Maxwell Kates: Justin Verlander

Maxwell Kates

 Maxwell Kates is a talented and dedicated SABR member who researches, writes and breathes baseball with all the passion and fire that comes with the territory – as he still manages to contain what he wants to say in organized columns and rows of thought. His background in accounting has served him well. Maxwell grew up a Tigers fan and this contribution could not have come at a more timely moment for publication. With the great Justin Verlander making his first start as an Astro Tuesday night in Seattle, we hope you enjoy and appreciate this timely story in words and pictures that we received all good-to-go now only yesterday.

Look for another thoughtful and scholarly baseball history piece from David Skelton here too in the next couple of weeks. We think you are going to like it as well.

JUSTIN VERLANDER – DETROIT MEMORIES

By Maxwell Kates

Only a handful of major league players in the history of baseball can claim to be ‘franchise players.’ These are players whose talent is so exceptional that the success of their entire team often runs in direct proportion to their own diamond achievements. The obvious one is Tom Seaver, who was even labelled as ‘The Franchise’ in his decade with the New York Mets. The Giants won the pennant in Willie Mays’ rookie season of 1951 and remained perennial contenders until he was traded from the organization 21 years later. The Yankees never posted a losing season with their Clipper in centre field, while the Baltimore Orioles won four pennants in six years with Frank Robinson in right field.

A more recent star who may claim bragging rights as a franchise player is Justin Verlander. Until recently, he pitched his entire career with the Detroit Tigers. Verlander joined the Tigers in 2005, just as the team was completing its seventeen year odyssey as the worst team in major league baseball. Almost instantaneous with Verlander’s arrival, the Tigers became contenders. They posted winning records in nine of eleven seasons between 2006 and 2016, with five playoff berths and two trips to the World Series. Verlander remained a Tiger until the final minute of August 2017. Floundering on the field, the Tigers dealt Verlander to the Houston Astros for prospects Franklin Perez, Jake Rogers, and Daz Cameron. What you’re about to read is a nostalgic look back at Verlander’s Detroit years as seen through the eyes of one Tigers fan through the lens of six personal memories.

MEMORY #1: JUNE 12, 2007

Justin Verlander’s First No-Hitter

Verlander, a native of Virginia, was born on February 20, 1983. He attended Old Dominion University and was selected first by the Detroit Tigers in the June 2004 amateur draft. Slightly more than one year later, on July 4, 2005, Verlander made his major league debut, a 6-0 loss to the Indians in Cleveland. Unsuccessful in two 2005 appearances, he returned to the Tigers with a vengeance in 2006 by posting a 17-9 record with 3.63 ERA and 124 strikeouts. Verlander complemented starters Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson, and Kenny Rogers on a Detroit team that surprised everyone except themselves, going as far as the World Series before losing to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Vienna, Austria

The emerging ‘Dutch Master’ of Detroit’s rotation was out to prove that 2007 was no sophomore jinx. He won 18 games with a berth on the All-Star team in San Francisco. One of those wins took place on June 12 as the Tigers hosted the Milwaukee Brewers at Comerica Park. I listened to the game on the radio as Verlander struck out 12 batters, including future teammate Prince Fielder in the 4th inning. Four Brewers reached base on balls while one Verlander fastball reached 102 miles per hour on the radar. As Vin Scully would have reported, in the top of the 9th with two outs, the next Brewer to get a base hit would be the first. J. J. Hardy wouldn’t have the chance. He flew out to right to end the ballgame, Tigers win 4-0, no-hitter for Justin Verlander! From where I sat, the most unique aspect of the game was my own vantage point. I was listening on short wave radio in Vienna, Austria.

MEMORY #2: MAY 7, 2011

Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander works against the Toronto Blue Jays during fourth inning of a baseball game in Toronto Saturday, May 7, 2011. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darren Calabrese)

After falling short of a second consecutive playoff berth in 2007, the Tigers acquired Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis, and Edgar Renteria in blockbuster trades. Anticipated to return to the World Series, they began the 2008 season 0-7 which set the course for the balance of the year. Verlander led the league with 17 losses and posted a ghastly 4.84 ERA. Although Verlander and his Tigers returned to respectability in 2009 (19-9, 269K, 3.45 ERA), they fell short of any playoff hopes on the final day of the season. Injuries protracted any success for the Tigers in 2010 but 2011 became a season for the ages in the Motor City.

I was preparing for the CPA finals in 2011. Returning home from a course on a Saturday afternoon, my telephone was ringing as I walked in the door. It was my mother. “Turn on the television,” she insisted. “I won’t tell you what channel, just turn it on.” It was the 5th inning and the Tigers were leading the hometown Blue Jays by a margin of 7-0. At that stage, no Toronto batter had reached 1st base safely, let alone achieved a hit. There was tension in the top of the 8th when home plate umpire Jerry Meals identified a close pitch as ball four for Blue Jays’ catcher J. P. Arencibia. The perfect game was over but Arencibia reached base on a walk, not a hit. The Tigers added two runs in the top of the ninth before retiring the Blue Jays in a 1-2-3 bottom half of the inning. The Tigers 9, the Blue Jays 0, no-hitter #2 for Justin Verlander!

My mother knew that I always wanted to watch a no-hitter twenty years after we missed Wilson Alvarez throw one in Baltimore for the Chicago White Sox by a couple of games. Now I had finally seen my no-hitter and as an added bonus, it was authored by my favourite player on my favourite team. To date, it’s the only one I’ve ever seen.

MEMORY #3: JULY 5, 2011

Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander, left, and catcher Alex Avila watch the scoreboard replay of Los Angeles Angels’ Howard Kendrick (not pictured) scoring during the second inning of a baseball game in Anaheim, Calif., Tuesday, July 5, 2011. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

Verlander improved his record to a modest 3-3 with his no-hitter in Toronto but he would not lose again in eight decisions through early July. His record was now a sterling 11-3 as he faced Dan Haren of the Angels at Anaheim Stadium. It was also the eve of the 41st annual SABR convention in nearby Long Beach, California. Dave Raglin, a friend of mine from Virginia through the Mayo Smith Society, had arranged to attend the contest with his wife, Barb Mantegani. Also joining us were Mark Kanter and the late Paul Hirsch. A batboy for the Angels in 1974, Paul remained familiar with the nooks and crannies of Anaheim Stadium that were obscure to the more casual fans among us.

(FROM LEFT) MARK KANTER, DAVE RAGLIN, BARB MANTEGANI, MAXWELL KATES, and PAUL HIRSCH.

Seated behind home plate in the upper deck, we were treated to a view worthy of a Jerry Dunphy news signoff, including the desert, the sea, and much of southern California. Verlander only gave up one run, an RBI double by Erick Aybar which scored Howie Kendrick, and two hits the entire evening. Unfortunately for his team, that was still one run more than the Tigers scored. In an unusual turn of events, Verlander was ejected as he was being relieved for Joaquin Benoit. Storming off the field, he proceeded to argue a call in the 2nd inning with 1st base umpire Joe West.

Verlander’s loss in Orange county was but a blip on his 2011 record. On June 25, he struck out 14 Arizona Diamondbacks while on August 27, he became the first Tiger since Bill Gullickson in 1991 to register 20 wins for the year as he whitewashed the Minnesota Twins at Target Field.

MEMORY #4: SEPTEMBER 24, 2011

Verlander of Detroit
Tuning Up the Motor City

My parents drove from their home in Ottawa to Detroit, stopping to collect me in Toronto for a weekend of Tigers baseball and visits with family friends Allen and Phyllis Gantman, along with Steve Lauer and Marilyn Klar from Toledo. While Verlander did not pitch on the Sunday contest we attended at Comerica Park, a 10-6 rout of the Baltimore Orioles, we did watch him pitch the night before on a large screen television at the Motor City Casino. It was not Verlander’s most stellar performance. He yielded five Baltimore runs – four of them earned – before the 3rd inning came and went. Although the Tigers rallied to tie the game in the 8th inning, Baltimore pinch runner Kyle Hudson tipped the scale in favour of the visitors from Charm City. Orioles 6, Tigers 5, no decision for Justin Verlander.

(From Left) Steve Lauer, Marilyn Klar, Maxwell Kates, David Kates, Phyllis Gantman, Allen Gantman 2

The game was memorable not so much for the action on the field but for the editorial offered by my mother after the game. “What’s the big deal with Verlander?” she asked rhetorically before continuing with “He never does anything good anytime I watch.” Then she pointed to me and insisted, “Just like your other favourite, Ripken.” Finally she asked my father, “David, did you ever see Baltimore play where Ripken didn’t strike out?”

The Tigers Yearbook in the 2011 Season of Justin Verlander’s Cy Young and MVP Renderings.

My mother’s attempt at Ernie Harwell notwithstanding, Verlander was completing one of the signature seasons by any starter of the 21st century. He led the league with 24 wins against only 5 losses, 250 strikeouts, and a 2.40 ERA, joining former Astros scout Hal Newhouser as the only Detroit hurler to win the Pitching Triple Crown. Although the Tigers lost the American League Championship Series to the Texas Rangers, Verlander impressed the writers sufficiently to win both the Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Awards.

MEMORY #5: OCTOBER 24, 2012

Verlander and the 2012 World Series

My mother must have been watching both the All-Star Game and Game 1 of the World Series in 2012. Verlander started both and he was pitiful on each occasion. During the regular season, he continued to pitch brilliantly, 17 wins against 8 losses, 239 strikeouts, and a 2.64 ERA. Unfortunately, the cast that supported him was lacklustre for much of the season. Verlander, Cabrera, and free agent signing Prince Fielder anchored one of the most expensive payrolls in baseball, one that did not yield the intended results. At a family brunch at the end of June, my father even admonished me by arguing that “…at least my team didn’t spend all their money on Percy Fielding.”

The Sandoval Home Run

Somehow the Tigers managed to sprint to the end of the regular season before dispatching the Oakland A’s and New York Yankees in their respective playoff series. Only four victories at the expense of the San Francisco Giants separated the Tigers from their fifth World Series championship. They never achieved those victories. In the opening game in Herb Caen’s ‘Baghdad by the Bay,’ the Tigers and Verlander surrendered five runs in four innings, including two home runs to Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval. My friend Dash Read, a high school classmate now working as a realtor in Ottawa, sent me a one word e-mail which read “VERLOSER.”

Fortunately, Tommy Lasorda was not a Tigers fan. If a reporter, Paul Olden for example, would have asked his opinion of Sandoval’s performance, Lasorda would have likely answered, “What’s my opinion of Sandoval’s performance? What do you think? He beat us with three home runs!” That was the bowdlerized rendition. Even after Verlander was sent to the showers, Sandoval hit his hat trick off relief pitcher Al Albuquerque. Final score, San Francisco Giants 8, Detroit Tigers 3. Verlander and his teammates were clearly in over their heads. He would not be the only matinee idol named Justin to make that claim.

MEMORY #6: JULY 4, 2013

Justin Verlander in Toronto

The Tigers overcame a disappointing finish in the 2012 World Series to once again field a contending ballclub in 2013. Verlander did not pitch his most brilliant record, 13-12 for the season, but was good for 217 strikeouts and a 3.46 ERA. Shortly before his sixth and final All-Star Game berth in a Detroit uniform, Verlander took the mound in Toronto on the birthday of his country. The Blue Jays had whitewashed the Tigers on Canada Day three days before while Detroit won each of the next two games.

David Eisenstadt
Maxwell Kates’ treasured baseball mentor

Verlander pitched seven impressive innings, fanning five Blue Jays and yielding no runs and three hits. I attended the game with David Eisenstadt, an important mentor throughout my career who ignited my interest in the Tigers to begin with. Unlike the game in Anaheim nearly two years before, his position players helped him on this Thursday night. A quintet of doubles by Detroit hitters, complemented by a two run blast by Austin Jackson, propelled the Tigers to an 11-1 victory over the Blue Jays.

More accurately, I watched eight innings with David – the 3rd inning I watched with Karen and Joe Wampler who travelled to Toronto from Westland, Michigan to watch the Tigers play. It was the day Karen went from being a ‘Facebook friend’ to a ‘real friend,’ as was the case with David Lally, who had travelled with his son David Jr. from Flint to watch the Tigers-Blue Jays series.

CONCLUSION

Although the Tigers returned to the playoffs in 2013 and again in 2014, it became clear that their window of opportunity was shrinking. After enduring injuries during a last-place 2015 campaign, Verlander posted an impressive renaissance in 2016 (16-9, 254K, 3.04 ERA). Unfortunately, he lost the Cy Young Award to former teammate Rick Porcello by only five votes. The Tigers were eliminated from the playoffs on the final day of the 2016 season, a sign of things to come in 2017.

On February 10, 2017, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch passed away at the age of 87. The next generation of his family adopted a different philosophy to run the ballclub with a movement towards youth. Despite winning 8 of their first 12 games, it soon became evident that reign at contention was a thing of the past. The final outing in a Detroit uniform took place on August 30, a 6-2 victory over the Rockies bolstered by an RBI single in the Rocky Mountain air of Denver. The following day, Justin Verlander’s tenure with the Tigers became a memory.

September 2, 2017
Justin Verlander is now a Houston Astro.

Verlander was traded at a time another major league organization needs his skills far more than the Tigers’ do. Donald Sutherland once stated that “legends are made by doing the right thing in the right place at the right time.” The next two months represents the greatest challenge of Verlander’s career and he knows it. This is an opportunity for him to shine and become a hero in an altogether new city while pitching for the Houston Astros.

While I, personally, am disappointed that I will no longer have the chance to see Verlander pitch in a Detroit uniform, I hope other Tigers fans will join me in supporting his new team, the Astros, as they compete to win the 2017 World Series for the city of Houston.

********************

Bill McCurdy

Principal Writer, Editor, Publisher

The Pecan Park Eagle

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3 Responses to “Maxwell Kates: Justin Verlander”

  1. maxwell1901 Says:

    Thanks for publishing my paper and for your kind acknowledgements of David Eisenstadt in the photo caption.

    • Tom Hunter Says:

      Mr. Kates,

      I very much enjoyed reading your paper and at first assumed you were from Detroit until I read the distinctive Canadian spellings of “centre” and “favourite.”

      Thanks for the background, and I’m happy you will be pulling for the Astros to go all the way. The addition of Verlander to the roster is appreciated.

      Two acquaintances of mine who are Tiger fans greeted me last weekend with the words, “You’re welcome.” This was before I had said anything. Naturally I said, “Thank you very much.”

      And thank you, Mr. Kates

      • maxwell1901 Says:

        You are most welcome, Mr. Hunter. Yesterday I was mistaken for someone from Brazil so Detroit is at least closer. Verlander didn’t have much of a team behind him in Motown so this way he’ll be able to utilize his skills more efficiently for a contending ballclub. As LD 49 said years ago, it makes a fellow proud to be an Astro.

        Incidentally, for years in Canada we had a country music series on television called The Tommy Hunter Show. Enjoy the rest of the 2017 season and stay safe.

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