Verlander talks celebrity, surgery, losing Leyland, and putting last season behind
What: Tigers open their 114th season, against the Kansas City Royals
When: 1:08 p.m. Monday
Where: Comerica Park (sold out)
TV/radio: FSD; WXYT-FM (97.1)
Pitchers: Justin Verlander (13-12, 3.46 ERA in 2013) vs. James Shields (13-9, 3.15)
Festivities: R&B artist Brian McKnight will sing the national anthem. Chet Lemon, center fielder for the 1984 World Series champions, will throw out the first pitch. The Tigers will raise a commemorative flag for their 2013 AL Central Division title.
LAKELAND, Fla. There’s no coddling in baseball. Not in Justin Verlander’s version.
“I always wanted to be a horse,” he says. “I wanted to go nine innings and not give up the ball.”
He admires the old days when pitchers threw until they dropped. He even ponders a world without the radar gun. “Today, you can’t go out and throw 87 m.p.h. or you risk losing your job,” he says. “Back in those days, they just worried about getting guys out.”
When I ask whether there is too much science in baseball today, he blurts out: “Absolutely!”
If all this suggests Verlander in a wool uniform with stockings, that’s funny, because the Detroit superstar right-hander is actually as close to a modern-day cyborg as a pitcher comes. A guy who starts fast, then throws faster? A guy who pitches 218 innings last season – and it’s his lowest total in five years? A guy with two no-hitters, a Cy Young, an MVP and three American League strikeout crowns? A guy who just finished spring training with a 0.00 earned-run average – coming off surgery?
A guy whose shadow is so long, he will be the starting pitcher, again, on Opening Day at Comerica Park, only nudging aside last year’s Cy Young Award winner, Max Scherzer, who, sorry, will just have to wait a game.
Hey. There’s no coddling in baseball. Verlander is back. The mound is his. His nickname should be the Institution. He’s only 31, yet Monday will mark his seventh straight year as Detroit’s Opening Day pitcher.
How long has he been a Tiger? The year he made his big-league debut, 2005, with two July starts, Troy Percival was the closer and Bobby Higginson began the season as a utility man. Joey Harrington was the Lions’ quarterback, Steve Yzerman was still the Captain, Lloyd Carr was coaching Michigan and – ready for this? – Darko was still on the Pistons.
All that is gone. Every one of his original teammates is gone.
Verlander is still here.
“Yeah,” he says, looking off, “I might be the longest-tenured Detroit athlete, huh?”
In the zone
And yet, how much does the average Detroit fan know about Verlander the man? Not a lot. Some of that is deliberate. We sit in the spring training clubhouse in Lakeland, the calm before the storm, and engage in a rare, long conversation. Verlander likes this time in Florida. He can work on his mechanics, tinker with his tools. He’s like Tony Stark in “Iron Man,” experimenting with all the superhero stuff he soon will use to fend off the bad guys.
But there is no crowd gathered around him. He’s not sharing campfire stories with the young up-and-comers. “I think baseball – it’s kind of cliquey,” he says. “The starting pitchers kind of stick together. Position players kind of stick together. I’m not saying we all don’t mingle. Of course we do. But when it comes to conversations and sitting down and talking to each other, that’s kind of the way it goes. We’re talking about our craft; they’re talking about their craft. And those guys play every day. That makes a difference, too.”
Verlander considers himself a leader, but mostly by example. He doesn’t ride his horse before the troops making “Braveheart” speeches. Besides, it’s hard to lead on days you don’t pitch. And on days he does, he has a force field around him.
“It started in 2009, coming off of a bad year in ’08,” he says. “I just felt like … I needed more focus. So starting then, from the time I got up, I was just (ticked) off. I didn’t want to talk to anybody.”
Over time, he says, he’s relaxed to the point that it’s OK to speak to him at breakfast, maybe up to lunch. But after that?
“Most people leave me alone.”
Hey, would you mess with a guy who starts by throwing 92 m.p.h., and revs up to 100 in the seventh or eighth inning? No wonder the 6-foot-5 Verlander grew up idolizing Nolan Ryan. He’s one of the few who could live on the same planet. Verlander has been so overpowering over the years that Ozzie Guillen, then the White Sox manager, once told the media of facing him, “You just set your lineup … and wish for good luck.”
A results guy
But as scary as he is to opposing batters, Verlander is coming off the front stretch of his career and is starting down the turn. He was mortal last year (well, mortal for him), battling a core-muscle injury and off-kilter mechanics that left him basically using the regular season to get ready for the playoffs.
“I set that goal almost at the halfway point,” he says, “because I realized, hey, it’s just not right…. This is not gonna be something I can just” – he snaps his fingers – “find out one start and it’s back. It was gonna be a long haul for me.”
He finished the regular campaign 13-12 with a 3.46 ERA – a fine year for many but totally unsatisfactory for him after 24-5 and 17-8 seasons – yet was happy that he pitched effectively in the playoffs.
Effectively? That’s too weak a word. Verlander, moved to second starter behind Scherzer, threw 211/3 consecutive scoreless innings over three games (two against Oakland, one against Boston) before surrendering a solo home run to Mike Napoli, his only blemish in October. He was stunning. The best thing going. A 0.39 postseason ERA.
And then he had surgery in January.
“To be honest with you,” he says, “I think the surgery kind of answered some questions as to why things were off.
“Dr. (Bill) Meyers in Philly said that this was probably a pre-existing injury and something that might have been going on for a little bit without my knowledge…. I had that surgery on my right side, and he said it was injured just as bad as my left. And I didn’t feel anything in my right side. So that said to him that this has probably been something that just over time and wear and tear … started to pull away.”
It explained a lot. Verlander likens pitching to a golf swing. “One little weak link can throw off everything. That’s why you see a guy go out and win a tournament in golf and come back the next tournament and not even make the cut. That’s why you see a guy go out and throw a complete-game shutout, and he’s not great the next game.
“That’s what I think is athletics in general … especially for me. What I’m always trying for is consistency. I wanna repeat, repeat, repeat.”
Given how tough that was to do most of last season, I ask whether he’s at least proud of how he struggled through the regular season.
“But you had to battle -“
“You’re only proud when you do well?”
“I’m proud of the way I was able to grind -“
“But you’re still a results guy.”
“More proud of the results -“
“Than ÃÂI tried really hard?'”
No coddling in baseball.
Taste of the spotlight
And yet, being a superstar in the Motor City does mean less rough-handling than, say, New York, especially when it comes to the media.
“My private life isn’t private anymore,” Verlander admits. “But there’s no paparazzi in Detroit. You can pretty much do whatever you want.”
He has experienced the alternative, the white hot lights after the first reports in 2012 linked him romantically to swimsuit model and actress Kate Upton. There’s a difference between sports celebrity and Hollywood celebrity, and suddenly, the tall kid from Virginia had to “be cognizant of what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with. Cell phones made everybody paparazzi. And as soon as you do something, it’s right on social media. Bang. Somebody tweets and it’s just out there.”
The old-fashioned part of Verlander is grateful for the Detroit approach, which, he says, peaks on the annoyance scale with interruptions at restaurants during dinner. He’s not crazy about that. But it beats having flashbulbs through your car window.
“The market in Detroit is totally different,” he says. “I feel like the last few years I’ve reached a national level, but it took me doing something that only nine other pitchers had ever done (win the Cy Young and MVP). If I were in New York or L.A., it would have probably been different.”
As he speaks, Joba Chamberlain is dressing across the aisle. He nods his head. Before joining the Tigers this year, Chamberlain was a hard-throwing Yankees pitcher often caught in the harsh spotlight of the New York media. His accomplishments don’t begin to compare to Verlander’s, yet for several years he was nearly as well known.
“That’s OK, I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Verlander says. “I love playing in Detroit. I feel like I’ve been part of something special. From the time I got here … we’ve turned this organization around.
“I’ve been part of the worst times in Detroit, and I’m just like everybody else that lives and works in Detroit…. I’m really optimistic about what’s going on in the city, and I like to think that this baseball team and me being a part of this have a small part to do with it.”
Eyes on the icons
He admits he’s going to miss Jim Leyland, the former manager whom he now calls a “friend.” He especially appreciates how Leyland took the reins off him early in his career. “Jim uses the eye test, not the ÃÂall right you’re done, you’ve thrown 105 pitches’ test.”
He still is getting to know new manager Brad Ausmus, who at 44 is a lot closer to his age. He says it won’t be an issue. At this point, Verlander, who’s signed through 2019, sounds like a man who knows his body and his routine so well that whoever the skipper is won’t change a whole lot.
And really, at this point, who’s going to mess with the Institution?
He kicks it off again Monday, in the expected chill of another early Detroit spring. Here’s your good news: Justin Verlander is back. Got his core back. Got his rhythm back. Got the uniform he plans on wearing the remainder of his career.
“That would mean a lot,” he says, looking left and right. “You see the Al Kalines and Willie Hortons walking around in this locker room and say, ÃÂOK, back then … guys stuck with their organizations and became icons in their city.’
“But that doesn’t happen too often today. And that’s why I think you see guys like Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones – those guys are celebrated so widely throughout the game, and I don’t think it’s just because of what they accomplish on the field. I think it’s because they’re icons in their city.”
So, I say, with that in mind, would you ever consider living in Detroit full time?
“No,” He grins. “I like golf too much.”
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.
Albom: Verlander’s ready to get back to his game
Who: Justin Brooks Verlander, right-handed Tigers pitcher
Born: Feb. 20, 1983, in Manakin-Sabot, Va.
Size: 6 feet 5, 225 pounds
Personal: Single, but has a girlfriend, swimsuit model and actress Kate Upon. Brother Ben, 22, is an outfielder in the Tigers’ minor-league system.
College: Old Dominion, for three seasons
Acquired: Second overall pick in June 2004 draft; signed Oct.25, 2004
Major-league debut: July 4, 2004, a 6-0 loss at Cleveland
Contract: Runs through 2019. Makes $20 million this season, then $28 million the next five seasons. There’s a $22-million vesting option for 2020.
Highlights: Won AL Rookie of the Year in 2006 (17-9, 3.63 ERA). Fired first no-hitter in Comerica Park, the sixth in Tigers history, June 12, 2007, against Milwaukee. Threw another no-hitter May 7, 2011, at Toronto, joining Virgil Trucks as only Tiger with two no-nos. Won AL MVP and Cy Young Award in 2011. Second in Cy Young voting in 2012, third in 2009. Led AL in strikeouts and innings pitched in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
Celebrate Tigers history!
The Free Press has several ways to commemorate Justin Verlander’s stellar career with the Tigers. Go to freep.com/bookstore or call 800-245-5082 for your choice of reprints celebrating:
His no-hitters in 2007 and 2011
His 2011 MVP and Cy Young awards and his 24-win season
The Tigers’ back-to-back MVPs – Verlander in 2011, Miguel Cabrera in 2012
The reprints are $7.95 apiece (plus shipping and handling). Everything is 30% off today in honor of the Tigers’ last World Series championship, in 1984.