Published September 2, 2017
So this is what baseball has come down to.
The Cleveland Indians would never have traded a still-productive Bob Feller to save money. The St. Louis Cardinals would never have cut costs by dealing a Bob Gibson who was still dealing.
The Reserve Clause is dead and it should stay that way. Nobody is suggesting otherwise.
But this game of high stakes baseball that is played today, where teams sometimes feel compelled to cash in their chips for pennies on the dollar, doesn’t care about loyalty or longevity or the romance of a player spending his entire career with one organization.
There are pitching lines and there are bottom lines. The latter almost always takes precedence over the former.
Today’s baseball gives you teams that inflate their payroll like a balloon, then get scared that the balloon will pop so they let some air out.
Justin Verlander is a Houston Astro. He pulls on the cap with the Texas star, not the Old English D.
A baseball city weeps.
There’s a scene in “You’ve Got Mail” where, after small business owner Meg Ryan realizes her little bookstore is going to be put out of business by the behemoth franchise, she’s told, “It wasn’t personal. It was business.”
“You know, I hate when people say that,” Ryan’s Kathleen Kelly says. “All that means is that it wasn’t personal to them. Well, it was personal to ME.”
I won’t bother lecturing you that the Verlander trade to Houston at the stroke of midnight on Thursday was predicated on business. Bottom line over pitching line. Because you likely feel the way Kathleen Kelly felt about hearing that.
But no question, this trade stings a little more than some of the others that we’ve come to terms with in Detroit.
Bob Lanier, the hulking center drafted by the Pistons in 1970, busted his rear end for the team for nine years. In the middle of his tenth season with the Pistons, Big Bob—sportswriter Jerry Green once called Lanier basketball’s Othello—didn’t want to be part of a painful rebuild that was forced upon the organization thanks to the malfeasance of Dick Vitale.
As much as it hurt Bob, he demanded that new GM Jack McCloskey trade him to a contender. McCloskey complied, dealing Lanier to the Milwaukee Bucks for Kent Benson and a first round draft choice.
After the trade, Lanier waxed melancholy.
“As much as I’m excited to join the Bucks, there’s a feeling of sadness,” Lanier told the media. “Whatever great things are on the horizon for me in Milwaukee, I wish they would have happened to me in Detroit.”
Lanier to the Bucks was designed to get Bob his championship ring. The Bucks were elite, and Lanier was going to be the missing piece.
Lanier and the Bucks made it to a couple of conference finals in his four years in Milwaukee but their inability to beat the Sixers in the playoffs was their undoing. Lanier retired as one of those great players who never won it all. A painful legacy to some men.
Verlander has done it all with the Tigers. Except win a ring.
Here’s how a typical Tigers fan is coping this morning.
He or she is looking at this trade as being best for JV, worst for them. The Astros just gained millions of new fans. Twitter was aplenty with tweets to the Astros official account from jilted Tigers fans. Almost all of them just wanted to wish Verlander well, and to remind the Astros and their fans that they’re getting a great one. As if they didn’t know that.
Go get a ring, JV, the fans said in unison, yet in their own way. Some tweets even went so far as to practically warn the Astros to get JV his ring or else, and not the other way around.
Kind of like, “Don’t you blow this for our guy!”
You can take the Old English D off a man’s baseball cap but you can’t unbrand it from his heart. Likewise, you can trade Justin Verlander away from a fan base’s team but you can’t remove him from those fans’ emotional makeup. No more than you can remove just the water from soup.
But this is what Major League Baseball has come to. This is why it’s so rare to see a player of any longevity spend his entire career with one team. You have to pay these guys, until it’s not feasible or no longer savvy to do so.
Then you get what happened at midnight on Thursday: a possible Hall of Fame pitcher traded for three kids.
Verlander was a kid once. We saw it.
We saw him when the hardened razor stubble of today was peach fuzz.
We saw him get knocked around when he had a cup of coffee with the Tigers in 2005, and we saw him start Game 1 of the World Series a year later.
We saw him toss a no-hitter at the Brewers the year after that.
We saw him throw another no-hitter four years after that.
We saw him win the league Cy Young and MVP Awards later that same year.
We saw him take the ball and dominate in the post-season in 2012 and 2013.
We saw him start another Game 1 of the World Series in 2012.
We saw him make a late season charge last year, damn near winning another Cy Young.
We saw all the rumors of impending trades this summer. But they were just that—rumors. Verlander’s contract was too big. His place with the Tigers was too ingrained.
Then came 11:58 p.m. on Thursday night. Lots of Tigers fans were in bed.
Social media lit up with grief-stricken posts tinged with shock. Since midnight was the deadline by which any team could add a new player and still have him eligible for the playoffs, as the clock brushed up against the witching hour, it looked like Verlander would remain with the Tigers until at least this off-season.
But this is the digital age. Transactions can happen in the blink of an eye.
The Tigers and the Astros dotted all their Is and crossed all their Ts and got the required documentation to the league office before midnight—just before midnight. Don’t kid yourself—it’s a drop dead time. Rules are rules.
I mentioned the emotional aspect from the fans’ perspective. That aspect was roiling Verlander as well, as trade talks heated up and it looked like JV would have a choice to make.
Bob Lanier wanted out of Detroit. He practically begged for it from McCloskey. But after it actually happened, Lanier was sad. He wanted his pro basketball success to come in the Motor City, not in bleeping Milwaukee.
Justin Verlander had to waive his no-trade clause, which is his right as being a “10 and 5” man—meaning ten years in the big leagues and five straight with the same team.
Houston? We have a decision to make.
As I wrote last November about a possible off-season trade to the win-now Dodgers, Verlander is addicted to big games. He’s the type of pitcher who sees October baseball as intoxicating. He’s a lot like Jack Morris that way.
But September baseball can be addicting too. The Astros have their division locked up, but the best overall record in the league is far from a certainty. The Indians are charging hard. The Astros want Game 1 and a possible Game 5 of the ALDS in their ballpark, where they’re so good. They want the same for Games 1 and 7 of the ALCS.
Verlander knows his way around big games. He feeds off them. At times he’s chewed them up and spit them out.
The Astros rotation is suspect. It’s wobbly. Statistically, it’s the worse of all the presumptive division winners. By far.
But as important as September is, it was the allure of October that made Verlander’s decision—he called it the toughest of his life in an Instagram post—lean toward waiving the no-trade and moving to Houston.
Verlander couldn’t care less about home field in the playoffs. The Astros may want it, but it doesn’t matter to Verlander. He’s pitched some of his best October baseball on the road. Remember what he did to the A’s two years in a row—in Oakland?
Just give him the damn baseball in October and get out of his way.
It must have been killing Verlander, as proud of a Tiger as you’ll ever see—to witness what’s happened to his baseball team this year.
He pitched a brilliant eight innings—allowing one hit—against the Dodgers in Detroit a couple weeks ago. Afterward, knowing the game was meaningless in the standings, Verlander talked of having manufactured, in his own mind, a playoff atmosphere before he took the mound.
It was admirable, yet also a tad pathetic.
He won’t have to manufacture any pretend atmosphere with the Astros next month.
The pitching hand that has won Verlander 183 games and earned him all those accolades still has stark naked fingers when it comes to baseball jewelry.
The thing I’m happy to see is that virtually nobody in the Tigers fan base has taken Verlander to task for leaving the team to chase a ring with the Astros. Quite the opposite, in fact. The fans know that it’s a sinking ship from which Verlander has jumped. They’d leave too, if they could. Then again, many of them already have, emotionally—at least for another couple of months.
Detroit will become Houston North during the playoffs. A Justin Verlander start is still going to be must-see TV, as it was so many times over the past 12 seasons. It will just be with JV wearing funny colors.
Oh, and how about the buzz in Comerica Park when Verlander makes his first start for the Astros in Detroit next year?
Wouldn’t it be something if Verlander returns to CoPa next year sporting a World Series ring?
This is what baseball has come to.