Baseball can be a game of highs and lows, of trials and triumphs. In many ways it mirrors life – certainly that of former Tiger pitching great Denny McLain who reached the pinnacle of success in the late 1960s and the lowest of lows in the decades to come. He positively affected millions of fans years ago with his accomplishments on the field and is now poised once again make a difference and help others off of it.
During my vacation last week outstate I noted online that the Detroit Tigers’ low-A minor league affiliate, the West Michigan White Caps, would be in town with McLain visiting. In the late 90s I served briefly as his traffic reporter when he had a morning radio show on WXYT-AM 1270. And though I had not grown up here nor was I old enough to appreciate his record-setting 31-6 campaign in 1968 (which would net him a Cy Young and MVP award and help propel the Tigers to a World Championship), I was a fan of his career both as a ballplayer and broadcaster (including his demonstrated on-air broadcast talents, including on TV’s “Eli and Denny Show”. At the same time, I was well aware of his many life’s challenges, both through the news and McClain’s own written, published words.
I found I was both intrigued and reticent. As I entered Fifth Third Field outside of Grand Rapids and saw the long line of fans in the concourse awaiting a glimpse of and autograph from the baseball legend I wondered if the exercise of reconnecting would be worthwhile. After all, I had read much about this ego and run-ins with teammates and managers. There was also the “checkered” past and a question of autograph cost and where the money would be going.
The visit was more than worth the several inning wait. As I edged nearer to the signing table on this hot August evening, I was able to read some of the table signage as well as speak with one of McLain’s handlers. Autographs were free and part of his summer tour of minor league ballparks to raise money and awareness for the U.S. Military All-Stars baseball team. Once up for the autograph, I reintroduced myself to the featured guest and, after nearly 20 years, he remembered me with great warmth and interest – updating me on his life and health and thoughtfully asking me if I wanted a new ball when he slightly botched a particular date while signing. An offer to pose for a photo and well wishes punctuated by a firm handshake ended the brief encounter that I will always cherish.
Though I don’t know him well, I feel I am an excellent judge of character. And while humility is probably not a word anyone would ever associate with Denny McLain, he exhibited it here. He seemed as genuinely honored to sign for and interact with fans as we fans were honored to be in his presence. Certainly we all deserve second chances and an opportunity to atone for past transgressions. One also got the impression that this was not about PR or image reconstruction. This was a man looking to put forth a positive legacy – just like the game, steeped in history and heritage, that he played so well so long ago.