Sunday, February 26, 2012

Will Success Spoil Tigers' Rock Star Verlander?

Classify this under the “Time really flies, doesn’t it?” department.

Justin Verlander is about to begin his seventh big-league baseball season. You heard me. Seventh. But that should be of no bother to Verlander, who’s approached his career as if he was trying to experience everything it can offer before age 30.

It’s as if Verlander, the Tigers' ace, came to Lakeland six Februaries ago armed with a bucket list—and age 30 was the drop-dead date, so to speak.

Win Rookie of the Year. Done.

Pitch in the playoffs. Done.

Pitch in a World Series. Done.

Make the All-Star team. Done.

Pitch a no-hitter. Done, and done—and almost done a couple more times.

Win the Cy Young award. Done.

Win a League MVP award. Done.

Be the ace of the Tigers' staff. Done, like dinner.

Anything else?

Well, you know what’s not been accomplished yet? It’s that thing that prompted owner Mike Ilitch to bust open another piggy bank and sign Prince Fielder.

Verlander has pretty much done it all, except be part of a World Series-winning team.

He’s only 29, however. He still has the 2012 season in which to do that, and knock off his list by age 30.

After that, it’s all gravy.

Verlander is back in Lakeland for spring training number seven, and by all appearances, he’s relaxed, confident and playful.

Last year at this time, Verlander spoke of the small monkey on his back—the one that represented slow starts in April. He was, frankly, tired of starting every season like a distance runner with an anvil attached to his ankle.

So he put his mind to working hard, focusing even harder and treating the normally benign spring training games as if they were happening in September, with a pennant race in full gear.

No more molasses starts for him.

It worked, for the most part. Verlander racked up a couple of April wins for a change. His ERA for the month didn’t look like the price of a New York breakfast.

Another mission accomplished.

But then Verlander followed up his strong April with a garlic-like rest of the season.

Quite simply, Verlander didn’t lose the rest of the season. And I almost mean that literally. From May 1 to the end of the season, Verlander went 22-2. It was Denny McLain, 1968-ish.

Oops. Sorry. But the comparison to McLain is apt in this case, even if it makes your stomach turn a little.

McLain had swagger and confidence when he showed up to Lakeland in 1969, coming off his 31-6 campaign. Denny spent part of the offseason touring the country, playing the organ and showing up on the late-night talk shows.

Of course, those shows were hosted by the likes of Johnny Carson and Tony Bishop, but we’re talking 43 years ago.

McLain was the first man to win 30 games since Dizzy Dean in 1934, and while it took 34 years for it to happen again, we’re at 43 years post-McLain and no one has really come close to doing it again. Likely, Dennis Dale McLain will go down as the last of the 30-game winners.

Like Verlander, McLain was the undisputed ace of the Tigers' staff. Like Verlander, McLain won the AL MVP and Cy Young awards in 1968.

See? An apt comparison.

McLain followed his ’68 season with another good one in 1969. He won 24 games and shared the Cy Young Award with Baltimore’s Mike Cuellar.

After that, it all went to pot for Denny. Actually, some of it went to cocaine. And racketeering. And embezzlement. It wasn’t pretty, as you know.

McLain was 24 years old when he had his magical season in 1968. By 29, he was out of baseball. By his early 30s, he was trying to outrun the law.

Comparison to Verlander, no longer apt.

But here’s what is apt: wondering how Verlander will respond in 2012 to all the heady stuff that happened last season and throughout the fall and winter.

Verlander appears on the cover of MLB 2K12, the video game. He’s in commercials with swimsuit models, also for 2K12. He looked dapper and comfortable telling funny stories on Conan O’Brien’s TV show this winter. He revealed an odd—but apparently successful—pre-start Taco Bell diet, which no doubt delighted the T-Bell marketing department.

And now he’s in Lakeland, the seriousness of the upcoming baseball season approaching, and he’s seen clowning with new instructor and former teammate Kenny Rogers—having fun and enjoying his now cemented status as one of the top young guns in baseball.

The Tigers even cajoled Verlander to place a call to free-agent fireballer Roy Oswalt, in an effort to convince Oswalt to sign with Detroit.

So how does Verlander handle all this stuff?

It’s a question that doesn’t so much concern me as it does fascinate me.

No Tigers pitcher has come off a season and offseason as Justin Verlander is right now since, well, Denny McLain in 1969.

Jack Morris, the Tigers ace of the 1980s, never won a Cy Young Award or an MVP, but he did win a World Series and started in an All-Star Game. He was the undisputed ace, but Morris wasn’t a media darling. He didn’t have the Hollywood good looks that Verlander has, or the magnetic personality.

The media was quite content to leave the snarling Morris alone from October through January. And he was happy to be left alone.

Morris did his talking on the mound, which was fine.

Verlander does that, too, but he is the Tigers’ rock star, on top of being their best pitcher. He’s handsome, jovial and easy to talk to. He’s developing a sense of humor that he delivers with a wink to the media.

It is quite possible, maybe even damned likely, that Verlander won’t replicate, in 2012, what he did last year. He may never, period.

Every superstar player/pitcher, if you look at their year-by-year stats, has that one season that sticks out among all the rest. Sometimes it happens early in a career, sometimes in the middle, and sometimes even late. But it happens.

Verlander may have had “that” year in 2011.

He’d trade it all for a World Series ring. Every one of them would.

Denny McLain has one of those, by the way. Not that it did him any good.


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