Sunday, April 13, 2008

McLain Could Make It All Back As A Professional Cautionary Tale

Denny McLain is broke, evicted, and has just been arrested again. This hardly qualifies as earth-shattering news. In fact, I’d place it in the same, getting-fatter file of shenanigans like Britney Spears’s latest personal train wreck. Denny’s stuff would be in that file, too.

The latest McLain mug shot appeared in the papers this morning. You could wallpaper a small room with the variations over the years. Denny’s been getting arrested since 1985, you know. And he keeps getting broke. And he keeps reappearing, on the radio, or on TV. Then he gets broke again. And arrested. And reappearing. He’s been running in place for 23 years.

Some Oakland County sheriff’s deputies showed up at McLain’s door in Livingston County’s Hamburg Township on Friday, to finalize an eviction due to a foreclosure judgment that went against him. Then they discovered that Denny had an outstanding warrant, from failing to appear in court on a civil charge back in January. Back to the hooskow went Denny. Another mug shot to add to the collection.

I blame Mayo Smith for all this. It’s always convenient to pick on the dead.

Smith, McLain’s manager in the salad days of 1967-69, let his star pitcher run rampant. It was OK for Denny to flit off and play the organ between starts, and fly his plane to the cities the Tigers were in, and otherwise break team rules, as long as he kept winning. That’s one version, anyway – one that I tend to believe the most. You can find the truth about McLain somewhere, as long as you don’t resort to asking him to tell it.

Smith, and Tigers management – usually a stiff, staid bunch – liked to turn the other way when McLain acted up. After all, Denny did win 92 games for them from 1966-69, including 31 in the World Series year of `68. He took home two Cy Young Awards (’68 and ’69). Maybe they just thought he was a flake – that wink of a baseball term for the fresh, the funny; the oddball. Whatever, it wasn’t until Denny dumped a bucket of water over some sportswriters’ heads in 1970, then was caught with a gun later that year, that he was suspended by the team, and eventually the league.

Oh, there was more that went largely unreported. Jim Northrup once told me of a business idea that McLain hoodwinked some of his teammates into, involving paint manufacturing and distribution. Sportscaster Dave Diles said on an ESPN piece about McLain: “Denny is the kind of person who would stab someone and explain that the victim ran into his knife – sixteen times.”

The sordid history of McLain, off the pitcher’s mound, begins in 1967. He complained late in the season of a mysterious foot injury. The Tigers, his teammates, were in a dogfight with three other clubs for the league pennant. But Denny, thanks to his bothersome foot, was largely unavailable to pitch in September, the race for the pennant in its last leg. The Tigers lost the flag – it being torn from their grasp on the last day of the season. There’s no telling how much a healthy McLain could have changed things.

One of the most understated book titles in publishing history

But here’s the rub. It eventually came out that McLain, in trouble with some gangsters over a bad debt, had his foot stomped on by one of the thugs late that summer. Again, it’s one version. But after what happened since ’67, it’s probably not all that far off the mark – despite Denny’s frequent denials.

So you have that, then the suspension in 1970. Then a disastrous season in 1971 with Washington, to whom the Tigers traded Denny in one of their best, most lopsided deals ever. He was washed up by the end of the 1972 season, at age 28.

There were failed business go-rounds, but that’s no crime. From ’72 to 1985, Denny McLain was simply a sad tale of a once-great player who lost his mojo quickly and whose career went down in flames at a tender age. Usually, that tale is sad enough. But McLain added to it, thickening his file, so much so that I wonder why he never went on the lecture circuit, giving speeches with the theme, “Don’t do what I did.”

Really. If Denny chose to, he could have made a living flying around the country, warning anyone in the crowd – anyone – to not do the things that he did. That’s all. Not even any writing involved. Just an easel, listing his boneheaded decisions, and a big circle to the right with one of those lines through it – the international symbol for NO.

“Don’t do the following...”

He could have made a mint. Of course, he would have maybe needed two easels, come to think of it.

Racketeering and other federal crimes in 1985. Convicted. Released after the verdict was overturned, due to prosecutorial misconduct. Another chance at life. Another chance to get it right.

Bought a meat packing plant in Chesaning in 1993. Charged with embezzling from the pension fund – actually, the WHOLE fund. Convicted in 1995. Thousands of families left holding an empty bag and staring at broke futures. Released in 2003. Yet another chance to get it right. Instead, McLain refused to show any remorse or acknowledge the big deal that his actions caused. He couldn’t care less.

In between, there were more failed business endeavors and several stints on talk radio and television. Someone kept hiring Denny. He wrote a book last year, belatedly titled I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect. Although I don’t remember Denny ever telling us that. I DO recall, however, his frequent cries of “not me” and “well, ME, but here’s why.”

Denny McLain has spent most of his life telling us that things just didn’t happen the way that they appear to have happened. He was a victim, just like those that he screwed.

Well, he’s a felon and a liar. And he STILL could have made it, if he only would have told everyone that, and cautioned them to be his antithesis.

He’s the only weasel I know with nine lives.

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