The Sorrows of Old Verlander

A car with two men pulled up to Justin Verlander’s penthouse apartment in downtown Birmingham. They parked. It was a Thursday at just about 11:30 pm, August 31st. They were coming from the Detroit Tigers’ central office, sent by General Manager Al Avila, with papers for the Tigers’ long-time star to sign. After a year of speculation on-and-off, after 13 years of donning the Old English D, through stubble thick and thin, less than an hour before the season’s last deadline, Verlander had been traded to the Houston Astros. The one catch, the calling that brought the pair of Tigers baseball operations officials to Verlander’s door near midnight on a Thursday, was that the veteran ace had a veto.

Under the league’s 10-5 rule, after ten years in the league and five on the same team, a player like the Tigers’ ace had the right to refuse being traded. Verlander had to sign off his no-trade clause. The pair of Tigers reps were there to get the pitcher’s go-ahead before the clock struck twelve and, in the meantime, wait outside.

Upstairs, back from a late dinner at The Bird & The Bread, about a five minute walk, it was a Thursday, the last day of August. Verlander had pitched the previous day: sixinnings, one run, at Coors Field in Denver, his 380th start with the Tigers. After a mediocre start to the season, Verlander had thrown gem after gem in the month of August, dropping his ERA from 4.29 to 3.82. There had been a bustle of trade talk in the last two months, but, that night, less than an hour to go until the midnight deadline, Verlander was convinced he would remain a Tiger for at least the last couple of months of this season. Avila had assured him that “no deal was probable.” Verlander recalled thinking, “I can put my mind at ease and just finish the season.”

Then, his cell rang at about 11:20pm that Thursday night. It had been the Tigers. They had secured his trade to the Houston Astros. They needed an answer within the hour so that Verlander would be eligible to pitch in the playoffs. And just like that, as he recalled the scene: “Someone tells you, you’ve got 35, 40 minutes to decide if you want to move somewhere else, you don’t know anybody, you don’t know anything about it. Go!” He had shown interest in playing with the LA Dodgers and Chicago Cubs, but the Houston Astros? He reached out for guidance: to his agent, his family, prospective teammates, a potential new owner in the Astros’ Jim Crane. He peppered them with questions. “I mean…it was just a whirlwind of conversations with my agent, with representatives, with both organizations just really everything you can imagine and then when I’m not on the phone trying to decide whether I want to uproot my life that I’ve been here for 13 years so…the chance to win a world series. I’ve experienced two, haven’t won it…” Verlander asked Houston’s owner about the fallout of Hurricane Harvey. He had never been traded before. In those waning minutes, over the phone, Astro’s Cy Young ace Dallas Keuchel urged Verlander with little delicacy minced no words: the Astros were going to the playoffs, Detroit was going nowhere. And, so, clocking ticking down, Verlander decided. Upton enthusiastically agreed.

detroitverlander2The Tigers reps, who had been loitering for near an hour downstairs, gathered the documents with Verlander’s signature still fresh and, at about two minutes to midnight, they photographed and e-mailed the no-trade waiver to league headquarters. MLB approval took fifteen minutes. All was set by 12:15 am. It was done. Word went out to the Detroit Free Press’s Anthony Fenech who, three minutes later, at 12:18am, with still a suggestion of disbelief, tweeted: “The Tigers have traded Justin Verlander to the Astros, I’m told.” It was the end of an era in less than a dozen words.

“In a stunning reversal, after a deal seemingly collapsed,” improbably, he was gone while most of Detroit slept, two ticks to midnight, with his supermodel fiancée, those fancy cars, his Hall-of-Fame arm…after 13 years…the break-up was official. It was “the end of an era,” “the end of an era,” “the end of an era,” “the end of an era,” reporters beat and drummed. In the days following the announcement of the Tigers’ trading long-time star pitcher Justin Verlander to the Houston Astros, my Mom and I were reduced to terse texts back and forth of “sad” and “sad sad” and “still sad,” followed by “still sad”. (Or, as our president would say, “Sad!”)

Only on waking up that next morning, on that otherwise unexceptional Friday, did the excitement of a probable playoff birth kick in for Verlander. And that first morning after the trade, Tigers fans, stunned still, with appreciation and sorrow, tweeted: “too sad to get out of bed”; “truly never thought I’d see the day”; “I hope he gets a ring”; “Justin Verlander getting traded took away a part of my childhood”; “still in shock”; “worst wake up call ever”; “I can’t make it into work today on account of Justin Verlander being traded, I’m sure you understand”; “a kick in the gut”…And, yes, yes, yes, this is what happens in sports. If Michael Jordan can become a Wizard…If Roger Clemens can become a Yankee…If Brett Favre can become a Viking…

Shelve his unsold jerseys. Box his authenticated plaques, mint-collector coins, replica figurines, plush dolls, Lego figurines. Tear down the over-sized posters hung around the stadium. Cancel the bobble heads.

It truly is an end-of-an-era, as reporters have noted, not just for the loss of Verlander but for the Tigers’ owner Mike Ilitch, who bought the team in 1992. During his reign, Ilitch pounded dollar after dollar, some good, some good after bad. In the last decade, he opened his purse to the tune of $147,000,000 for players salaries on average each year, 5th in the league even though the city of Detroit remains 23rd in population, 17th in median income. Ilitch envisioned building a Tigers superteam. To hell with Moneyball metrics. To hell with Detroit as second class to New York, to LA, to Boston. Curse Chicago, our ever-classy cousin. Who’s Zoomin Who? Ilitch, our Little Caesar, our In-Denial-Chief, spent and spent some more, poaching other teams’ superstars, drinking their milkshakes, picking off stars: Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Kenny Rogers, Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, David Price, Anibal Sanchez, Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton.

Ilitch built a decade-long contender after longer-than-a-decade span of futility that was “not just bad” but “hopeless.” Under Ilitch’s largesse, the Tigers made the playoffs five times in nine years, putting together a team-record four-in-a-row streak, fighting to the World Series twice (in 2006 and 2012.) It was not so much an allegory but a wish fulfilled for the city’s renewal, for the Spirit of Detroit, profligacy in the face of pragmatism. And just so, Ilitch made his Red Wings champions again and again until, in direct reaction to Detroit’s dominance, the NHL tightened the screws on its salary cap for the sake of team parity. And Ilitch made the Tigers champions again, almost.

Ilitch passed just seven months ago. Now his son Chris Ilitch controls the team. Following the Verlander trade, Ilitch the Younger, along with General Manager Al Avila, sent a letter almost immediately to season-ticket holders. Reassuring skeptical fans of their latest firesale (Avila had also traded his son Alex, JD Martinez, Justin Wilson and Justin Upton before the deadline.) The higher-ups promised “transitioning into a new era,” so unlike Chris’s father, but in fashion with the rest of the league’s latest “draft-and-develop” vogue, an investment in the “analytics department, “data-driven” solutions, “sustainable success,” and (unlike Mike’s high-priced acquisitions) “home-grown” talent, “player development”, a boost in scouting and instruction and a brand new super sexy “decision-support program” (read: computer system) for analytics named Caesar. They are positioned to cut $93 million from payroll in 2018.

And he still looks back fondly, Verlander tells his new Houston camera pool. But he dons a new lid for the first time since he made the majors. And of course, of his new friends, Verlander raves, “the fans are unbelievable.”

Now, another band of teammates sings his praises calling their newest pitcher “just old-school,” a “competitor,” “huge,” with “tremendous stuff.” Keuchel added, “excitement is an understatement.” Now it is Houston papers recounting stories Detroiters have heard time and again. The education in Verlander has begun. They review his Rookie-of-the-Year, Cy Young, Pitcher’s Triple Double and MVP. They discuss the glum intensity of his pre-start ritual: tramping back-and-forth through the clubhouse, “headphones over his ears, eyes glaring ahead, his focus so tuned that no one dared disturb him until he reached his locker.” They write of his uncanny ability to throw faster as his starts creep into the late innings. Now it’s Houston chroniclers waxing over how the spaghetti-armed Virginia kid pitched 80mph at age 13. Houston will learn that Nolan Ryan is his idol. Now it is Houston papers recounting his admirably goofy competitiveness: how, at Old Dominion, still lanky as ever, he fixated on “outdo[ing] teammates in running drills, leg presses and long toss,” only to “speed-walk to cars so he could claim the passenger’s seat.”  Verlander’s mother will again share the family lore. “We had to rein him in a little bit, even at the age of 8,” will again recall Kathy Verlander. “He wanted to be the first to finish his dinner. He wanted to play the adult rules when we played putt-putt. And still to this day, you play a game of Monopoly in this house, you’re taking your life in your own hands.”

From one restoration tale to another, from the saga of the city of Detroit’s rebuilding, now there is a new storyline developing for Verlander to take part. As ESPN’s David Schoenfield writes, “given the unfathomable damage Hurricane Harvey has caused in Houston, the Astros will become America’s Team as they go for their first World Series title, a rallying cry for the city and symbol of hope.” Astros fans will write of his Win for Warriors Foundation.

And they will read of Upton’s benign antics. They will learn of the small charms of Verlander’s tiny hometown, Goochland, VA. Of his mammoth car collection, his exacting Starbucks order: “a white mocha nonfat with no whipped cream and an extra shot of espresso.” Of his normcore aspirations with Upton, their dogs Riley and Harley. That, despite his tens of millions of dollars, he still enjoys the Cheesecake Factory and Olive Garden. That, on nights before his starts, he feasts on Taco Bell: “three crunchy Taco Supremes, a Cheesy Gordita Crunch and a Mexican Pizza.” But, as so many Detroiters know, “hold the tomatoes.”

For us Detroiters, for 13 years (a Bar-Mitzvah’s-worth!,) through stubble thick and thin, Verlander has been our brother-in-arm. He was no free agent, but our first-round draft pick after the historical embarrassment of 2003. He was our Rookie-of-the-Year, our ace, our all-star, strikeout king, no-hitter, no-hitter, Pitching Triple Crown, unanimous Cy Young, MVP, golden boy, slinger, scruffy diamond on our diamond’s rough, our main man on the cover of Sports Illustrated mowing ’em down for all the league to see. And just as his career looked to be down and done…a reinvention, he remade himself back into a Cy Young contender. Now, we have no more “Must See JV” to schedule around, but we can look forward to his donning the Old English D at Cooperstown. For he made us prouder. And now, for a time, quite sad.

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