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."