I know everyone’s writing about Justin Verlander today, and that is as it should be. He’s done one of the most difficult things in sports, especially in an era where managers are terrified to let the pitch count get too high on a young stud. Even though the subject will be covered ad nauseum, I am writing about him anyway, and I have my reasons.
My first is homer pride. I live in Virginia and take classes at Old Dominion University. Justin Verlander is a Virginia native who played his college ball at ODU.
Second, my homer pride caused me to reach for Verlander in my office Fantasy Baseball league, and a decision based on emotion has paid big dividends. So that’s a first for me (see – picking Kansas in the NCAA brackets).
But in general, his story is an interesting one with twists and turns met with fortitude and faith, and that’s a story worth telling.
Verlander is from Manakin-Sabot, a suburb of Richmond, VA. When his talent became obvious to his parents, he was sent to the Richmond Baseball Academy to get some professional training. Soon, he had a reputation for throwing hard with little control – a common enough story. But when a bout with strep throat cost him some arm strength in his senior season, professional scouts were not wowed by his 86-mph fastballs and let him slide to the college game.
Whether his illness also caused his stock to slip in college recruiting circles, or Verlander just wanted to stay close to home, he ended up at Old Dominion University on the Virginia seacoast. There’s a decent baseball program in place, but it’s no match for the true powerhouses. Justin recovered from his illness, bulked up, and started throwing 100 mph. I’d go to the ODU site and get you some pertinent stats from that time, but it seems to have been crashed in the wake of the no-no.
Verlander was drafted by the Detroit Tigers with the second pick in the 2004 amateur draft (weep, Padres fans, for your brain trust passed). He made short work of minor-league batsmen, striking out 136 in just 119 innings. The reformed control demonstrated in those starts earned him a call-up to the big club in late 2005, where he impressed with his durability and power.
In 2006, he earned a permanent spot at the bottom of the Tigers’ rotation. He went 17-9 with a 3.63 era and won AL rookie of the year. Predictably enough, he struggled in the postseason, picking up just one win and watching his ERA blow up over 5.00. Still, he was allowed to pitch the first game of the World Series, and was the Tigers’ leader with 11 innings pitched in the Fall Classic. He lost both games he started, but he managed to do it without any black stuff on his hand.
When we look around the sports landscape, it is cluttered with prized draft picks who squandered their talent. Josh Hamilton turned to drugs. Elijah Dukes has threatened violence against his girlfriend and children. What makes Justin Verlander pull through all of the temptations? It sounds corny, but he is a man of faith.
He has dated the same woman since high school. He paid a friend $3,000 to settle a half-serious chocolate milk debt. One major league scout has said “the best thing I can tell you about Justin is that 10 years from now, the only difference between Justin then and Justin now is that he’ll be driving a nicer car”.
Obviously, these stories will be few and far between in the sports world. But for today, at least, a nice guy didn’t finish last.
UPDATE: I got this hilarious notification email from CBS Sportsline overnight.
CBS SportsLine.com Fantasy Baseball Notification
Justin Verlander found out real quickly how much a no-hitter
changed his life. When the Detroit Tigers young ace walked
into a restaurant with his girlfriend, he was greeted with a
standing ovation. “Yeah, the second one of the night,”
Verlander said Wednesday, about 17 hours after pitching a
no-hitter against the Milwaukee Brewers. Verlander was
not-so-special when he reported to Comerica Park for
Wednesday night’s game. “I had a drug test,” he said. “I
guess that happens when you throw 100-something in the ninth
Nice game, kid. Now piss in a cup.