Verlander's star shines sans bright lights
Justin Verlander is officially famous.
"Last night, I'm lying in bed watching ‘Family Guy' on TV and one of my commercials comes on," he said earlier this week. "It's a pretty unique experience. I didn't know whether to watch or turn it off. It was kind of weird. I had done some stuff before, but it mostly aired on MLB Network. To see it on regular TV was pretty cool."
You know the old saying: Win the MVP and Cy Young Award, and your commercials graduate to "regular TV."
OK, maybe that's not an old saying. But it's true. Verlander's brand might be hotter than his fastball.
At 29, he's in the early stages of his prime. Last year, he became the first pitcher to score the MVP/Cy Young double play since Dennis Eckersley in 1992. He threw his second career no-hitter. He pitched his team to the division title. He went with the open-collared look on "Conan" and told the country about his pregame Taco Bell superstition. He co-starred in commercials with Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kate Upton, in conjunction with his MLB 2K12 cover appearance.
Verlander is one of the biggest names in baseball — on and off the field — even though he plays for a team rarely associated with Hollywood or Madison Avenue.
Verlander has pocketed just about every individual accolade available to a pitcher who is not yet 30 years old. You may wonder what he has left to achieve. He doesn't. "Do it again," he said. As in, he wants to win the MVP and Cy Young again. No pitcher has done it twice. Verlander shrugs and wonders why he can't be the first.
What motivated him during the long offseason workouts, when it would have been so easy to feel satiated from last year's success? "I want to be the best," he said. "That's pretty much it."
He's wired to achieve, with ambition that won't quit and an early sense of what his legacy could become. In a sport when stars tend to be regional rather than national, here's a question worth asking: Will Verlander reach his full potential, in championship celebrations and marketing reach, if he spends the rest of his career as a Detroit Tiger?
Verlander has a nuanced perspective on the topic, in a way that suggests he's given plenty of thought to what he wishes to accomplish before his baseball career is over. In sum: He wants to win the World Series. He maintains the tandem goals of winning 300 games and making it to the Hall of Fame.
He also enjoys some of the show-business opportunities that go along with his status as arguably the best pitcher on the planet — even if, as he said this week, he's been "careful not to do too much." He was at ease during the interview with O'Brien, saying the only time he felt anxious was when he stood behind the curtain waiting for the cue to walk on stage.
He professes loyalty to the Tigers, the only professional organization he's ever known. He said he's "very" happy with his current contract, on which three seasons and $60 million remain.
He's realistic, too.
When asked if the busy offseason proved that he could become a superstar without playing in New York or Los Angeles, Verlander said, "Yeah, it did. But it's more difficult. If I had done what I did the last few years — not counting last year — in New York or L.A. or Boston, I probably would have been on the same level as I was after the Cy Young and MVP. It takes something like that."
Derek Jeter is Derek Jeter because he plays for the Yankees. Albert Pujols was drawn to some non-baseball aspects of Southern California — although the Angels' $240 million probably didn't hurt.
Verlander acknowledged that, sure, he's thought about what it would be like to play in a bigger market.
"It would be fun, but hopefully I help turn Detroit into a major market," he said. "Other teams are major markets not just because of their fan base but because of the national fan base. That comes from winning. They're always on the news because they win.
"We may not have the biggest city in the world, but if we go out there every year and we're in the playoffs and win some World Series titles, then our national fan base grows. My goal is to help make Detroit and their fan base a major market. I want to be a key piece in that."
In other words: As long as team owner Mike Ilitch invests the money necessary to field an annual World Series contender, the Tigers will have a good chance to retain Verlander after his current contract expires in 2014 — when he could become a very desirable 31-year-old free agent.
Ilitch's current commitment is evident in the $214 million he pledged to Prince Fielder less than two months ago. And as long as the Tigers continue outspending their rivals in the middling American League Central, they will have one of the clearest paths to the postseason of any team in baseball.
"That's one of the conversations I had with the Tigers right before I signed," Verlander said, in reference to the five-year, $80 million extension to which he agreed before the 2010 season. "We talked about money and all that stuff. I wanted reassurances that I'm going to be part of a winning team. They said, ‘We're going to do what it takes.' That's all I needed to hear. I want to win a World Series. And some of the other things I want to do in this game involve being on winning teams."
Verlander said he's going to keep pitching "until the wheels fall off" — an attitude that will give him a chance at the faraway 300-win benchmark. He has 107 now. Unless he averages more than 16 wins per season for the rest of his career, he will need to pitch past age 40 to get there. He's fine with that. "I know kind of what the math is," he said. "Just stay healthy for a long time and there's a chance."
That sort of quest usually involves switching teams: Warren Spahn is the most recent pitcher to win his 300th game during a continuous stint with his original club — and he debuted during World War II.
Verlander said neither side has initiated talks on a new contract, although he's "always open for conversation." Really, there's no need quite yet. Ask Verlander what free agency might hold for him, and he says, "Of course, there's curiosity. It'd be fun to see what it's like." But he's also quick to point out that he would have become a free agent last offseason if he hadn't signed the extension.
"Those are just fun things to think about," he said. "I can't envision myself in a better place than I am right now. I want to be part of a winning team. Mr. Ilitch has shown — especially this year — that he's going to do what it takes to put a winning product on the field. I want to be part of that, so I can't say there's anywhere else I'd rather be playing.
"You don't see guys do that very often — play for one team for their career. I feel like I've made a name for myself here in Detroit. I've grown up in front of the fans and in front of that city. Now, I'm starting to grow up in front of the world."