Maurice "Mickey" McDermott's golf hat was pulled down over his forehead, but that couldn't hide the laughter in his big Irish face.
Down on his luck for years, the former Boston Red Sox pitcher had won $5.8 million in the Arizona lottery on February 7. McDermott, 62, sat on the stool next to the cash register in Carrows restaurant at 46th Street and Thomas. He was grinning like a man who had hit a homer in the last of the ninth.
"Let me tell you how this happened," he began. "I was on a barstool for two days and finally I went home to sleep it off. I'm not a kid anymore. It takes me time to get over a hangover. Pretty soon, my wife Betty wakes me up and orders me into the living room.
"`I want you to sit up and listen to something I've got to tell you,' she says. I couldn't figure what was so important. Was she going to leave me? Did I accidentally kill the cat?
"`We've just won the lottery,' she tells me. `Our share will be almost $6 million. Mickey McDermott, you are one lucky Irish son of a bitch!'" McDermott paused to let the sheer majesty of that grand moment sink in. Then he said a very wise thing. It was something about life he'd grown to understand from years of observation and pain.
"I used to be a reprobate," McDermott said. "Now, they'll have to call me an eccentric millionaire." But for almost three decades, McDermott plodded through the middle years of his life as a living symbol of the warning given all big league rookies about carousing and fast living.
In his time, McDermott was the Natural. He was so good at such an early age that big league scouts actually tried to sign him when he was only fourteen years old. He pitched in the minor leagues at fifteen. He was that supremely talented lefthanded pitcher with the 100-mile-per-hour fastball who comes along once every generation. He was Cooperstown bound, but his train was derailed by his appetite for wine and women and a totally eccentric desire to appear regularly as a nightclub singer.
Once, in 1953, McDermott won eighteen games in a single season for the Boston Red Sox. In 1956, he was in the World Series with the New York Yankees. He was out carousing until the early hours with Don Larsen before that worthy pitched his now-legendary perfect game.
But, since 1961, when McDermott was released for the final time by the St. Louis Cardinals, he has gone from job to job.
"It was tough," he said. "You played baseball all your life and suddenly there was nothing. But I was a survivor. I tried everything. I sold cars, I sold advertising for radio stations, I ran nightclubs, I worked as a talent agent in Las Vegas. And baseball people kept getting me jobs. Walt Dropo, my old teammate, helped me. And I was a coach for the California Angels for a while. Billy Martin gave me a job scouting." McDermott hesitated.
"Birdie Tebbetts was a veteran catcher on the Red Sox when I was breaking in. He told me something I never forgot.
"`Playing in the big leagues is like climbing a ladder,' he said. `Before it's over, you'll be coming back down and if you have as many as five friends by the time it's over, you'll be lucky.'" McDermott made even more friends than that. And they stuck by him through the years. They helped him get jobs. They loaned him money, and they did it gladly because McDermott is one of nature's noblemen.
McDermott also had a wonderful woman named Betty who worked steadily and his $600-a-month pension from his thirteen years in the big leagues to help make ends meet.
"Betty and I have been together 24 years. Three years ago, she comes to me and says we're getting married. She told me she was tired of being my girlfriend. So we got married."
"I wonder if she's sorry now. She could have had all that scratch to herself. After all, she bought the ticket, but Arizona's a community-property state.
"The money won't change my life that much. I've been through times when I had dough and when I didn't. The most I ever made in the big leagues was $19,000, but that was at a time when you could buy a brand new Ford convertible off the showroom floor for $800 and go out all night drinking and spend only ten bucks." When David Halberstam was researching The Summer of '49, the story of the pennant race between Boston and New York that year, McDermott was one of the former players he sought out. McDermott was a rookie with the Red Sox that season.