From the outside looking in, baseball is the most cliché-riddled institution in America.
So it is that when former big-league ballplayer and now Memphian John Denny says he played "for love of the game," he is, strictly speaking, using a cliché, but he himself is not a cliché; he's worthy of a pass (and no one cry foul).
Denny has had a charmed life in baseball. He came up with the St. Louis Cardinals organization, with his first full season coming in 1975. In 1983, with the Philadelphia Phillies, Denny posted career bests: 19-6, 2.37 ERA, 150 strikeouts, winner of the Cy Young Award for best pitcher, pitched in and won game one of the World Series.
Following the season, Denny was invited to a state dinner at the White House. Included at his table of eight were President Ronald Reagan, the Queen of Nepal, Carol Burnett, the secretary of the Treasury, and a general.
All told, Denny played 13 seasons for the Cardinals, Cleveland Indians, Phillies, and Cincinnati Reds, retiring in 1986. In 2001, as a rehab pitching coach with the Arizona Diamondbacks, he won a World Series ring.
A few years ago, Denny moved to Memphis. Even this, it must be admitted, seems scripted: "I met this girl on the steps of Graceland," Denny says.
Now Denny is getting back into the swing of things. At his school, JAD Baseball Experience, Denny instructs students of all ages on the finer points — and some not so fine — of pitching. As a teacher, Denny is part anatomist, part psychologist, part friend, part father to his students.
"I want them to understand that this is an art form. This is something that not everyone can do. It takes a real commitment to spend the time to do something right."
Denny's coaching stint with the Diamondbacks was a key stepping-stone to his current career in Memphis. "I felt like I had a talent to teach pitching," he says. "Some of these [Diamondbacks] guys I had to rebuild. It seemed like I was able to see things and do things with them that other guys couldn't."
What it all comes down to is focus, he says: "Focus is certainly a common denominator that all players at the professional level need to have. You can't be distracted by what you're trying to do. If you are, you're going to have a problem."
For instance, take game one of the 1983 World Series in Baltimore. President Reagan was in attendance, and Denny had just given up a first-inning home run. "The crowd noise was so intense," he says. "I could feel the vibration in the pitcher's mound." Denny recovered to win the game.
Denny's decision to stay in the game as an instructor, long after playing, is owed in some part to early teammates, including Joe Torre, Tim McCarver, Bob Gibson, and Lou Brock. "Brock was one of the best teammates I ever had," Denny says. "He took me under his wing. One time he said, 'John, you need to learn to play the game within the boundaries of fair play.' There's an unwritten code of ethics. You act very professional. Be dignified, a class athlete, someone that people would respect."
These principles, Denny feels, connect him to an earlier time in baseball history. Torre, McCarver, Gibson, and Brock "learned from the players [who started] in the 1930s and '40s," Denny says. "What was common in those players was a real passion and love for the game. It wasn't so much money and notoriety; it was just loving the game.
"It has been a way of life. I can do it now in a different capacity and try to pass some of it on, because it means that much to me. [Baseball is] a game you're set up to fail. Maybe that's the beauty of it: It's a game you're set up to fail, but because of that, you still want to try to prove that you're not going to."