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FROM MY SEAT: Denny Delivers

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BY FRANK MURTAUGH | JUNE 18, 2007

If there’s a better way for a sportswriter to spend an afternoon than talking baseball with a former big-leaguer, I have yet to discover it. I recently had the chance to visit with 1983 Cy Young Award winner John Denny. The winner of 123 games over a 13-year career spent primarily with St. Louis and Philadelphia, Denny now calls Memphis his home and teaches private pitching lessons from his backyard. Denny’s reflections were as crisp as a fastball on the outside corner.

  • On teaching baseball in the twenty-first century: “I don’t think kids are as focused today. When I was little, we didn’t have video games. But I loved baseball so much that I could play by myself, with a wall and a ball. I could play every position but catcher. I tell kids if you really want to improve as a baseball player, you have to give up some of this other stuff. I played football and basketball, too. But I was just better at baseball.

    “In the fall of 1968, I was ready as a [high school] junior to play my first year of varsity basketball. But one day, as I was leaving class, the basketball coach came up to me and asked if I was planning on going out for the basketball team. He said, ‘Don’t bother, because you won’t make the team.’ And it was because he didn’t like me playing football!

    “My feeling is that one sport complements another, and that what you learn in one sport can help you in another. Especially in terms of eye-hand coordination.”

  • On Cardinal catcher Ted Simmons, a teammate of Denny’s for six years: “Ted was such a cerebral guy. He got to the big leagues for his hitting. He was an average big-league catcher. When he got into his catching, he was great to throw to. But sometimes when he wasn’t hitting, he’d take it behind the plate with him, and it was like, this isn’t the same catcher.

    “Marc Hill was an excellent defensive catcher, and there were some rumors that he might push Simmons out. But his hitting just wasn’t there.” [Hill became a longtime backup catcher with the Giants and White Sox.]

  • On the influence of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson: “I was put on the Cardinals’ major-league roster in 1973, and went to spring training with them in 1974. I went to winter ball in Puerto Rico and had a really good season, something like 9-1. The next spring, they put me in the rotation. There were six of us, and Gibson was one of them.

    “I was doing so-so. Wasn’t knocking them dead. I was just 22 years old. It got late into spring training, and I was going to have to start doing something. I no-hit the Red Sox through six innings, pitched really well. The next day, I got to the park early. Gibson was always there, this time getting a rubdown in the trainer’s room. He came out and found me, and he goes, ‘Kid, I heard you pitched pretty good yesterday.’ For him to say that to me . . . that was Bob Gibson! He said, ‘We may think about taking you north with us.’

    “As the story got back to me -- and I wound up in the starting rotation -- Gibson went to [Cardinal general manager] Bing Devine and [manager] Red Schoendienst and volunteered to go into the bullpen.” [1975 was Gibson’s final year in the majors.]

  • On Gibson’s lighter side: “My second year in the minor leagues -- I was just 18 years old -- the Cardinals would send a major-leaguer down to talk to the minor-leaguers. There were something like 120 of us there. And they sent Gibson this time. He was giving us a motivational speech, and at the end asked if any of us had any questions.

    “In school, I never raised my hand, but for some reason, up it went this time. I said, ‘You know, there are times I feel really good in the bullpen before the game, but then I take the mound and lose it. Can you tell me anything I can do about that?’

    “Gibson looked down at me, and scratched his head. ‘Well, kid,’ he said, ‘there’s a direct line from here [pointing to his rear end] to here [pointing to his head] to here [pointing to his right arm]. And when this thing [his rear end] tightens up, you can’t get anything over the plate!’ I wanted to dig a hole into that concrete and hide.”

  • On the toughest hitter Denny ever faced: “Tony Gwynn. I took a lot of pride in being able to find weaknesses in a batter. I tried everything with that guy, and I couldn’t get him out. He was one of the very few hitters that would adjust during an at-bat, and a game. It was a chess match with him, and he was winning.” [Gwynn will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame next month.]

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