Justin Verlander, The Throwback
Credit: Photograph by Thomas Prior

On the back nine now, we pass faux-Spanish-Mediterranean stuccoed mansions. He says, "You know, I could live in one of those." I say, "Why? They're so sterile." He says, "Yes, but I'd feel isolated and protected." He says that when he goes out to bars, sometimes he gets into unpleasant situations, some drunk guy giving him a tough time. I ask what he does. He says, "I walk away. It's hard because I'm a prideful person, but I have to."

We are making our way toward the next hole when, for the first time that day, Verlander asks me a question. "Mantle or Mays?" I say Mantle because I was a Yankees fan as a kid, but Mays was the better all-around player. This prompts a discussion about Old-Timers versus Modern Players. I tell him I favor the guys I watched in my childhood: Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Whitey Ford, Warren Spahn, Bob Feller. Wrong answer. He shakes his head no. "Today's players: bigger, faster, stronger," he says, not bothering with full sentences. I tell him today's players might be more physically talented, but the old-timers had more depth of talent. They could do a lot of things well – hit behind the runner, hit the cutoff man – that today's players can't, or won't. I mention his two teammates, third baseman Miguel Cabrera and first baseman Prince Fielder. "You're gonna be pitching with two fat boys in the infield who can't pick up a ground ball, much less reach one." He shrugs, "I don't mind. I can always cut down balls in play by striking guys out." Then he says, "Miguel's the best hitter in the game. He'll look like shit on a pitch, and then you'll never get him out on that pitch again." He raises his eyebrows, adding, "Did you ever see the swings on those old-timers?" He means they had long, sweeping swings rather than the more compact, muscular efforts of today's players. The longer the swing, the sooner the batter has to commit to a pitch and the easier it is for a pitcher to fool him with a curveball or a fastball.

"I'm not saying the old-time stars couldn't play today," he says. "DiMaggio would always be DiMaggio. But the guys at the bottom of the order wouldn't have a job today."

Paradoxically, Verlander considers himself a throwback to the old-timey pitchers, who threw a lot of innings, completed a lot of games, and threw a lot between starts. "I like that part of the old-time game," he says. "No pitch counts like there are today. Not every pitcher gets tired after 100 pitches."

His idol is Nolan Ryan, whom he most resembles as a pitcher. Ryan had a reputation for being a headhunter, quick to throw at a batter's head if the batter even got a loud foul ball off him. One time, Carlton Fisk, the Red Sox's great catcher, hit a single off Ryan. Ryan was so pissed that he threw over to first base six times. "Not to keep me close," Fisk once told me, "because he knew I wasn't stealing. The son of a bitch was trying to hit me." I ask Verlander if he can be a prick on the mound like Ryan. He says, "I can be a prick. I threw at four guys last year. Did I hit them? No. I missed them all."

A few holes later, I bring up his postseason pitching performances. A sore point. He's been less than mediocre in his two postseason appearances, in 2006 and 2011. Won three, lost three; earned-run average of 5.57; 45 hits in 42 innings; 20 walks.

"Last year it was just my timing. The rain delays. I wasn't locating the ball. The delays got me out of rhythm." He seems disturbed by the question and, for the first time all day, unsure of himself. I press him about 2006. "Oh, my arm was dead. I had nothing left at the end of the season." He's quiet for a moment, and then adds, "In the postseason, the batters are more focused in a short series, jacked up, but pitchers...well, pitchers have to fight getting jacked up. It throws their timing off." I ask if his legacy will be diminished by his postseason performances so far. He says, "Hopefully, I'll have a lot more time. I think about that. But there's nothing I can do about last time but forget it."

We complete the next few holes in silence. Finally, Verlander says, "Don't you have any more questions for me?" I say, "I have one more deep-think question, but you said you don't think." He says, "Try me." I tell him what Socrates once said: "The unexamined life is not worth living." Does he ever examine his life? Does he wake up at 3 am and see his sins floating on the ceiling? He says, "You're a funny guy. No, I never see my sins on the ceiling at 3 am. I sleep like a baby. But I do examine myself privately. I mean, if I find I did something wrong, I admit it, to myself...but I don't tell anybody." Now we both laugh.

At the 18th green, he drops me off at the clubhouse. He says he enjoyed our little conversation. I tell him I had to carry him for the first four holes, force him to jack up his fastball from 89 mph in the first few holes to 95 mph by the ninth, and 101 mph by the 18th. He says, "I actually think you brought me down, but we won't go there." I ask him one last question. "Do you ever wonder, 'Why me?'" He says, "No."