There was Hal Newhouser, Prince Hal, who never got the credit he fully deserved because he had the misfortune of dominating during the so-called “war years,” as if he planned it out that way.
There was Jim Bunning, who’d one day baffle America as a Senate curmudgeon. But before that he baffled hitters.
There was Denny McLain, whose life off the field was as turbulent as a private plane in a storm, but who thrilled for two years with fastballs, the organ and hubris.
There was Mickey Lolich, old rubber arm himself, portly and durable. Mr. Opening Day.
There was Jack Morris. The Cat, who never met a big game he didn’t like, or thrive in.
Then there’s Justin Verlander.
It’s Verlander’s world and we’re all just living in it—and that includes American League hitters.
See Verlander smile, broadly. See him giving TV interviews during games. See him with swimsuit models. See him throw no-hitters, and come close to throwing more.
See Verlander win the Rookie of the Year award. See him pitch in two World Series. See him win the Cy Young Award and the MVP in the same year. See him almost win another Cy Young.
Verlander isn’t a pitcher, he’s a cereal box.
The Tigers haven’t had a pitcher like Verlander, in terms of personality, talent and accomplishment, since…well, they never have.
We are seeing something unprecedented right now. The Tigers have a top flight pitcher, maybe the best in the game today, whose world is his oyster. And there’s something else that may be unprecedented.
Actually, there are maybe 200 million things that could be unprecedented.
Verlander’s contract expires after the 2014 season. Whether the Tigers sign him to a new deal before then or not, it’s likely that Justin Verlander will become the big league's first $200 million pitcher.
I’m usually not keen on giving pitchers outlandish contracts. Pitchers are high maintenance, delicate creatures. They make their living putting their arms through gyrations that the human arm wasn’t meant to be put through. After every outing, they strap enough ice on their arm to keep a keg of beer cold.
The ink dries on their big contracts and the next thing you know, they’re in the doctor’s office. Then they’re on the disabled list.
The fat contract for pitchers I usually shy away from. But Verlander is no typical pitcher.
I would have no qualms throwing $200 million at him, spread over 7-10 years, even though he just turned 30 years old. And I’d have no qualms even if it was my money to spend, to show you.
I’d have no qualms because Verlander isn’t a typical pitcher any more than was Feller or Koufax or Ryan or Clemens. Verlander is a freak, but in a good way.
Like Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens before him—power pitchers with howitzers for arms—Verlander has that feel about him. He has that feel of someone who is going to be bringing it well into his 30s, if not into his early 40s.
First, there’s no violent delivery to put unneeded wear and tear on the arm. Verlander’s motion is as smooth as a milk shake and as powerful as a locomotive. The baseball explodes out of his arm with nary a jerk or a snap.
Second, in seven full seasons he’s never sniffed the disabled list, and he’s never had a “tired” or “dead” arm. It just doesn’t feel like he’s ever going to be brittle.
Verlander is going to get his money—somewhere. So it may as well be in Detroit.
But here’s where the fun-loving, the world-is-my-oyster Verlander shows up.
He recently told the press that to be a free agent would be “fun.”
You gotta like a guy who doesn’t mince words.
Of course it would be fun, to be the best pitcher on the planet and have teams lined up, ready to shower you with cash. Who wouldn’t love to be courted and wooed?
That’s not to say that the Tigers won’t sign Verlander to a contract extension long before free agency can kick in, with its temptations and playful wickedness.
Owner Mike Ilitch never met a big star that didn’t make him want to break out his wallet—whether his own player or that of another team’s. That goes for the Red Wings, too. If you could play at the highest level, Ilitch signed you. If you were a member of one his teams, he kept you.
How many Red Wings players did Ilitch let walk away into free agency? Only two notable names pop out—Sergei Fedorov and Brendan Shanahan. And both wanted to leave for different reasons. Fedorov chased crazy money with Anaheim in 2003, and Shanahan felt that the torch should be passed to younger Red Wings when he left for the New York Rangers in 2006.
Other than those two cases, Ilitch has kept his stars in Detroit when it comes to his hockey team. In baseball, he’s done the same thing—while adding to the payroll with players from outside the organization.
So I wouldn’t worry too much about Justin Verlander hitting the free market after next season. Ilitch won’t have that. There will come a time when the owner will yank Dave Dombrowski by the ear into a room and ask his GM, flat out, how much it’s going to cost to keep Verlander in the Old English D. Dombrowski will tell his boss, who will fork over a check, and that will be that.
That check is likely to steamroll past $200 million.
It will be a bargain.
Verlander is nothing like we’ve ever seen on a pitching mound in Detroit. He’s 30 years old and he’s just getting started. He’s pitched in more big games already than most guys will see in a lifetime. His awards and achievements and accolades read like a 20-year veteran’s. He’s funny and good-looking and loves the media.
He also thinks free agency will be fun. Too bad he’ll never get to find out for real.