DETROIT — Denny McLain spoke about the “hatchet” that may or may not have been buried between him and Mickey Lolich.
The problems between the pitching stars of the 1968 Detroit Tigers have been well documented. And they were once again a topic for conversation during Saturday’s media gathering prior to the honoring of their World Series championship team.
But before dealing with the past, the 31-game winner, McLain, and the World Series hero, Lolich, spoke about today’s Tigers such as Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez. They marveled at the talent on the defending American League champions who hope to someday do as they did — win it all.
McLain said he was like many who questioned the signing of Sanchez to a five-year deal worth $80 million. But Sanchez threw a one-hit shutout Friday night, broke Lolich’s single-game strikeout record with 17 last month and leads the Tigers while ranking among the league’s top five with a 2.38 ERA and 80 strikeouts.
“Now we know why they signed him,” said McLain, 69, who lives in Brighton. “He’s got good stuff … He attacks the strike zone. Right now, he’s probably the best pitcher on the team.”
McLain realized how that might be perceived by fans of Justin Verlander, who in 2011 did what he did in 1968 — win both the AL MVP and Cy Young Award. So McLain quickly heaped praise on Verlander, who is coming off three consecutive sub-par starts, and said he will be back on top soon.
“He’s got too good of stuff not to,” McLain added.
He’s noticed something in Verlander’s delivery, though.
“His head is moving a bunch and that’s a sign of trying to throw too hard,” said McLain, adding that posting radar-gun pitch speeds has been detrimental to pitchers. “But when he’s got his control, he’s as good as anyone I’ve ever seen: Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant and Jim Lonborg.
“He’s the type who could pitch in any era – like Cabrera could hit in any era.”
Great players and their top performances are what link eras.
Lolich, who fanned 16 batters twice in a three-game span in 1969, held the single-game record for 44 years before Sanchez bested it against the Atlanta Braves on April 26.
“Really, I don’t know too much about him,” said Lolich, 72, who has sold his doughnut shop and retired. “But he pitched great last night (with the one-hitter). He’s a sleeper who you’ve got to keep your eyes on.”
I mentioned to Lolich that he might have been a bit of a sleeper, too. Nobody expected him to win three games in the World Series to upstage McLain and St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame ace Bob Gibson.
“Oh, I slept a lot,” Lolich said before chuckling.
“Paul Foytack held the (Tigers’ strikeout) record at 15 before I broke it,” Lolich continued. “But records are made to be broken.”
On that topic, there’s the matter of Cabrera threatening to become the first to win the Triple Crown in successive seasons. How would McLain have pitched Cabrera?
“Knock him on his (butt)!” McLain said. “That’s the first thing: show him he does not own the inside part of the plate. And throw him nothing but fastballs.”
McLain glanced across the room at Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline, his long-time teammate.
“Knock him down!” McLain said, nodding toward Kaline. “He’d hit a home run and say, ‘Do it again, (expletitive).”
The most-feared pitcher in the league in 1968 and 1969, when he shared the Cy Young with Baltimore’s Mike Cuellar, laughed heartily.
Later, when the group of ’68 Tigers did a question-and-answer session with fans, Kaline alluded to Cabrera.
“This is a scoop!” Kaline shouted into a microphone. “Mickey Stanley’s No. 24 will be retired here someday.”
Stanley, who played center next to Kaline in right, rocked with laughter and thrust a fist skyward.
Cabrera, of course, wears the same number.
McLain sat in the back row during the fan interaction and joked with Lolich, seated in the row front row, after one question.
McLain stranded Lolich at the 1969 All-Star Game after taking him to Washington D.C. in his private plane, and they don’t see eye to eye.
McLain also took shots at teammates in his autobiography written with Eli Zaret, “I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect,” and said Lolich was “overwhelmingly jealous” of him.
“A lot of our misunderstandings ended up in the paper,” McLain said. “But I’d have lunch with Mickey. There’s no hatchet to be buried. If there’s any hatchet, it’s his.”
I asked Lolich to describe his relationship with McLain, and Lolich declined.
“In three years for us,” Lolich said, “he was a great pitcher.”
He added how the Tigers couldn’t have gotten where they did without McLain and complimented him further.
So perhaps the hatchet remains out there. Old wounds can be slow to heal, if they ever heal at all.
For one afternoon, though, they had brunch with their former teammates and doffed their caps to the town’s ever-loving fans.
And they tipped their caps to the great players wearing the Olde English D today.
McLAIN WEIGHT-LOSS SURGERY: McLain said he will undergo a sleeve gastrectomy surgery Tuesday in Detroit. The surgery will greatly reduce the size of his stomach.
“I’m scared to death,” McLain said. “The doctor said I can lose between 135 and 140 pounds in nine to 10 months.
“If I get my shoulder repaired, I could still throw an inning.”