Saturday, June 6, 2015

Jurassic Verlander: The Lost Ace

These past few months have included a number of “firsts” for Detroit Tigers RHP Justin Verlander. First missed start, first trip to the disabled list, first ALDS sweeping, first leak of nude selfies, and first minor league rehab appearance in a Jurassic Park product placement jersey. 

However, that rehab appearance was something of a return to form – 9 K’s, no walks, and no earned runs, with a curveball that was described as “the Verlander of old.” After this encouraging performance, Mr. Verlander should rejoin the major league team in the coming days, hoping to prove that ace pitching, like life, “finds a way.”

The timing of Justin’s bounce-back is better than the time I went to a Buffalo Wild Wings early enough for appetizer happy hour but late enough for 60 cent boneless wings. These are dark times in Detroit. Financially, the city has been in dire straits for years, like my bank account after Materiality screwed me in the last Kentucky Derby. Politically, the city is dysfunctional, headed by an emergency manager whose position of authority over the great state of Michigan’s finest city is as fraudulent and contemptible Claudius’ reign over the Kingdom of Denmark in that Shakespeare play you only pretended to read back at Danville High.

Yet, on summer afternoons, they say you can hear the stirrings of a faint hope emitting from Woodward Avenue. Spurred by equal parts chance, fate, and the frivolous spending of an aging millionaire, baseball lives on in Detroit. Amongst its fans in that city, angst brews, like the slow bubbling of a warmed-over cup of coffee prepared several hang-overs ago. Comerica Park’s faithful, loyal owners of Old-English D caps and Justin Verlander shirseys, lay awake at night with a sinking feeling of regret – not un-similar to lovesick teenagers at Danville High pining for an unrequited love they may never obtain after a senior prom in ‘72 that was both magical yet unfulfilling. They feel a special type of regret that is born only when great accomplishments and even greater expectations are wedded in an unholy matrimony of disappointment and unfulfilled potential.

Since the dark years of irrelevance, capped by a historically awful, 43-119 season in 2003 – the baseball equivalent of getting blackout drunk off of Margaritas at Chili’s and waking up to find out your third wife bought some strangers $75 worth of spinach & artichoke dip – the Tigers have been reborn, boasting 5 playoff appearances, 2 World Series appearances, 2 Cy Young awards, and 3 MVP awards, amongst other accomplishments. The city whose industrial, blue-collar grit made it the manufacturer of the Arsenal of Democracy during the World Wars was born anew as the Arsenal of Dingers and Heaters. Yet, the grand prize has eluded them like a successful and healthy marriage has eluded me, or some sort of metaphorical white whale if you are looking for another allusion to classic literature. Though this city has had good times the fans will never forget – no-hitters, triple crowns, future hall of famers – there are also the moments of trauma, to be forever replayed in the memories of fans – most of them involving Nelson Cruz.

It is within this context that the 2015 Detroit Tigers seek to restore autumnal glory to this city for the first time since 1984, before the knees of their sluggers fail and the arms of their aces wilt. Fortunately, the window for this team is still open, like the wooden gate on a Louisville farmhouse that stubbornly refuses to shut. Miguel Cabrera is still the best hitter of his generation, while David Price and Jose Iglesias inspire awe with their arm and their glove, respectively. Championship teams have done more with less talent than is currently on Detroit’s roster; the San Francisco Giants won the 2014 World Series with a rotation consisting of Madison Bumgarner and four hobos.

Yet, challengers loom. All in all, Detroit’s four-year long strangle-hold over the division has never looked more tenuous. The Kansas City Royals have tasted the World Series as well, and want more. Torii Hunter is not content to have a Jeter-style, Hallmark Channel farewell tour, and wants to take his Minnesota Twins to the summit before hanging up the cleats. I’m told by nerds there’s at least one other team in the division who could possibly be relevant if you believe in FIP.

Folks, I don’t believe in FIP, and I’m not about to start writing about it now. I’m here to write about the man who could very well make or break Detroit’s season and Mike Ilitch’s dreams. The man who was dismissed by hubristic fans as expendable or irrelevant after their team, in his absence, had a hot start in the season’s infancy. The 200 million dollar man who has scaled the pinnacles of pitching excellence, only to take a tumble into mediocrity more unceremonious than the time I vomited up linguine and fireball whisky in the bathroom of an Olive Garden. And boy, has Mr. Verlander come a long way. As I write this, a man who has thrown two no-hitters & was awarded both the Cy Young award and MVP award for his 2011 magnum opus, dons the foreign garb of the Toledo Mudhens, like a wanderer in rags who may yet reclaim his righteous throne.

"the strike-zone was 'this' big!"
It took hitting rock bottom to remind Verlander what it felt like to be at the top. From 2011 to 2012, he made superhuman feats look as mundane as my two bed-room apartment and its fridge full of Miller Lite. Whereas vintage Verlander made the extraordinary look ordinary, his past season was just regular ordinary. After a forgettable 2014 and an injury in spring training, his role on the team consists of being a clubhouse presence, catching fly-balls during batting practice and blowing bubbles.

Yet, Mr. Verlander will not consign himself to irrelevance, and will not be a quitter, until his legs give out and his bones collapse. The story of Verlander in 2015 has yet to be written – but from the ashes of the old ace one can already hear rumblings of an Autumnal God renewed, Verlander 2.0. At times, Verlander 2.0 won’t bear much in common with his fire-throwing predecessor. The new Verlander will accept his limitations, and not be held hostage to the radar gun – pitching with a nuance befitting his newfound insight on how time lays claim to even the most formidable physiques. He will build on the brief return to form he enjoyed in September of 2014 when his team needed him most. Verlander 2.0 will not let weakened velocity define him, rediscovering his offspeed pitches, supplemented by new offerings he has yet to unveil.  He will not be afraid to lean upon the best defense ever fielded behind him. JV will change speeds and eye levels more frequently than I changed legal representation after my last altercation at Applebee’s. It’s a comeback narrative so compelling that even nerds have conjured up math to support it. Verlander 2.0 will be hit, even hit hard on occasion, leading other, more pessimistic nerds to cry regression and decline. Fans in Kansas City, Cleveland, Minneapolis, and Chicago will look on and believe they are witnessing the collapse of the Roman Empire. Yet, like the ’69 Ford I use to travel all around God’s Green Earth, Verlander will not have to be perfect to be reliable, and contribute to the 2015 Detroit Tigers.

As the rest of the Toledo Mudhens hit the showers, Verlander will linger in the dugout, blowing bubblegum and quietly reflecting. It seemed at times that most of his young life had been spent in a dugout, watching other people play. Such is the nature of being a pitcher in the junior circuit who doesn’t have to bat, responsible only for taking the mound once every five days. As he sat in the dugout that May night, Verlander thought he saw the ghost of Detroit Tigers pitchers past: Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly, Max Scherzer, laughing and spitting sunflower seeds on each other. The guys he spent summers with, sitting in the dugout, talking, mentoring, befriending, hoping that slim lead would survive a few innings from Phil Coke, Jose Valverde, and company. Verlander will rub his eyes in disbelief after glimpsing a ghost-like and whispy Jim Leyland talking to somebody on the dugout phone. The lines and wrinkles on his face will be deeper than what Justin remembered, especially after spending a summer amidst the youthful beauty Brad Ausmus.

“Jim?” asked Verlander, confused and anxious.

“Sonny, do you know why I’m here?” said the spectral skipper, impatiently clenching a cigarette in his teeth.

Verlander, stunned, was silent, like my children after witnessing me getting ejected from a TGI Friday's for destroying a flat-screen TV following the Cincinnati Red’s 2-1 loss to the San Francisco Giants in Game 3 of the 2012 NLDS.

Sounding agitated, Leyland grumbled: “I guess the better question is, do you know why you’re here?”

Justin, not caring if this was real or a hallucination, nodded. Just then, an epiphany hit Verlander like the blunt night-club of a Boyle County police officer apprehending somebody in an Applebee’s parking lot. The task of guiding the Tigers to a championship had been appointed to him – if he did not find a way to do it, nobody would. With a steely look of resolve in his eyes, and a clarity of purpose he hadn’t felt since Game 5 of the 2013 ALDS in Oakland, Verlander 2.0 grabbed a loose baseball, and gripped it as though he was about to unleash one of his unhittable curve-pieces. The time would come for re-finding his swing-and-miss stuff – but for now, Justin was happy to have re-found himself.

Feeling renewed, he walked back into the locker room, listening to Eminem’s Till I Collapse, ready for whatever the uncertain and indeterminate future had in store for him. That night, a small hope was kindled in the hearts of Detroit fans, like the embers of an old skipper’s extinguished cigarette on October leaves. The city’s savior had risen.