Last year the Detroit Tigers ace became the first pitcher in two decades to take home both the Cy Young and MVP awards. With the 2012 season kicking off this month, he talks fastballs, fast cars and what people don't get about pitching in the bigs.
Author DAVID CARR
ILLUSTRATION BY JEFFREY DECOSTER
AS ANY FAN CAN TELL YOU, the baseball gods are among the most fickle in the cosmos. A mid-career pitcher will suddenly and inexplicably find his stride, learn to lean on the pitches that work, hit the spots that are hard to reach and have a lights-out season where no one can really touch him. But then a twinge develops in his elbow, or the opposing teams adjust, and before you know it, purpose and confidence erode. Pretty soon the star-crossed hurler starts to steer the ball in ways that end with it being launched into the distant night sky.
Except for Justin Verlander. You could say the Detroit Tigers ace has had a charmed career, but that doesn’t begin to describe it. At 29, Verlander is both durable — posting double-digit wins every year and taking opponents deep into nearly every game — and spectacular. Last season the 6-foot-5 fireballer won 24 games, along with the American League Cy Young Award and, get this, Most Valuable Player. That latter honor is an uncommon one for a pitcher: Before Verlander, you have to go back to Oakland A’s hurler Dennis Eckersley in 1992. Simply put, anyone who tells you Verlander isn’t the best player in the AL right now doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Verlander is less intimidated by the prospect of topping last year’s performance than he is eager to get back out and use all those wins to help Detroit (which added the power of first baseman Prince Fielder in the off-season) — and to get a ring on the hand that issues lightning every time it picks up a ball. Between his morning workout and lunch with his girlfriend, he made time for a little rapid-fire Q&A with Hemispheres.
HEMISPHERES: What’s a good off-season day for you?
VERLANDER: For me, working out in the morning, playing some catch, heading to the golf course and then coming home in the late afternoon to have dinner with my girlfriend. Either that, or going out to eat and a movie.
HEMISPHERES: What’s the last movie you saw that you really liked?
VERLANDER: The new Mission Impossible.
HEMISPHERES: Not unlike batting against you after falling behind in the count. How do things usually go on the golf course?
VERLANDER: Pretty good. I’m about a 3 handicap.
HEMISPHERES: Let me guess — you’re sort of long off the tee.
HEMISPHERES: What about the putting?
VERLANDER: It’s been pretty good too.
HEMISPHERES: Right up until you start talking about how good it’s going, and then you get the yips and the putts don’t fall.
VERLANDER: That’s why we don’t talk about putting.
HEMISPHERES: If you were a business, you’d be up against what they call “tough comps,” or comparisons. You just had a historically big year. Are you worried about living up to it this season?
VERLANDER: Not at all. I feel like I worked hard for that, and I’m continuing to work hard, if not harder, so it doesn’t bother me one way or the other. You turn the page. You have to be able to do that in this game. Last year is over. I’m focusing on this year.
HEMISPHERES: Still, coming up as Most Valuable Player had to land pretty sweet. Pitchers don’t usually win that, no matter what kind of year they had. You have to go back to Dennis Eckersley in ’92 and Roger Clemens in ’86 for the last examples.
VERLANDER: Oh, it was absolutely a thrill, especially when you’re talking about Roger. I remember once I got into professional baseball as a fan, I heard about what he had done in 1986, winning the Cy Young and MVP. I remember thinking that might never be done again. It was kind of a surreal moment, but I had that same thought after I won them myself.
HEMISPHERES: From what I’ve read, throwing isn’t the only thing you do fast. What’s up with you and Porsche?
VERLANDER: Oh, I’ve got a few fast cars I like to drive. I’ve always been drawn to sports cars, and luckily I’m in a position now where I can afford some of my childhood dreams.
HEMISPHERES: Current favorite?
VERLANDER: Right now I’ve got the new Mercedes SLS.
HEMISPHERES: And it goes fast.
VERLANDER: Of course.
HEMISPHERES: What don’t people understand about the job of being a major-league pitcher?
VERLANDER: I think there are some people who believe it’s easier than it is. Or you get a lot of people saying, “I was pretty good when I was younger and if I hadn’t gotten hurt …” You never know, that could be the case, but it’s a pretty hard game. And what a lot of people don’t understand is the work that we put in behind the scenes. We don’t just go out there and play baseball every day. There are workouts and running and other approaches to prepare us to be successful on the field, in front of the fans.
HEMISPHERES: By the time you got to college you were fairly dominant. You struck out, like, 17 batters in a game at Old Dominion. And before that, you were throwing 85 miles an hour in high school. You must have been a menace in Little League.
VERLANDER: I wasn’t a phenomenon, really. I was pretty good when I was younger but didn’t really hit my stride until college. That’s when I separated myself, I’d say.
HEMISPHERES: How’s pitching in Comerica Park? It’s a beautiful stadium.
VERLANDER: I love pitching there. The fans are great, it’s a big ballpark, it’s a pitcher-friendly ballpark and it just looks good when you’re standing on the mound. I like the aesthetics of it behind the plate.
HEMISPHERES: As a city, Detroit has been making a comeback. There are even commercials using the city as an example of rebirth. Is it an exciting time to be there?
VERLANDER: Absolutely. It’s great to feel that you’re a part of that. Having experienced some success in 2006 going to the World Series, and then going to the playoffs last year — that not only helps the economy in Detroit, but in a small way you feel like you’re giving people a chance to step away from whatever is going on in their lives and come cheer for a team that they love.
HEMISPHERES: You have a suite at the park where you host veterans and their families, right?
VERLANDER: We came up with the idea through the Tigers. For certain games, they have a uniformed military service member take the field and deliver the game ball. It sparked an interest for me, and from there it kind of snowballed. I decided to donate the suite to four or five families on my start days. We provide the suite, food and drinks, and it gives our military and their families a way to share time at the park.
HEMISPHERES: Well done. How are you feeling with the acquisition of Fielder?
VERLANDER: He’s a great addition. I wouldn’t want to face our lineup — it’s very deep and powerful, and it’s going to be tough for other pitchers to get through. I’m excited to see those guys play this year.
HEMISPHERES: Think you’ll personally be able to top last year?
VERLANDER: We’ll find out. Stay tuned.
New York Times columnist DAVID CARR saw his baseball career cut short when he discovered he couldn’t hit the curve. He had a little problem with the fastball, too.