Monday, March 11, 2013

Tigers' Verlander Poised to Be MLB's First $200 Million Pitcher

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 DaveDombrowski 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.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Collecting Baseball Cards Was Our Childhood Version of Gambling

We were far too young to even be within 500 feet of a casino, but we had our version of a slot machine. We may not have been old enough to bet, but that didn’t stop us from plunking down coins for a shot at what was inside those mysterious wax packages.
Come to think of it, the Cunningham’s drug store near my Livonia house was sort of like a casino. There was no clock. They served food and drink at cheap prices. There were surveillance mirrors on the walls.
And, of course, the gambling that we did inside!
There was no crapshoot on the Vegas strip as thrilling to an adolescent boy as a venture into the Cunningham’s on Plymouth Road and Farmington during baseball card season.
Your fate was held in the hands of the trading card gods. You had no more control over how you’d make out as the adult in Caesars Palace did at the Roulette Wheel.
We collected cards back then—circa the 1970s—ostensibly to someday accumulate every card in that year’s set. That was the goal, every year. Whether through barter, luck or perseverance—or all three—you wanted to be able to check every card off the list. And we’re talking some 500+ cards.
There were two ways to acquire cards.
The first was the wax package route. Fifteen cents bought you 10 cards and a flat rectangle of pink bubble gum with a sugary coating that invariably rubbed off on the card it rested against. For years you could tell which card was the “gum card” because the sugary coating left a stain on the card that was indelible.
The second was the slot machine method. They had the machine near the front entrance, chained to the floor. There were maybe four or five slots with respective metal levers, each operated by placing two quarters on the steel tray above the levers. The trick was, after plopping down your four bits, to jam the lever into the machine and pull it back out, rapidly. The cards then poured through the slots.
We believed that the number of cards that was distributed was directly proportional to how hard you were able to jam the lever into the machine, and also by how fast and violently you pulled it out. We believed this because the number of cards that the machine doled out was often different, unlike the wax packages, where you knew you were always getting 10 cards.
I’m sure there were many Cunningham’s cashiers who furrowed their brows at the gaggle of boys who treated the baseball card machines like the slots in the casino, complete with cheering and cussing.
But the acquisition of the cards was only the beginning of the collection process. The next step was the Barter. That took place outside the store.
We’d always opt for a combination of bubble gum cards and those from the machine, sans sugary coating. No one just bought one over the other. You combined, apparently to somehow better your luck.
Outside the store we’d stand, our bikes between our legs, gum packing our cheeks like sunflower seeds in a hamster’s.
The first thing you tried to do was offload “doubles”—those duplicate cards that were not needed. We’d shuffle through our cards like traders on the floor of the NYSE, calling out doubles loudly in case anyone was interested, right then and there.
The checklists were always mental. Everyone seemed to know which cards they needed, cold. We didn’t have to consult with a grocery list of needed cards. And we also knew which cards we already had, so the doubles could either come in the form of two of the same card from that day’s haul, or by way of mentally connecting your collection at home with those cards being shuffled in your hands in front of the store.
Sometimes you’d end up with triples or even quadruples, usually of some bench player who rarely found his way into an actual game. No one got three or four Rod Carews.
I kept my cards categorized by team, rubber banded together. It was easier, to me, to keep track of who I had and who I needed if I could think of them by team name.
Topps was the trading card brand of the day, and nobody else. We only knew Topps. Today, the baseball trading card world has been turned upside down by so many different companies and sizes and shapes of cards that it’s a lesson in futility to even think of garnering a complete set.
Topps used to release their card sets in stages. The first was right about now, in spring training. Those cards kept us busy for a couple months, and then we’d keep our eyes on the machine in the front of Cunningham’s.
Sure enough, the machine’s sample cards would one day change and there’d be a sign on the machine that indicated a new “edition” of cards was available.
That was an exciting day, boy.
More wax packages would be snatched up and into the trays would go our quarters as we sought to add copiously to our sets. Then, of course, more bartering in front of the store, done through wads of gum.
One year a Bill Freehan card became contentious.
It was the 1973 set. I can still see the Freehan card today: the Tigers catcher lunging to try to tag a New York Yankee player out at the plate. The card was auspicious because it was a horizontal photograph, as opposed to the standard vertical. That in of itself made it a cool card to have.
Anyhow, I needed that card to complete my Tigers team. My friend Rob Polster had it. And Rob was a transplanted Chicagoan, never really a true Detroit sports fan. He rooted for the Windy City teams. He was a Cubs fan, as was his family.
To this day I blame Rob Polster’s lack of Detroit sports loyalty for his utter disregard in bartering with me for the Freehan card. He knew how important it was to me, but there was no fellow Tigers fan empathy going on. If anything, there was some Chicagoan spite.
Rob simply wasn’t going to trade me the Freehan card. I’d be left to get it on my own devices, i.e. multiple trips to Cunningham’s until I got lucky.
I never got the card. A couple years later Rob and his family moved back to Chicago.
The House wins again.