Denny McLain signed bats. He signed books. He signed magazines. He signed programs. He signed a dated album called "Denny McLain at the Organ -- The Detroit Tigers' Superstar Swings with Today's Hits." He signed a mug and a Washington Senators jersey. And he signed baseballs, dozens of them.

He didn't seem to mind.

"The reception has been terrific," said McLain, now 43. "Just terrific. I'm meeting some of the people that used to write to me, seeing the faces behind the pen . . . It's flattering."

Until recently, those who wrote to McLain, the last pitcher to win 30 games, had to do so courtesy of the Federal Correctional Institution in Talladega, Ala. That's where he spent the last part of nearly 2 1/2 years in prison after being convicted in March 1985 of racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering, extortion and possession with intention to distribute cocaine.

The conviction was thrown out last September when an appeals court agreed with his contention that he didn't receive a fair trial. He swears that the experience of prison -- he also did time at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta, where Cuban inmates last month rioted and took hostages to protest their possible return to Cuba -- has changed him, though he also maintains he is innocent of the charges.

"I made some very significant errors in judgment in 1980, '81, and I paid for them," he said yesterday at a baseball card show in Rockville. "I got to a road where there were two ways to go. One was a road that would take a considerable period of time to develop, and the other was a very quick highway, all downhill. And I chose that street."

He spent three hours at the card show. With his legal costs still unfinished -- the government plans to re-try him on the original charges next month -- he goes to about two card shows a month. His normal appearance fee, according to Sam Rosenthal, a local dealer who put on yesterday's show, is $2,000.

But Rosenthal was concerned that few would show up to see McLain, and he didn't want to put the money up front. So he worked out a deal with McLain and Walt Olender, McLain's manager at the card shows. Instead of appearance money up front, McLain would get a favorable split from monies generated from autograph sales. Each signature cost $5.

McLain was busy from the moment he arrived promptly at noon to begin the session. A steady stream of people, mostly middle-aged men, brought a variety of things from various collections. They weren't quite sure how to bring up what he called "this whole disaster."

"Thank you very much," one young man said after McLain signed an 8 x 10 picture of himself, circa 1968, in his Detroit Tigers uniform. "Good luck with the trial and everything."

"Thanks a million."

A man named Karl came by with a bat that some of McLain's former teammates had autographed at one time or another. "I'm a baseball fan," Karl said. McLain signed. He is talking about the difference between the young pitcher in the picture, the man with the 31-6 record and the 1.96 ERA in 1968, and the middle-aged man now writing a book about his tribulations.

"I remarked to {wife} Sharyn the other night, I said 'I just can't believe that what we read is us, because it seems so far removed from the life we have today.' I think my life has been a blur in general anyway, but, when you read it, you sit there and you laugh and you say 'Oh no, I forgot about that.' It almost becomes like you're reading about someone else."

Karl came back, with a book, then a mug, then an old copy of The Sporting News. In all, he made four visits to get McLain to sign something.

"The first {card show} I did, I did in upstate New York," McLain said. "I'd only been home a week to 10 days. And I was, to say the least, apprehensive. I didn't know if a guy was going to come up and have me sign a copy of the indictment, because I've signed stranger things than that. You just don't know."

"The fans come up to him and greet him, say hello to him," said Olender, who got to know McLain while the two exchanged letters during McLain's prison term. "How else would the fans get to meet the man? He's not going to stand on a street corner. We're not going to put him in the window of a store. So the best way for him to meet the people is for this type of vehicle."

McLain signs another bat. He is asked if he, like it is said of people fighting alcohol and drug addictions, takes life one day at a time.

"All I did was make a mistake," he said, his voice rising slightly for the first time all afternoon. "I've never been a drug user, never been a drinker. I've never had any of those problems. I had a terrible affinity and addiction to try to make a lot of money.

"I don't even have that anymore . . . my biggest problem is gullibility and impatience. I just hate to see things take so long to develop. But I've now really got myself surrounded with super people, and I don't wake up in the morning without calling somebody and making sure it's all right."

A father and three kids come by, the autographs more for the father than the sons. And McLain is asked whether people will remember him for 31 victories in a Tigers uniform or for going to jail, overweight and repentant.

"Both," he said. "I would hope the judgmental {people} aren't too considerable, that quite possibly we can explain to people special circumstances that existed. And then, one day, when everything comes out, I think the conclusions will be drawn 180 degrees opposite than what some of the conclusions are now.

"And I'm living for that day."