordered jurors to stand up for exercise—in a kind of seventh-inning stretch—when Levine was interrogating a key government witness against McLain? "I've never seen a court conducted like that," Levine says. "The jurors were so distracted it was impossible to get a fair trial."
Essentially, the appeals court agreed with him, ruling in part that the lack of decorum in the courtroom had deprived McLain of a fair trial and overturning the conviction. And so, on Sept. 4, inmate number 04000-018 heard a guard say what he had been waiting to hear for almost 30 months: "McLain, you can leave."
Two hours later, at the airport in Talladega, he had his wife in his arms. "I love you," he said.
"I like to see the deer come up to the lake behind our home here and drink and feed."
For McLain, home is now Indiana, in a suburb of Fort Wayne, with Sharyn and the youngest of their four children, 15-year-old Michelle. He has two jobs these days that earn him a good deal more than the 11 cents an hour he made mopping prison floors. Ready for this? McLain is the sales and promotion director for the Fort Wayne Komets of the International Hockey League and also the marketing director of a company that will soon be selling an alcohol-free wine cooler that is imported from Australia.
The McLains swept into town on Oct. 17, and Denny has been dashing about ever since. Last summer Fort Wayne businessman David Welker bought the Komets, then bankrupt, and hired McLain right out of prison to sell the franchise to the town. McLain has already pulled off several schemes to sell tickets, most notably a bigger and better Turkey Night. The Komets had traditionally given away 15 turkeys at Thanksgiving, but when McLain heard that, he scoffed. "We're going to go big," he told Colin Lister, the Komets' business manager. "We're going to give away a thousand turkeys!" So he got in touch with Rohrbach Farm, a local poultry producer, and was given a cut-rate price on the birds in return for a promise to promote and advertise the farm. Then he got another sponsor to help defray additional expenses. On the evening of Nov. 14, a near-capacity crowd of 7,358—almost 4,000 more than the Komets' average home attendance—showed up at the Allen County Memorial Coliseum. The home team got whomped 7-2 by the Peoria Rivermen, but 1,000 people left with turkeys under their arms.
McLain has been a whirlwind in the Komets office; fellow employees marvel at the energy he brings to his work. "He's constantly on the go," says office manager Flossie Zimmerman. "He comes up with an idea for a promotion, and 10 minutes later he's off the phone saying, 'Got it! All sewn up.' "
One day early last month, sitting at his desk, he signed off a telephone call by saying, "Ted, I'm looking forward to seeing you again...." Hanging up, he announced grandly, "The Chicken will be here December 12. Set it in granite!" The fowl in question was Ted Giannoulas, the former San Diego Chicken, who had just agreed to appear at a Komets game. A day later, McLain hung up the same phone, jumped up from the same desk and exclaimed, "We got a confirmation from Pete Rose! We've got a Pete Rose Night."
A few minutes later, musing on how dull it must be for fans to sit and watch the Zamboni resurface the ice between periods, McLain suddenly had an idea. "Let's dress up a skater in a bear costume," he said. "The skater can come out on the ice and throw three or four Frisbees at the crowd. Whoever catches a Frisbee gets dinner for four someplace. We'll put a critter on the ice between periods."
Smiling, Lister looked up from his desk and said, "We haven't had this much fun around here in years." Sure enough, there was a critter on the ice at the next home game, throwing Frisbees to the crowd. "Dennis never seems to run out of energy," Lister says. "I've never seen him tired. Or even cranky. He's got things really moving here."
Two days later, after driving from Fort Wayne to Detroit for dinner with friends, a tireless McLain was in Ann Arbor signing autographs and posing with fans for pictures at a baseball-card show. He was friendly, funny, courteous and charming. On his way home from Ann Arbor, he talked in the car about baseball, about how much he wanted to bring a minor league team to Fort Wayne, about business ventures he wants to get into and about how wonderful it is to be free again and how a man can take for granted all the small, surpassing pleasures in life until prison takes them away.
"I like driving to work now. I just like getting into my car."
None of what he's doing now, or the energy he is bringing to it, should surprise veteran McLain watchers. During the course of his uninhibited life, he has kept his head above water (and sometimes slipped below it) doing one-night concerts for the Hammond Organ Company; running a flying service with his own airplane; promoting rock concerts; making book for betting friends in Florida; broadcasting minor league baseball games over the radio in Iowa; hustling at golf; doing a TV talk show in Detroit; being a mortgage broker in Tampa; and owning or co-owning a Florida company that imported big-screen TVs, a paint-manufacturing company in Detroit, a couple of bars in Atlanta and a string of emergency walk-in clinics in Florida.
Oh yes, there were also the years he spent as a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. McLain went 20-14 in 1966 and 24-9 in '69, the year he won his second Cy Young, which he shared with Baltimore's Mike Cuellar. But those considerable accomplishments and everything else he did between the chalk lines fairly shrivel when set against his attainments of '68. He was 31-6 that season, with an ERA of 1.96, and was suddenly the biggest name in the game. He was the first pitcher since 1934, when Dizzy Dean hung up a 30-7 record, to win 30 games in a season. No one has won more than 27 since.
Except for Baltimore's Boog Powell—"I don't know why, but Boog owned me," McLain says—and a few others, he ate hitters for lunch, coming in mostly high and hard, sort of like the way he lived: fastball, slider, fastball, fastball. Firing off that lofty, hammer-hard kick, he pitched with phenomenal control. In his big year, McLain pitched a league-leading 336 innings and gave up only 63 walks. What made the heat hotter was an elegant change. Sharyn, the daughter of Hall of Fame shortstop Lou Boudreau, had grown up going to ball games and took knowledgeable pride in watching her husband pitch. "He had that slow overhand curveball," she says. "It would go so slow and make the batters look so ridiculous! He didn't throw it often, but I loved it when he did."
In '68, McLain was the center of energy on a team that won the pennant and then the World Series. Brash, voluble, cocky, controversial, ever his own man, he flashed a kind of off-speed Irish grin that turned up at only one corner of his mouth, as if he were saying, "I'll show you guys." And he seemed always the focus of attention, no matter what he was doing or where he happened to be. Turmoil tracked him like a bird dog.
"I love sitting and talking on the telephone now—talking without having to wait in line at the prison phone booth."
At the aforementioned autograph session in Ann Arbor, Ed Hamalainen, a 61-year-old Tiger fan, asked McLain to sign a large framed picture of the 1968 Tigers. All of them, row upon row, wore stolid team-picture expressions. All of them, that is, except McLain.
"You have your hand over your mouth," said Hamalainen, showing McLain the picture.
"That figures," said McLain.
There were all those ballplayers, looking very straight and Tiger true, with their hands at their sides. And there, in their midst, was McLain. He did have his left hand over his mouth and, of course, it somehow does figure. There were the Tigers, and then there was McLain.
Interpret it as you will—McLain suppressing a laugh at the world, or McLain biting the hand that feeds him, or McLain shielding from the camera his feelings of anger and loss—that renegade figure in the team picture says something important about the man.
Two of the central events in McLain's life—his father's death and his mother's remarriage—took place when he was a pitching star for Mount Carmel High School in Chicago, and they left him with an emptiness and anger that he carries with him today. When McLain was 15, his father, Tom, was driving to watch him pitch for Mount Carmel when he pulled off the road, slumped over the steering wheel and died of a heart attack. McLain revered his father, and Tom's death left a void in Denny's life that no one else ever filled. To make matters worse, McLain says, his mother married again within a year. Her involvement with another man so hurt and angered McLain that, even now, he has trouble talking about the remarriage.
In the sudden absence of the most important authority figure in his life, he resented being told what to do. "I rebelled," McLain says. "If my father had lived, I would've had somebody I really respected to tell me what to do. I don't think I would have developed the confrontational attitude about authority that I had for so long."
For years, though, he hid his feelings behind that inimitable swagger and whirling life-style. At times he would make people wince. In the golden days he said things like, "Money impresses me. Big business impresses. Important people impress. I'm a mercenary. I admit it. I want to be a billionaire. When you can do it out between the white lines, then you can live any way you want. Me? I like to travel fast and in first class. There's no other way to go, is there?"
They called him Mighty Mouth. He made all the shows—Ed Sullivan, the Smothers Brothers, Steve Allen—and said his hero was Frank Sinatra. "Not only is he a great entertainer and has fans and friends and money by the millions, but he also has power," said McLain. "That's what I want."
Of his relationship with Tiger general manager Jim Campbell, McLain said, "We have a mutual irritation society." And no wonder. McLain irritated a lot of people in those days. Detroit catcher Bill Freehan, for instance, wrote in the May 15 entry of his diary of the 1969 season (SI, March 2, 1970), "The rules for Denny just don't seem to be the same as for the rest of us."
"I like to regulate the hot and cold water in the shower. In the slammer it came out in one hot stream."
It all ended abruptly in 1970, when that glass house he had built for himself came crashing down. That was the year in which he first filed for bankruptcy and Sharyn first sued him for divorce. That was also the year in which he pitched in only 14 games, ending up with a 3-5 record, because he had been suspended by commissioner Bowie Kuhn for most of the season. He sat out 132 days for consorting with bookmakers, another month for carrying a firearm and being insubordinate to Tiger management, and seven days for pouring a bucket of ice water over two sportswriters.
Then, more than irritated, Campbell traded McLain to the Washington Senators, a bad team, and that was the beginning of the end. "It was damn near as bad as being in prison," McLain says. He finished the 1971 season 10-22, with a 4.27 ERA and an increasingly sore right shoulder. He had first hurt it in '65, and over the years he needed more and more cortisone to ease the pain. By '71 he was getting shot up before and after every start, and the fastball was a fading memory. McLain struggled to come back in Oakland and Atlanta in '72 and even did a stretch in the minors at Birmingham, but he was finished, his career over, his arm gone.
He was 28 years old. Thirteen years later, 17 years after he had won the 31, McLain was sitting in front of Kovachevich at his sentencing. His playing weight had been 215, but he had been fighting obesity for years—the result, he figured, of all that cortisone slowing down his metabolism—and now he was pushing 300 pounds. In prison that morning, sick with flu, he had written a statement that he read to the judge. It said he had been a victim of his own greed, of bad judgment, of trying to make a fast dollar. Also: "I don't know how you get to where I am today from where I was 17 years ago."
It's difficult to recall any American athlete who had risen so high, so fast and come down so hard, so far. He had just spent several weeks in the Seminole County lockup, where the authorities had put him after the trial and where, for a time, he considered suicide. "I thought my whole life was over," he says. "I couldn't imagine I had done anything so bad that I could be locked up. I was no altar boy; I had done a lot of things wrong in my life. But to be locked up for criminal bad judgment? I couldn't even imagine that."
The jury believed it was worse than bad judgment, though, and McLain would have a lot of time to imagine it where he was going. "My initial contact with prison...those were awful days," he says. "I felt humbled, degraded, humiliated. I suppose every guy walking in there feels the same way."
Bad as those days were, they could have been worse. "Everybody knew me, or of me, and that made a difference," McLain says. He thought he would be taunted, but prisoners shook his hand instead and said they were sorry and asked if there was anything they could do. And there was the endless refrain on meeting another inmate: "Hey, I saw you pitch."
McLain's descent into the maelstrom of prison life was just beginning. After that six weeks in Sanford, McLain spent short stretches at two other jails before he wound up in what he regards as the very bottom of the belly of the beast, the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta, the federal prison that two months after his release would become a site of rioting, destruction and hostage-taking by Cuban-born inmates. The months that McLain spent in the Atlanta prison were marked by violence, drudgery, filth, infestation, and tons of rice and tough meat at dinner.
"The Atlanta prison was the filthiest place on the face of the earth," McLain says. "We were surrounded by cockroaches and rats—the four-legged and two-legged kind." But worse than the vermin, he says, was the way the guards routinely abused Cuban inmates.
"Maybe the worst of it was in the hospital," McLain says, "where the Cubans were truly victims. They went on a hunger strike to protest the conditions. When a guy was starving, the doctors would stick a tube down his nose to feed him. They would handcuff the Cubans—ankles to the bottom of the bed, wrists to the top—and then put the tubes in their noses. When the doctors ran out of the right-sized hose, they just got bigger ones, and shoved them down the Cubans' noses. Guys almost drowned in their own blood."
Fortunately for McLain, he got to work in the kitchen, where he could keep an eye on what went into the food that ended up on his plate. "The Cubans would get angry and urinate in the food. Even worse than that, they threw in mice and rats. You wouldn't know it until somebody'd dip into the soup and there'd be a dead rat in it. The way the Cubans were treated, you couldn't blame them."
Outbreaks of violence were normal. "Every day, sometimes five or six times a day," McLain says, "there's a major beef—fights, knives, clubs. It's not the real world." One day he was talking to Sharyn on the phone when an inmate, angry that McLain was taking too long, picked up a fire extinguisher and cracked him over the head with it. McLain dropped the phone, stunned and bleeding. He couldn't report the assault—that would have made him a rat, a prison lowlife—so he sought treatment from an inmate who was a doctor.
The first time Sharyn and the children went to visit Denny in Atlanta was a chilling experience. It particularly pained Sharyn to see him in prison because she knew how claustrophobic he was. "When they closed the bars behind us, the kids and I wanted to die," she says. "It was dark and gray. There were the bars. The guy with the gun hanging out of the tower. Prisoners would hang out, whistling and making cracks as we went by. One day we saw a guy getting dragged out of there. He was in like a straitjacket, and they were literally dragging him out the door. An awful place."
"I like getting up in the morning. It's a joy."
The McLains grew closer during their visits. They sat at a table and talked as they had never talked before. "We discussed how we felt about one another," says Dennis. "Little things became very important. The kids could say what was bothering them."
With her husband physically out of the family's mainstream, Sharyn sought to bring him back into it spiritually, to make him feel that he was still the head of the household. "I told the kids, 'If you do anything wrong, I'll call Dad and tell him,' " Sharyn says. "They can't stand it for him to be mad at them." So, from behind bars, it was Denny who meted out the punishment at home.
Because he was so far away—Sharyn and the kids were living 450 miles to the south, in Tampa—visits were infrequent. Except for Michelle, then 13, all the family members had to work. "We just put it all in the pot," Sharyn says.
McLain knew that Sharyn and the children were struggling, and he felt guilty and helpless in prison. He wanted to be somewhere closer to them, but after 10 months in Atlanta, he was carted off to Talladega—a 12-hour drive from Tampa. He still fumes over that move.
"The Federal Bureau of Prisons does more to promote divorce than any group in the world," he says. "They take a guy and move him thousands of miles away from his family. It's cruel. Isn't it enough to take away a man's freedom?"
Like many imprisoned men, McLain struggled with depression. "You get so despondent at times that you don't think you'll make it to lunch," he says. "I lived to go to sleep every night."
He fought the anguish and the boredom by taking part in sports, mostly tennis but even some baseball. He pitched six innings in a game one afternoon, gave up three runs and left with his arm throbbing. "I was in bed for two days after that," he says. "I felt like somebody had shot me with a howitzer."
What humor he saw in prison life was based on its absurdities: "I found it in the idiocies of the jobs we performed and in sitting there at four o'clock in the afternoon, grown men, watching cartoons."
When he wasn't mopping floors, he spent much of his spare time working on his appeal. "I can't imagine being in jail and giving up," he says. "To not fight is to accept what they're doing to you."
Hitting the books was his way of fighting. "I spent hundreds of hours in the prison library, poring over law books, trying to find cases that might have a bearing on mine," he says. Whenever he thought, he had something, he would phone Levine collect in Tampa to tell him. McLain made $3,000 worth of such calls. "He became a very good jailhouse lawyer," Levine says.
McLain had all the time he needed to think in prison, and at the end of his first year, he came to a crucial realization, the most important in his time inside: "All of a sudden you wake up one day, you look around and say, How in the hell did I get here? Then you have to admit to yourself: I put myself here. No one else. Now what am I going to do to get out? There comes a point when you finally admit to yourself, Hey, I've made some mistakes and I'm sorry. I'm genuinely sorry for what I did. Now please let me get on with the rest of my life."
"I like to sit with Sharyn and watch TV and do nothing. I like to just hold her hand."
During the years of his greatest success, McLain's marriage was unraveling, mainly because he ran around like a man who didn't expect to see 40. Indeed, his father and his father's father had both died at 36. "I thought I was going to be dead by 36, too," McLain says. "I thought I saw the end coming at the age of 24. I didn't think I had a chance, especially in the lane I was traveling. There have been some quiet years, but I don't remember one right now."
To be sure, 1970 was not one of them. As if the three suspensions weren't bad enough, he went bankrupt. "I was making $200,000 a year, easy," McLain says. "I thought we had so much money we could never run out of it."
The bankruptcy only added to the marital strife. "Our marriage at the time was bad," Sharyn says. "He was never home. He was always doing his own thing." She went along with it for a while. She was raised, after all, in a home from which the father was frequently gone, but the mother was never absent. "I thought that's what a good wife and mother was supposed to do, stay in the house and make sure the kids are O.K.," she says.
In 1970, while Denny was on a road trip, she decided she'd had enough and had divorce papers served on him at Yankee Stadium. "I didn't know what he was doing, but I knew that whatever it was, it didn't include me and the three kids," she says. "I was just tired. I was tired of raising the kids myself, tired of all the responsibilities. I wanted to shake him up. And it shook him up. It was maybe the first time in years that we talked."
He told her, apologetically, "I just didn't realize what I was doing." She dropped the suit. Two years later, though, she left him and filed again. He had opened a bar in Atlanta called Gaffer's, and she figured that he was running around with other women. "Oh, the hours he was keeping, the people he was with," she says.
"I was abusive," Dennis admits, "not physically but emotionally, due to the way I was carrying on." One day, after he left for work, she and the children loaded a U-Haul with all the belongings from their Atlanta home and left. "I took everything," she says. "I don't know how I did it, and I don't know how I got home to Chicago."
When Denny finally reached her by phone, from Atlanta, he yelled, "You didn't even leave me a pillow!"
They were back together in six months, living in Atlanta again; they had agreed that Denny would sell Gaffer's. It was at this point that his meanderings through the 1970s began: He went from one enterprise to another, from one money problem to the next. He declared bankruptcy again in '77, after the Memphis Blues, the minor league baseball team of which he was general manager, ran aground financially. "I had overextended myself," he says. He lost more money on the big-screen TVs: "We wound up with a bad product."
In 1978 the McLains lost just about everything when a fire in their Lakeland, Fla., house destroyed their belongings, including his baseball mementos—bats and scrapbooks and the two Cy Young Award plaques—none of them insured. "It was my fault," Denny says. "I didn't pay the premium."
Broke, he turned to hustling golf in 1978, and because he was a scratch player, he actually made a good living at it. "I used to hit a thousand balls every day," he says. "Every once in a while a guy came by who thought he could really play. I took my act on the road, too. That's where the money is, down in Miami. I enjoyed playing. I enjoyed winning. I enjoyed giving a guy three or four shots a side and beating his brains out. I probably enjoyed that as much as pitching."
"I love sitting at home in front of my big-screen TV and changing channels all day long between games and movies."
McLain's most serious troubles began in 1981 when he quit golf hustling and joined First Fidelity Financial Services, Inc., in Tampa, a mortgage brokerage where he fell in with some fast shufflers. "Biggest mistake I ever made," he says. "Being associated with them, I began doing things in a manner in which they should not be done." According to prosecutors and several witnesses, that included demanding illegal kickbacks from customers seeking mortgages, loan-sharking and running a bookmaking operation out of one of the mortgage company's branch offices.
The pressure began to get to McLain. He ate excessively, and he was drinking heavily; his weight ballooned, and in 1981 he suffered a mild heart attack. "No matter what I said to him about his weight, he wouldn't listen," Sharyn says. "It was like he just didn't care."
In 1982, citing bookkeeping irregularities and fraud, the state of Florida closed down First Fidelity. Pressed for cash, McLain and a former colleague from the mortgage company became entangled in the cocaine trade, according to federal prosecutors. Still, his financial slide continued. He wrote bad checks, lost his Piper when he couldn't keep up the payments and saw his walk-in clinic business suffer after his indictment in March 1984. Thus began the chain of events that led to those nightmarish 30 months inside a cage.
Even when he was inside, though, there were small blessings, such as the friends he made. The best was not even an inmate. He was Walt Olender, a delicatessen owner from Bayonne, N.J., an avid collector of baseball memorabilia. Olender started writing to McLain when he first went to prison, and they began exchanging letters once a week. Occasionally, McLain called Olender on the phone to chat. Though they'd never met, Olender felt a bond forming between them. "I wrote him for 2½ years," says Olender. "I felt like I really knew this guy, like he was a close friend."
Olender often sent McLain $20 a week in spending money—"He was supporting me in prison!" Denny says—and last Christmas he sent Sharyn $1,500 to help tide her over.
But there were no blessings to match the one on that August day when the appeals court overturned his conviction. The event remains the most vivid in his life, bigger and more emotional than his 30th win in '68. A prison official called out to him, "McLain! Call your attorney. Right away!"
"My heart went through my head," he says. Levine told him he had won the appeal on all points. McLain broke down and wept. "I've got to call Sharyn," he said.
The blessing didn't end with the news of the appeal. When McLain needed someone to pledge $200,000 to bail him out while he awaited a possible retrial, he called Olender and said, understating the point more than a little, "I want to ask you a big favor." Olender flew to Tampa. Using his personal assets as collateral, he sprung a man he'd never met from prison and flew back to Bayonne on the next plane. To this day, he hasn't met McLain. The two of them have a deal, though: Olender is McLain's agent in booking appearances at baseball-card shows, and they were scheduled to finally meet at a show this month.
When Welker heard that McLain was out of prison, he approached him with the idea of playing the organ at Komets hockey games. "We needed to get some recognition," he says. McLain turned down the offer. "I'm not in the circus business anymore," he told Welker.
Instead, they worked out a deal: McLain would promote the Komets and help peddle Welker's alcohol-free wine cooler. Welker had no second thoughts about hiring McLain. "I think every man deserves a second chance," he says.
As it happens, McLain isn't out of the legal woods. The U.S. Attorney's office recently announced that it intends to try him again on the old charges. The retrial is set to begin on Jan. 4. On hearing this, McLain said, "When is enough enough?" Not yet, according to prosecutors. In fact, a guilty plea in exchange for a sentence of time served may be the best McLain can now hope for.
"I like going to the bathroom by myself without asking someone to leave the room."
Meanwhile, McLain has some catching up to do. He carried a lot of heavy baggage home from prison, and more than just the memories. He is laden with guilt about what he put his family through, and there is a kind of desperate edge to his voice when he talks about making things right again. "I'm sorry I didn't take care of Sharyn and the kids in the early years of the marriage," he says. "I'm trying to make up for it now. I'm going to do everything I can. But there's no way to get even, not after what I did to her."
Sharyn can't imagine him doing any more than he's doing now. He emerged from prison a kind of new McLain, someone she had only dreamed of him being. In the past he had sometimes been abrupt, insensitive, rude, even nasty. "It's just a whole different guy now," she says. "Today he's the kind of guy I wish he'd have been when we got married. He never wanted to help me before. Now he makes breakfast! Give me a break! He never made breakfast before. He makes dinner. He never, ever made dinner. God!"
He holds her hand when he walks down the street with her. Earlier this month, he even hung drapes. He walks and washes the dog. When he goes out of town, he asks her if she would like to come along. He wakes up at six, kisses her and says, "Good morning!"
"Drives me crazy," she says.
Naturally, Sharyn is leery, wondering if Denny will revert to his old ways. "I can't believe what has happened," she says. "It's such a change. It's overwhelming. It has happened so fast. Sixty days ago, I couldn't feed my kids. God, it was tough. I am leery. I've told him that."
To which he says, "It ain't gonna happen." But he appreciates her skepticism. "I can't blame her for not trusting me."
For now, he has been challenging the days just as he used to challenge the hitters, kicking off the mound early each day and heading out the door. The man who once hated to wake up in the morning now says, "I hate to go to sleep at night. I'm eager to get going the next day. I'm higher now, mentally, than I've ever been. I realize what I almost threw away. I learned a hell of a lesson. Now it's time to get on with the rest of my life."
"I love it all."