Justin Verlander, The Throwback

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Photograph by Thomas Prior

Justin Verlander has been called a freak, an anomaly, a monster, a beast, a load, a throwback. He’s 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, unshaven, with a pug’s belligerent jaw. His fastball is regularly clocked at 91 mph in the first inning of a baseball game, 95 mph in the fourth, 98 mph in the seventh, 102 mph in the ninth. His overhand curveball drops straight down from a batter’s chest to his shoe tops, like a mallard shot on the wing. It’s unhittable, unfair. He has a slider and a changeup, too, but who cares. His fastball and curve are the best in Major League Baseball since the days of Nolan Ryan, and Ryan’s may have been the best ever.

Last season, Justin Verlander, of the Detroit Tigers, won 24 games, lost five, and led the American League in victories, winning percentage (.828), strikeouts (250), innings pitched (251), and earned-run average (2.40), and he was given the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards – the first time a starting pitcher has won both in 26 years. He also pitched his second career no-hitter, and took no-hitters into the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings of three other games. While most starting pitchers struggle to last six innings in a game, Verlander threw at least six innings and 100 pitches in every one of his 34 starts. He’s 29, and the Tigers pay him $20 million a year. He owns a Ferrari, a Maserati, an Aston Martin, and a Mercedes-Benz SLS. He’s not married, but he has a girlfriend whom he has been with for 11 years. “She really hung in there,” he says. “She’s the one, but I’m not ready.” He spends his time with men his age, friends, teammates. They work out, play golf, hang out. Their frat-boy banter is taken straight from a Judd Apatow movie (“How’s your wife…and my kids?”), except these frat boys have money – in Verlander’s case, big money – and endless time to fill.

“I’ve been blessed,” he says, not for the first time this day, or the last. We’re in a golf cart, puttering toward the fourth hole of the Isleworth course outside Orlando, Florida, on a cool February day. Verlander is teamed with a guy named Mike, against two of his friends, Pat and Frankie. (This, by the way, is Frank Viola III, a minor-league pitcher and the son of former Cy Young winner Frank Viola Jr.) The bets are $100–$100–$200. Verlander is having a rough first four holes. Sand trap, rough, sand trap, and now, woods. “You play this game much?” I ask him. He glances at me and says, “Actually, I’m a very good golfer. This is the worst I’ve played because of you.” Verlander does not like to be interviewed. He’s a man of few words, mostly cryptic topic sentences. I ask if he drinks. He looks at me, says, “I’m a baseball player.” I ask why he plays golf. “Why not? I got nothing else to do all day.” Does he read books? “No.” Watch baseball on TV? “Don’t have the attention span.”

As a kid he had no work ethic. “I played video games,” he says. “I was a couch potato.” His father would drag him outside for a catch. His dad had no sports background, but he knew immediately that his son could throw a baseball, so he bought him a “how to pitch” book for kids. (“Step 1. Put your foot on the rubber.”) Eventually, he paid for a college coach to teach Justin the finer points. By 13, Verlander says, “my curve was always there.” I ask him to show me how he rotates his fingers over the ball to make it break down. “I couldn’t tell ya,” he says. “That’s too much thinking for me. I’m more of a feel pitcher. If something’s wrong, I don’t watch a video. I go throw in the bull pen until it feels right.”

Verlander stops the cart, and we go into the woods to look for his ball. Two egrets, each standing on one leg, point it out. He drives it out of the woods and into a sand trap. We get back into the cart. Frankie ambles by and says, “There’s some pretty flowers in the woods, huh?” I say, “Yeah, Justin’s showing me the whole course – woods, rough, water hazards.” Verlander replies, “I’m just trying to be a good host, show you all aspects of the course.” I say, “Then why don’t ya show me one of the greens?” I pause, and then say, “With your ball near the pin.” Verlander glares at me, and then laughs. “People in real life don’t get ballplayers’ humor, the way we talk in the clubhouse,” he says. In “real life,” people say things they don’t mean. Ballplayers do the opposite. Verlander says, “I’m always hurting someone’s feelings.”

He sprays sand out of the trap, his ball barely reaching the green. Three shots later, we head off toward the next hole. His fastball topped out at 86 mph his senior year of high school, and scouts weren’t interested. So he went to Old Dominion University in Virginia and spent the winter lifting weights. He gained 20 pounds, and by the end of his freshman year, his fastball had been clocked at 96 mph. “All 20 pounds of muscle went to my legs,” he says, which helped him drive toward the batter with his fastball. “Blessed, I guess,” he says. “I was born to be a pitcher.”

After his junior year, he was drafted by the Tigers and signed for a $3 million bonus. I ask him about the current $20 million a year he gets. “I love the money,” he says, “but I’d play for free. I know I have a lot of money, but I don’t spend it. Did you see Elton John went bankrupt?” He shakes his head. “He spent $10,000 a day on flowers. You make it, you gotta keep it.”

His father helped him negotiate his first bonus. Did he give him an agent’s 15 percent commission? “No.” Verlander hasn’t given his parents any of his money because he’s “waiting for the right time in the future.” When he was younger, Verlander says, he took his father for granted – until he saw the movie Field of Dreams. “Finally, I got it,” he says. He’s had a great relationship with his father ever since. He feels bad for men who “don’t get their father” until it’s too late.

Verlander reached the majors in his second pro season, and by his third, he had a 17–9 record and was a star. I ask if he had a plan in case he didn’t make the majors. “I had no other interests but baseball because I never thought I’d not make it. No. Never.” I tell him I hate guys like him, without doubt. He laughs. “What can I say? I’m a confident guy.” He tells me that when some pitchers pitch a great game, they worry about whether they can duplicate it. When he pitches a great game, he thinks, “I’ll be even better next game.”

The secret to Verlander’s confidence is simple: He has overpowering stuff and an overpowering body. He’s like a cyborg out of one of the Terminator movies. He has no worries, no angst, no need even to think. He says he doesn’t have big swings in the quality of his stuff from game to game. His curve always falls off a table, his fastball always approaches 100 mph when he needs it, and “I don’t get tired in the ninth inning. Never. Oh, once I did, in Atlanta when it was, like, 100 degrees.” Then what does he worry about? Batters hitting his best stuff? He laughs. “Never happened.” Flaws in his motion? “My motion is automatic. I don’t think about dropping my left shoulder to drive my fastball. I just do it.” Mental lapses? He laughs again. “I don’t struggle mentally.” If he has a bad start, he doesn’t agonize over it. “I just get over it and prepare for my next start.” He tells me most pitchers overthink things. He points his finger to his forehead and says, “I try to keep this guy out of the way because he interferes.”

He has what every great athlete must have: ocular block, the ability to focus all his energy, concentration, and physical ability on only one thing: his craft. Most great athletes learn to do this after years. Verlander does it by nature. And with intelligence. He’s smart enough to know that his repertoire is so overpowering that it can be diminished only by thinking. He doesn’t question God’s gift.

We are at the ninth green now, his best hole so far. He’s chipped to 10 feet from the pin – a difficult putt, but if he makes it, he and Mike will win the first nine holes and take 100 bucks. He gets his putter and says, “This is what we’ve been talking about. Crunch time in a shitty game where I didnt have my best stuff early on. This is where I bring it 101 mph in the ninth because it’s all or nothing.”

He sinks the putt. Mike gives him a high five. Pat mutters, “Go fuck yourself, Verlander.” Verlander just laughs. He never had any doubt. “He’s got this insane internal confidence,” says Frankie, who is currently out of pro ball and looking for a new team. “I never had that.”

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.”

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