Justin Verlander wins World Series with Detroit still close to his heart

The greatest right-hander in Detroit Tigers history finally achieves his dream of a championship with the Houston Astros. But Justin Verlander hasn't forgotten where he came from

Anthony Fenech
Detroit Free Press
Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander and model Kate Upton (R) celebrate after defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers to win Major League Baseball's (MLB) World Series game seven at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California, USA, 01 November 2017. The Astros won the best-of-seven sreies 4-3.

LOS ANGELES — He had tasted this champagne before, too many times to count. Felt the burn. He likes the burn. The champagne burns of winning and there is nothing more in this world that Justin Verlander likes more than winning.

He’s certainly had a Budweiser or two in the postseason celebrations that have been part of his career since he was introduced to the baseball world as a fearless, flame-throwing rookie right-hander more than a decade ago. He’s smoked many cigars, but none as sentimental as the one inside the visitor’s clubhouse at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night as a World Series champion.

Verlander wore an Astros shirt commemorating the occasion. A backwards hat, too.

Goggles sat on top of his head, showing a certain accomplishment in his eyes.

“I can’t even put it into words,” he said. “This experience is everything I dreamed it would be.”

But for so long in Verlander’s dreams, that experience came in a Tigers uniform. It came in a city he and his family consider home, with teammates he considers family, for fans he considers friends. Verlander’s dream was to win a World Series with the Tigers, and damned if he didn’t try.

And when he finally won the World Series, two months to the day of the team swallowing the toughest of pills by trading him to end an era, the thought of Detroit was not far behind.

“Yes,” he felt the support of the city this postseason, he said as he was champagne-sprayed by a teammate, trying to wipe away the World Series-winning burn that ultimately sent him away. “I absolutely did.”

Justin Verlander celebrates in the clubhouse.

Asked if he had a message for Detroit, Verlander said, “Thank you. Thank you for everything over the years, thank you for recognizing all the hard work that I put in, thank you for recognizing how hard of a decision this was for me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Made in Detroit

If another few minutes had gone by, Justin Verlander might not be here.

For as much attention as the 11:58 p.m. trade call to the Commissioner’s Office on Aug. 31 garnered, it was a similar deadline deal 14 years earlier which altered Tigers history. 

If the team was unable to strike an agreement on his rookie contract in 2004, Verlander might have stepped into the first class of his senior year at Old Dominion, rendering him ineligible to sign his rookie contract after being drafted with the No. 2 overall pick in that year’s Major League Baseball draft. He might have gone elsewhere for his baseball glory, never able to ignite a long-dormant franchise with his raw talent and rare confidence into what became the most prosperous stretch in their storied history.

It began with the storybook 2006 season when the Tigers went from worst to the World Series. Verlander wore a post-adolescent mustache back then, Reebok cleats, a tan glove and had the mound presence of a veteran at just 23 years old. He won the American League Rookie of the Year Award and soon became Detroit’s adopted son, fascinating at times and frustrating at others, before blossoming into the best pitcher on the planet in 2011.

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With his pitching prowess came a bit of celebrity status while courting supermodel Kate Upton, and though he became more mainstream than any local athlete in history, showing up in the tabloids and all over the Internet, nobody minded much because he was ours and every fifth day, come hell or high water, he was going to throw six innings.

Justin Verlander #35 of the Houston Astros celebrates with fiancee Kate Upton after the Astros defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-1 in Game 7 to win the 2017 World Series at Dodger Stadium on November 1, 2017 in Los Angeles.

That Verlander arrived in the first place is credited to the Tigers, who never wavered on him being their top choice in that 2004 draft, and in small part to his father Richard, a lifetime union man, who stepped into those first negotiations to help seal the deal. That he stayed for so long is credited to late owner Mike Ilitch, who saw in Verlander the starting pitcher he had always craved, paying him millions to protect him from big market teams. That the decision to leave was so tough is credited to a long-standing love affair between Verlander and a faithful fan base that will never let go.

“There’s so much history in Detroit for me,” he said. “I grew up in front of those fans. They’ll always have a special place in my heart and I’ve had a lot of love from Detroit since I left and I’ve appreciated all of it and I think they understand and I think everybody understands it.

“They are what made the decision so hard. If it was truly a baseball decision, it’s a no-brainer. It’s an easy decision. But the way that city has treated me since I got there and how I felt so connected to them is what made the decision so difficult.”

When the decision was made, his parents were sound asleep.

They had been biking around their home in Virginia all day and though they were aware of the possibility Verlander could be traded, in the hours leading up to the waiver trade deadline, Richard and Kathy were resigned – like both teams involved – to the fact nothing was likely to happen.

Then the house phone rang at 12:05 a.m.

“Like most parents, the phone rings after midnight and your first thought is, ‘Oh God, I hope everything is OK,’” Richard said. “And then Kathy, after she answered the phone, as soon as I heard her say, ‘Houston?’ I’m like, ‘Oh my god, it’s happened.’ ”

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A champion for a city

It happened out of necessity and common sense and it was beneficial for every party involved. The Tigers needed to begin paving a new path. The Astros needed an ace pitcher. Verlander needed to win.

He proved to be the perfect addition to a team who needed his veteran presence as much as they needed his strong pitching. Though other teams were rumored to be interested in Verlander, like the Cubs and Dodgers, none would have afforded him the opportunity to make the same kind of impact both on and off the field.

On the field, he rediscovered his front-line form after a subpar first half and pitched the Astros to the World Series, continuing to cement his legacy as one of the best postseason pitchers in recent memory.

Off the field, his acquisition immediately injected life into Houston after Hurricane Harvey slammed the city over the summer. What initially was thought of as a potential roadblock to a deal became a positive, with Verlander drawing on his experience uplifting Detroit from its economic recession years ago.

“I was part of teams in Detroit when a city was going through a tough time and I saw how much that meant by just being there,” he said. “To be able to win it in a city that really needed that again or just to give people that are going through a hard time something to cheer about or step away from the hardships they’re going through and rally around, it creates a special bond."

The Old English 'D'

The bond between Justin Verlander and Detroit cannot be duplicated. It was forged over years of successes and failures, an almost everyday look at a personality that matured mightily and an appreciation for the pride he had in the city. It was watching him throw two no-hitters and try to gut his way through five innings when he was hurt. It was a bond that perhaps never was more evident than this fall, when the city was rooting for a person and not a team.

Verlander will go down as the best right-hander in Tigers history. His No. 35 will be retired at Comerica Park one day. When he reaches the Baseball Hall of Fame, he will wear a Tigers cap. He never won that World Series in Detroit. But as the Astros advanced through the postseason and the outs dwindled in Wednesday night’s Game 7, until Verlander emerged from the bullpen in a dead-on sprint, hands high finally in World Series joy, there was a strong sense that some part of his championship was for Detroit.

“To have this chance is what it ultimately came down to for me, personally,” Verlander said. “And I think most of my fans in Detroit understood that.”

For what might have been missing in the celebration on the outside of the Astros’ dogpile – the longtime teammates, the struggles of climbing to the mountaintop together and the start-to-finish journey he simply couldn’t replicate in two months’ time – there was a legion of Tigers fans who were celebrating with him in spirit as he solitary lifted the monkey off his back shortly thereafter.

Justin Verlander holds the Commissioner's Trophy after the Astros defeated the Dodgers, 5-1, in Game 7 to win the 2017 World Series at Dodger Stadium on Nov. 1, 2017 in Los Angeles.

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Verlander’s mustache is accompanied by a grizzled beard now. He has put some 34-year-old weight on the bean-pole body that debuted as a rookie, his cleats are Under Armour and his glove is black. He doesn’t pitch for the Tigers anymore.

“I’m never going to forget my time in Detroit,” he said. “It’s a special place for me.”

After a few hugs and a kiss from an Astros teammate who said he loved him and just wanted to kiss him, Verlander, eyes burning and Budweiser in hand, reached into his taped-off locker for his cell phone. It was sitting on a camouflage travel-size toiletry bag.

The bag had the Old English ‘D’ on it. 

Contact Anthony Fenech: afenech@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfenech. 

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