A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
I stood in the batter's box facing the pitcher, who happened to be Denny McLain in Bermuda shorts.
As he stooped in that classic pose, gloved hand on left knee to get the sign, I waggled my bat. Not so much to get loose, for that was quite impossible, but mostly for effect. I wanted McLain to know that, while I might not be Mickey Mantle, I was certainly not George Plimpton, by God.
The improbable scene took place early one evening in June, 1970 on the Lakeland (Florida) High School baseball diamond. McLain was there during his suspension from major league baseball and worked out regularly for his imminent return to the Detroit Tigers.
Only two years earlier, McLain had been chosen as the American League's "Most Valuable Player" after winning 31 games for the Tigers, while losing only six times. That made him the first pitcher to have at least 30 victories since 1934. But the right-hander was suspended for the first three months of the 1970 season after published reports linking him to gambling.
So now, each evening around suppertime, with the warm sun down, but still a couple hours left before nightfall, McLain was pitching a nine-inning "Piggy Move-Up" game to a ragtag group of local high school and college players. His catcher was Jim Handley, an area high school coach who until recently caught in the New York Mets and Tigers farm systems.
All seven fielding positions were taken by the kids, who felt honored as heroes. Handley was permanently behind the plate, fingering signals and calling balls and strikes. McLain stayed on the mound, throwing about three-quarters speed, as the rotation continued.
That afternoon, when I learned of the games, I had asked McLain if I might play. "Why not?" he said with a shrug.
I confess I was rather excited about the prospect because I had not faced a big-league pitcher since I was about 11 years old. It had been something like the 1951 World Series. Two New York teams, the Yankees versus Giants, played against a wall of the Bryant Elementary School on the West Side of Chicago.
My friend, Jerry, was Yankee pitcher Vic Raschi, and another ace, Allie Reynolds, too. And I, crouched with a bat and a rectangle of a strike zone chalked on a dark wall behind me, waited for Raschi to serve up that Spalding rubber ball. I was Willie Mays, the great centerfielder for the Giants.
Now I stood, with batting helmet and gym shoes and soft knees, facing the real Denny McLain. I gripped the bat tightly.
McLain appeared to be chunky on the mound -- 60 feet, 6 inches away, but he became formidable when he kicked and whirled and came around in that graceful, smooth, grooved delivery and the ball popped into Handley’s mitt.
Strike one. A breaking ball broke low and outside. I tried to watch the ball all the way, as I had read to do years before in The Way to Better Baseball written by Tommy Henrich, the "Old Reliable" first baseman of the Yanks. But how magnificently McLain hid the ball. You never saw the white of it until it was traveling plateward.
I fouled off a ball to the right that bounced down and almost into the hazy lake, which was fringed by pine trees dripping moss. The count went to 3-2 and then, staring and frozen, I struck out on an outside fastball. I trotted head down to right field.
Next time up, I hit the second pitch up the middle, past McLain’s right, and I ran like hell. I knew I shouldn’t watch where the ball was going, but I had to. The shortstop charged over, but threw late. I had beaten out a hit! The inning ended with me stranded on first base.
But I had another turn at bat. I was up second in the ninth inning. And I was concerned. McLain's pride might be hurt.
He told me once that he wanted to win at everything, that he even would whip his mother at Monopoly. (Later, he said with a smile when I bragged a bit, "That hit? It took 13 bounces.")
His competitive fires burned bright.
At bat again in the growing evening, the fielders seemed far away, while McLane loomed close. His tanned face and arms were dark with sweat, and so was his gray T-shirt, which had Detroit Tigers lettered across the chest.
Quickly, the count was 2-2. A high, medium fastball pushed me back.
"Oh, gee," said McLean, with feigned anxiety. "I wouldn't want to hit him," meaning a sportswriter. Handley echoed a laugh from behind his mask
I swallowed. (At the time, I didn't realize that I'd just experienced an authentic brush-back pitch.)
Then, with a 3-2 count. McLain wound up and -- my God! -- he was coming in side-arm. "Where you goin?" asked Handley as I strode into the bucket.
The ball came in and, as I swung awkwardly, creakingly, the ball kept coming in. A changeup! By the time it had reached the plate, I had crumbled to one knee.
McLain’s smilingly white teeth looked very bright against the dark of his face.
Yes, I had struck out ignobly, but as I trotted out to right field in the warm haze of the Florida evening, I was absorbed in the already fading details of my hit. I was batting .333 against Denny McLain
I still am, and will be, forever.
PS: McLain was only 29 when his 10-year major league career ended. Before he retired, he was given the game's premier awards. But he later spent six years in prison after being convicted on charges of mail fraud, embezzlement and drug trafficking. He maintained that he knew nothing about the shady financial activities alleged by the government.
Ira Berkow is the author of more than 20 books and a former sports columnist for The New York Times
Denny McLain was only 29 at the end of a 10-year pitching career in 1972 and was given major league baseball's top awards before retiring, but later spent six years in prison -- convicted on charges of mail fraud, embezzlement and drug trafficking. He said that he knew nothing about the shady financial activities alleged by the government.