I have resigned myself to the fact that I am not perfect,” says Philadelphia Phillies pitcher John Denny. A year ago he wouldn’t have gotten much of an argument. He had a modest 75-71 lifetime record and a reputation for being difficult with fans, umpires and the press. But that was before the sparkling season of 1983. Denny won the Cy Young Award with a 19-6 record, picked up his team’s only victory in the World Series and was named Comeback Player of the Year.
Denny had a lot to come back from, a lot more than his miserable 6-13 season in 1982. “He used to be at war with himself, other players and the umpires,” says Philadelphia pitching coach Claude Osteen, who has known John for 10 years. Denny once came to blows with his catcher, Ted Simmons, and irked umpires so much that one actually turned his back on Denny and proceeded to call the next pitch a ball. Denny often grew irritated with aggressive autograph hounds and shunned the press for months at a time. Having signed a three-year, $600,000 per season contract in 1982, he came across as overpriced and ungrateful. “I was very critical of myself,” concedes John. “For others to criticize me was just too much.”
As the new season gets under way this week, Denny claims he has never felt better. Why the dramatic turnaround? Denny, 31, says his pitching improved because of a slight change in his delivery and a shoulder-strengthening regimen, but these are “little things. The bottom line was the spiritual aspect. Being a Christian has helped me grow.” Yes, Denny is born-again and has been since 1978, when the influence of his wife, Pat, and the testimony of several fellow athletes reawakened his religious faith before a game in Chicago.
At the World Series last fall Denny rekindled another relationship—this one with his father, whom John had not seen for five years. John’s parents were divorced when he was 5, and father Dick Denny later moved to Australia. “My dad was great at quoting the Bible and professing religion,” Denny says, “but at the same time he did some brutal things.” Though Denny won’t discuss details of his past relationship with his father, he says of the World Series reunion, “It was a great event. Our goal is to stay more in touch.”
That early dose of religion helped drive Denny away from the force that would eventually prove his salvation. After her divorce Dixie Denny moved John and his two older brothers from Skull Valley, Ariz. (pop. 250) to Prescott. Dixie held down three jobs to keep John in baseball spikes and gloves. “We bounced around from church to church,” he recalls. “At around 12, I had a disagreement with some doctrine. I was taking religion seriously, but it wasn’t working out right.”
Denny excelled, however, in high school sports, playing football and basketball as well as baseball. Drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1970, Denny advanced to the big leagues in 1974 and saw himself as a star. “Having a big name and earning a lot of money consumed me,” he admits. But his career was marred by losing streaks, temper tantrums and injuries, including a chronically sprained ankle that has been surgically reconstructed and an inflamed rotator cuff. Pat Denny, John’s high school sweetheart, whom he married when he made the majors, remembers him sulking at home: “His temperament would change before he pitched. If he lost, it would take several days for him to get over it.”
Then came that fateful day in Chicago. “Jesus,” he said at the time, “I don’t care if I win or lose, but I promise to talk to the reporters after the game, and You know how much I don’t like to do that.” Other than that, reports John, “nothing flashy happened. I still struggled with my lower nature. When you become a Christian, you don’t automatically become a great success. I still had my troubles.”
A determined and introspective man, Denny is nonetheless more at ease these days. “He’s feeling better about himself, and that’s why he’s getting along better with other people,” says Phillies reliever Tug McGraw. He willingly signs autographs and has become more receptive to reporters. Denny figures that he ought to take every chance to tell of his spiritual renewal, although he is aware that “with so many people, religion is a sensitive subject.”
Denny’s relaxed demeanor is also evident at home. “Before, it was hard for him to say he was wrong,” says wife Pat. “Now we seldom argue. John says he has a long way to go, but he doesn’t realize how far he’s come.”