DETROIT — Justin Verlander wears No. 35 for Frank Thomas, who along with Nolan Ryan was Verlander’s idol growing up near Richmond, Va.
On Sunday, the "Big Hurt" will join the "Ryan Express" in the Baseball Hall of Fame during the enshrinement ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y.
I asked Verlander what attracted him to Thomas, who won the 1993 and 1994 American League MVP Awards as the slugging first baseman of the Chicago White Sox.
"He was the Big Hurt!" said Verlander, his eyes dancing with the memories. "He was the big, menacing force in the batter’s box, hitting a ton of homers.
"He’s beyond deserving of the Hall of Fame. He was the guy you stopped to watch — like Miguel Cabrera is now."
Cabrera is coming off consecutive MVP Awards for the Tigers and won the Triple Crown in 2012.
Thomas’ hitting prowess, power and keen eye at the plate often were compared to the abilities of Ted Williams. Thomas hit .301 with 521 homers (tied for 18th all time with Williams and Willie McCovey) and 1,704 RBI (22nd all time) in 19 seasons.
Verlander got to face his idol 12 times. Thomas walked twice and went 1-for-10 with three strikeouts, and was still a formidable hitter when Verlander won American League Rookie of the Year honors in 2006. Thomas had 39 homers and 114 RBI for the Oakland A’s that year.
"I did pitch well against him," Verlander said. "I threw the hardest pitch I’ve ever thrown against him at the Oakland Coliseum. He took it for a called third strike and looked for the radar gun that was in the corner of the stadium. It was 103 (mph), and he said, ‘Wow.’ I could see him mouthing it.
"Oh, God, that was the coolest thing ever!"
Verlander, 31, said he never had Thomas pose for a photo with him or had a lengthy conversation with the guy whose baseball cards he coveted.
"We talked in passing once and I got him to sign a bat for me," Verlander said.
Did he mention wearing No. 35 to honor Thomas?
"No," Verlander said. "No, I didn’t do that."
Verlander said he wore No. 59 in the first two games he pitched for the Tigers, in 2005. But other than that brief break during his first call to the majors, Verlander has worn No. 35 ever since his freshman year at Old Dominion University in 2002.
"In high school, I just wore the number they gave me," Verlander said. "But I started asking for it in college."
Playing against Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr. and Roger Clemens was close to a "Field of Dreams" experience for Verlander.
"That was the coolest part of my first spring training and first year," Verlander said. "I was pitching against Griffey and watching Clemens throw. I idolized these guys and Frank Thomas, and now I was playing against them in the major leagues. But I did not feel like one of them then.
"Those guys who I used to watch are starting to go into the Hall now, and I wonder who that person is now that kids are watching."
Verlander won the 2011 AL MVP, joining Thomas on that prestigious list, and also has a Cy Young Award and six All-Star Game selections. I asked if any players have come up to him like he did to Thomas, but Verlander said that hasn’t happened yet.
"The biggest thing is longevity," Verlander said of acquiring that special adoration. "A lot of guys have a great five-year stretch."
Verlander seemed to be directing that "longevity" question at himself.
Over the last five years, he’s 91-43. Despite a sub-par 2013 (13-12, 3.46 ERA), he appeared to regain his dominance in last year’s playoffs, when he allowed one run on 10 hits over 23 postseason innings.
This year, however, he’s just 9-8 with a 4.84 ERA, and his velocity — which now tops out at 97 mph — has dropped significantly.
It’s more challenging to win big with a mid-90s fastball, but Verlander still has stuff plenty good enough to pile up victories.
He’ll never throw 103 mph again or see Thomas staring in at him from the batter’s box. But Verlander will always remember how good it felt when both of those things occurred at the same time.
He had Thomas’ number that day in more ways than one.