There has been plenty written about Justin Verlander’s departure from the Detroit Tigers. It hasn’t been too much. It simply is that big of a deal.
This one is a little more personal, because let’s face it, Verlander’s relationship with Detroit was more personal. As a Michigan community, we feel like we know Verlander more than we have known other players — even more than some of the other Tigers legends.
Think about it, Detroit is full of blue-collar legends that quietly went out to do their jobs. It started the year after the Tigers joined the American League with Sam Crawford. The tradition continued with Harry Heilmann, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, George Kell, Al Kaline, Alan Trammell & Lou Whitaker and so on. Sure, we had exceptions like Ty Cobb, Denny McLain, Kirk Gibson and a few others.
But very few Tigers legends let fans get to know the real them — on the field and off the field.
Verlander was different, and so is the era he played in. We have every game on television. We have the Internet and social media. Verlander has embraced that and let fans in. That is why it was so heartbreaking when he was traded to the Houston Astros this week. The Detroit community feels like it lost a leader, a neighbor, a teammate.
Personally, I have felt that way, even as a member of the media. The first year I started covering professional baseball was Verlander’s rookie year. He and I are about the same age and we kind of came of age together in our respective fields (not saying that I am anywhere as good of a journalist as he is a pitcher, but the parallel is there).
My first interview at Comerica Park as a reporter was with Verlander at the 2005 All-Star break in Detroit, the day before the Futures Game that Verlander was slated to pitch. I had watched him pitch before, so I knew he was going to be something special on the mound. But in that first interview, I knew he was going to be a special person, a figure in Detroit for a long time — at least I was hoping.
His rookie interviews were nearly as polished, candid and straight forward as they are today. That is something that sets him apart from a lot of stars of the game. Whether he has a great game, a terrible game or somewhere in between, Verlander is always there taking questions and treats the writers with respect. He knows that it is not about the media, but the media is who gets his reaction to the thousands and thousands of Tiger fans out there.
His rookie season was spectacular as he helped the Tigers win the pennant. Along the way, he won the Rookie of the Year and ended up starting the first game of the World Series. A rookie! But somehow it was a perfect way to start his era in Detroit. It wasn’t the last World Series game he would start.
I will never forget talking with him in the clubhouse after Magglio Ordonez’s legendary pennant-winning home run in 2006. He was grinning ear to ear, ready for more excitement. As he gave a wonderful one-on-one interview amongst the champagne sprays and celebration, he stopped in mid-sentence and his eyes lit up again. I was eager to see what thought stopped him in his tracks. But it was in fact Wil Ledezma sneaking up behind me to unload an entire bottle of champagne on my head, much to the giddiness of Verlander, who shouted, “Get him Wil, Get him Wil!”
It was a moment I will never forget and, yes, I still have the audio. It turns out Verlander and I were both on our way to our first World Series as professionals — and it wouldn’t be our last.
I covered every postseason start of Verlanders at Comerica Park form then on out, and it was mesmerizing to see his game elevate so much in the big moments. He pitched many big games for the franchise. He concludes his Tigers career as perhaps the greatest pitcher in the history of the franchise. He has thrown no-hitters, is chasing 200 wins and 3,000 strikeouts and continues to dominate on the mound.
But after all of those years, it isn’t the strikeouts, the wins or even the no-hitters that I will remember most about Verlander. It is how he gave real answers to my questions and was a real role model to people in Detroit and baseball fans everywhere. He always treated the fans well, especially the kids and the veterans, who he is a huge advocate for.
He showed us all the real Justin Verlander and not many stars care enough to do that. It is what cements Verlander’s legacy in Detroit, and why fans will always remember him.