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STARTING OVER
William Nack
December 14, 1987
DENNY McLAIN, THE LAST PITCHER TO WIN 30 GAMES, IS OUT OF JAIL AND TRYING TO BUILD A NEW LIFE FOR HIMSELF
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December 14, 1987

Starting Over

DENNY McLAIN, THE LAST PITCHER TO WIN 30 GAMES, IS OUT OF JAIL AND TRYING TO BUILD A NEW LIFE FOR HIMSELF

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"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."

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