McLain back at Bowman

When Denny McLain walks through the gates of Bowman Field and sees the throwback setting, the picturesque view takes him back to a day in 1964 – his second season in the major leagues after starting three games in 1963.

It was the first time the 20-year-old Detroit Tigers pitcher stepped out onto the hallowed field at old Yankee Stadium, a home to former Yankees greats like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Baseball history has never been lost on McLain, but he learned a lesson that summer that seems very fresh in his mind. He still hears the whispers to this day.

Teammate Bill Freehan instructed the young McLain to take a casual walk out to center field in the revered stadium during his first hour in uniform. McLain, a pitcher, at first balked at the idea of walking some 400 feet past the infield dirt and out into the outfield grass. Freehan, though, gave him the hard sell and told McLain he’d hear people talking once he arrived in center field. McLain was sold on the idea and sure enough, he heard those light voices Freehan referenced.

“Freehan planted it in my head and I could hear the whispers,” McLain said. “It has always stayed with me.”

That memory may be jogged again when McLain returns to Bowman Field tonight and Saturday to sign autographs and share similar stories of his past. His two-night stay includes a Sun-Gazette Pack the Park Night tonight when fans can pick up complimentary tickets in the newspaper.

This will be the third consecutive year the major league’s last 30-game winner will appear at Bowman Field.

McLain enjoys the baseball history of Williamsport, including the setting of the Original League Field across the street from Bowman Field which was built in 1926 and is the second oldest minor league ballpark operating in the country. Then there is the massive Little League complex in South Williamsport where many future major leaguers took swings at becoming the best Little League team in the nation.

The complex screams of history, but McLain never received the chance to be a part of it. He and his young teammates never had the opportunity to play in the Little League World Series, despite being one of the best teams in Illinois and Michigan. The Boys League of Markham, just outside of Chicago, didn’t have a Little League charter. McLain’s dad worked tirelessly trying to get one before dying at the age of 36. The league eventually received the long-awaited charter after the death of McLain’s father and after the son began pitching in the major leagues.

While McLain, who played for the Detroit Tigers, Washington Senators, Oakland Athletics and Atlanta Braves, may have missed out on playing in the Little League World Series, he did play in a World Series at 24, leading the Tigers over the St. Louis Cardinals in 1968. During that season McLain, who won Game 6 of the World Series, won 31 games, the last pitcher to do so. He won the first of his back-to-back Cy Young Awards after recording 55 wins in a two-year span. From 1965-69, McLain won 108 games, finishing in the top five of the American League each time.

It’s the 31-win season, however, that makes McLain recognizable when he is out on the road signing autographs for fans. It’s always a talking point amongst fans of all generations.

The older generations of that group have passed down the stories and McLain, loves hearing them all. Some of the best stories he says begin with my dad or my grandfather saw you pitch the night….

“It’s the greatest adulation to hear those stories,” McLain said. “Most of them are true, too, because they remember something that happened in the game that you had to be there or know someone who was there.”

Sharing stories from his 10-year major-league career keeps McLain on the road. He was in Eastlake, Ohio, on Tuesday night at another Class A minor-league ballpark.

“I love it,” McLain said. “I enjoy meeting people and what it does for us is it maintains our relevance. You want to be relevant in the game of baseball and this is one way to do it.”

The 70-year-old is also relevant in a far different avenue – weight loss.

With his wife suffering from Parkinson’s disease, McLain received a reality check from his longtime doctor who told the overweight McLain that he was better off dead than alive. Taken aback by the brutal honesty of his friend of some 35 years, McLain asked the simple question of what do you mean. The doctor told him he was at risk for a stroke and should he suffer one how was his wife supposed to care for him. It was like a slap to the face or a bucket of cold water dumped over his head.

McLain made a choice that day and received gastric sleeve surgery to reduce the size of his stomach. Now, a pair of chicken wings make McLain feel full.

In the first month following the procedure, he lost 72 pounds. The weight loss now stands at 180 pounds, half the weight McLain used to be and some 35 pounds under his playing weight.

“I feel like a new person,” McLain said. “People don’t recognize me. They walk right by me at the ballpark.

“It’s made such a difference in my life and my family’s life.”