Justin Verlander, at age 15, was called to the pitcher’s mound in the ninth to close out a tournament game for the Richmond Indians, a high-school traveling team.
Verlander proceeded to walk three batters in a row, all on fastballs. His coach, Bob Smith, marched to the mound.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
“I don’t know,” Verlander replied.
Smith shot back: “Never say you don’t know what you are doing.” And then he told the right-hander to throw curveballs. Verlander struck out the next three batters, and his team won 1-0.
In between spring-training drills in Florida last month, Verlander grins when he recounts that exchange.
“He told me, ‘If you don’t know, come up with something.’ ”
Verlander took it to heart.
Since then, the Goochland native has been the American League Rookie of the Year, started Game One of the 2006 World Series and hurled a no-hitter — the first pitcher in history to do so within his first two seasons, according to the Associated Press.
And on March 31, Verlander will be the Detroit Tigers’ starting pitcher on opening day.
It’s safe to say that he now knows exactly what he’s doing.
Throughout baseball and back in Virginia, Verlander’s name commands attention, even in his grandfather’s doctor’s office. “When I go there, all they want to talk to me about is Justin,” says Richard Verlander Sr. “They’re supposed to be talking to me about my health. I even have people want my autograph because I’m his granddaddy. I have to laugh. It’s funny and it’s strange.”
Verlander’s grandmother, Olympia Ryder, takes credit for her grandson’s athletic abilities. “It’s in the genes,” she says. “He’s a chip off the old Mema. I was a softball pitcher in my youth in Brooklyn, and I played tennis. I was very athletic.”
A smile forms on Verlander’s face when he hears his grandmother’s theory.
“I tend to believe her,” he says. “Neither my mom or dad were the greatest athletes, but you know my dad’s going to remind me that he was a football player and could run fast.”
It was Verlander’s father, Richard, who realized that his son had a special arm when he was only 9.
The family was walking around Deep Run Park in Henrico County when they stopped to throw rocks in the pond.
“I threw it as far as I could throw it,” Richard recalls. “Then Justin threw it across the pond twice as far as me. That was a defining moment.”
By the time he was 10, Verlander was working with baseball instructor Bob Bralley, who had played in the minor leagues for the New York Mets organization and who had coached at Highland Springs from 1967-78. Bralley worked with Verlander for about three years.
He knew there was something unique about the young player’s arm. “It was special how the ball came out of his hand,” Bralley says. “He worked very hard to get a rhythm and improve his control. He was very dedicated. He’s a perfect example of what can happen when someone is committed.”
Verlander was never satisfied with being good, Bralley adds. “He wants to be exceptional, and he’s done that. Being a pitcher is a process. You try to get a little bit better every day, and that describes Justin.”
At 14, Verlander was throwing in the mid-70s and playing for traveling teams. “It was a special time for us,” Richard says, noting that he; his wife, Kathy; and Verlander’s younger brother, Ben, went to every game.
Verlander spent his middle-school years at Huguenot Academy, where he pitched against Goochland High School’s junior varsity squad. “We played him and we got beat,” says Terry Goldman, retired junior varsity baseball coach at Goochland.
The next year, Verlander pitched his first and only game for the JV team at Goochland. “Justin overpowered the ninth-graders,” Goldman says. “I thought it was better for him to go to varsity and get some experience because he was so talented.”
Verlander met his best friend, Daniel Hicks, in the ninth grade. Over the next four years, the two, who Hicks explains weren’t the “partying types,” became close friends.
Hicks, now the assistant varsity baseball coach at The Steward School, played first base on the varsity team. “Justin had more pickoff moves than most righties,” Hicks recalls. “He broke two of my mitts when he threw to pick someone off base. One of his balls went slam through the webbing of the glove and hit the fence.”
A Mouth That Runs
Verlander often found himself being scolded by teachers, even though he made good grades. “Justin always had a lot of energy with a capital E,” his mom, Kathy, recalls, noting that even now she often sees her son sitting in the dugout with his foot tapping. Richard and Kathy could predict what they would hear from teachers. “Everyone loved him, but there was always that however,” Kathy says. “We always knew the ‘but he talks too much’ was coming.”
During his senior year, Verlander had four classes with his then-friend, now longtime girlfriend, Emily Yuen. “We were very talkative, and we had to be separated in class,” Yuen says. “Justin is very much the social butterfly.”
Because Verlander and his high-school teammates were always playing around, their coach Bryan Gordon didn’t turn around at first when he heard a commotion at a Hardee’s, where the team had stopped for dinner. Gordon turned to quiet the players when he saw that Verlander was choking.
“One of the kids was trying to do the Heimlich maneuver,” Gordon says. The coach pushed him aside and took over. A piece of hamburger popped out.
“It was a Monster burger,” Verlander says. “I’d only had one bite. At the time, I was about 6-foot-4 and 165 pounds, and when Bryan grabbed me, my legs and arms went flying. After it was over, I sat down and finished my burger. I was hungry.”
Flipping a Switch
It’s a little after 8 a.m., and the Tigers are out on the practice field for their daily calisthenics at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla. Under the gloomy February sky, Verlander does his stretching and agility drills, all the while keeping a running conversation going with teammates.
As he walks to the mound and turns to face teammate Brandon Inge, a former Virginia Commonwealth University standout who is catching for him during practice, Verlander’s demeanor shifts dramatically. Now he’s all business.
“Are you working on something?” asks Inge.
“Yeah, keeping ’em low.”
Inge moves into position and gives Verlander a target with his glove. The pitcher fires a few balls in. Both players nod in approval.
Inge enjoys catching for a fellow Virginian. “It’s interesting to be on the receiving side of a very good pitcher who’s from a similar area,” he says. “Everyone here talks about baseball, so it’s good to talk to someone who is local.”
After practice, Verlander changes into a black polo and khaki shorts for an afternoon round of golf. Yuen has just pulled up in her black Mercedes convertible with his golf clubs in the trunk. She waits for someone to take the clubs in to Verlander.
The two live nearby in a golf-course condo with their dog, Riley, a 50-pound reddish Heinz 57 mix. “Riley is the coolest dog ever,” Verlander says. “Emily and I got him in college. We went to the SPCA, and he kept licking our faces. We’ve been building a bond with this dog. He’s been around since day one. He’s experienced everything with me.”
Life has changed for Verlander, but his personality hasn’t. “He’s still the same goofy kid I met 10 years ago,” Yuen says. “He has matured a lot when it comes to business sense.”
He’s also acquired some style. “Justin wasn’t always the coolest cat when it came to clothes,” Yuen says. “Now he loves them. He’s a Hugo Boss kind of guy.”
Tigers pitching coach Chuck Hernandez is proud of the way that Verlander has handled his success. “He’s become a star-status type of guy in our town,” he says. “But he seems to keep it on an even keel. He’s a good-hearted, good-natured fellow.”
Verlander credits his parents for his down-to-earth demeanor. “I remember the first time I pitched in Little League and did well. I said to my parents, ‘Hey I’m really good.’ When I got in the car, they told me you can be confident but you don’t say that. You can believe in yourself but don’t say it.”
Yuen and Verlander have come up with a way to keep Verlander’s feet on the ground. “We say, ‘You are not famous until …,’ ” Verlander explains, noting that after each milestone is achieved, he changes the word that follows until. One of his earlier goals was, “You are not famous until you’re on the cover of Sports Illustrated.”
“After I made the cover, we had to change that,” he says. “Now it’s you are not famous until you host Saturday Night Live.”
Verlander spends his free time on the golf course — he shoots in the mid-70s. Hicks remembers the first time his pal played the game. “He made his second shot from 210 yards, and it went into the hole,” he says. “He just looks at me and says, ‘I made my first birdie.’ He did that on his first round of golf. That’s unheard of.”
Hicks and Verlander are competitive in everything they do. “If they were walking to the car, one has to get there first,” Yuen says. “The other day, I told him that Daniel shot a 68. He said he wasn’t calling him until he shot a 68 or below.”
When it comes to toys, Verlander owns a black 2007 Porsche Turbo — a far cry from his first car, a purple Ford Taurus lovingly known as the purple mongoose. “The Porsche is his second love,” Yuen jokes. One day, she asked him where he was going, and he said out to cruise. Yuen was perplexed. “He looked at me and said, ‘You just don’t get it.’ ”
Video games are another favorite pastime for Verlander, with Rock Band leading the list. “Justin likes to rock out,” Yuen says. “Needless to say, he won’t be trying out for American Idol.”
But he is a rock star within baseball. Even today, a week before spring-training games start, more than 100 fans are lining the entrances to the clubhouse and practice field. Verlander is often frustrated when it comes to signing autographs. “It’s tough,” he says. “Everybody wants an autograph, and I may not be able to do that.” When he’s stretching out before a game, up to 200 people may be waiting for his signature, and sometimes he simply doesn’t have time to sign them all. “People look at me like I’m a jerk,” he says. “I wish I could sign all of them, but I can’t.”
Odds are, the fans’ love affair with Verlander will only grow. Tigers manager Jim Leyland describes the pitcher as a “piece of gold.” “He’s a very gifted guy and he’s had a lot of good things happen to him at the major league level. He’s got star potential, but I don’t like to put the cart before the horse. He’s one of the best young pitchers.”
From Prospect to Proven Talent
Major league scouts took notice of Verlander’s abilities while he was in high school. “They started showing up his junior year,” recalls Gordon. “Justin would pitch, and they would break out the [radar] guns. I knew the potential was there. He was gifted.”
Richard laughs as he remembers the scene. “It was like shootout at the OK Corral,” he says. “We would have our son Ben peek at the guns to see how fast Justin was pitching.”
During Verlander’s senior year, a bout of strep throat slowed his speed. “When the scouting group came to see him, he was only throwing around 86 mph,” Smith says. “The average for the major leagues is 90 to 91.”
Richard remembers the day that the draft was announced in June 2002. Verlander was sitting on the couch at their home in Manakin, listening through an Internet connection. When he didn’t get the call, he was disappointed. “But that didn’t last long, because he had already been offered a scholarship at Old Dominion University,” Richard says. “In hindsight it was the best thing.”
Verlander, who majored in communications, set several records, including becoming the all-time single-season strikeout leader his junior year and the all-time career strikeout leader for ODU, the Colonial Athletic Association and the state’s Division I schools. He also was a member of the silver-medal-winning Team USA at the Pan American Games.
“I grew into myself [at ODU],” says Verlander. “In high school, I was tall, lean and lanky. I couldn’t run. I could just throw. In college I worked out and became an athlete.”
The June following the completion of his junior year at ODU, family and friends — everyone associated with their son’s success — gathered at the Verlanders’ two-story home in Hadensville for the major league draft.
Before Richard could complete the Internet dial-up connection, the phone was ringing. Someone yelled to Kathy that Tigers General Manager David Dombrowski was on the phone. Kathy told him to call back. “Justin wasn’t too happy with me,” Kathy says, laughing. “He finally did talk to David.”
Verlander left school and was playing AA ball for the Erie SeaWolves when he was called up by the Tigers to start a game on July 4, 2005. He went back to Erie before being called back to Detroit for another game on July 23 and then returned to the SeaWolves to finish out the season. He started his first full season with the Tigers in 2006. Since then, he’s been living in a whirlwind. “There was so much excitement his rookie year,” Richard says. “It was so emotional to see his dreams come to pass.”
In the Show
In 2006, Verlander was named American League Rookie of the Year, and this past year, the pitcher, who is known for a fastball that rockets past batters at 100 mph, hurled a no-hitter in June — the first for the Tigers since 1984 and the first for the team at home since 1952. He also was chosen to pitch for the American League in the 2007 All-Star Game.
His rookie year helped boost his confidence. “I’ve always had confidence in myself, but until you have succeeded at the major league level, it’s hard to be confident,” he says.
Verlander stays focused on his goals by adhering to one motto: “Don’t let the high times get you high and the low times get you low,” Yuen recites. “He doesn’t get nervous, and that’s kind of scary.” Before the fifth game of the World Series, Yuen was giving her boyfriend a pep talk about doing your best and not being nervous. “He looked at me and said, ‘Honey I really don’t need your pep talk.’ ”
Like a lion sizing up its prey, Verlander knows which batter gives him the most trouble. “Jim Thome of the Chicago White Sox,” he says. “He’s had my number for a couple of years now.”
A Routine Day
Now that he’s in the majors, Verlander has established a routine that plays out before each game. “I go get some lunch, and if I throw well in the game, I’ll eat at the same place the next day,” he says. “If I throw badly, then I switch it up.” He also listens to music, everything from rock to hip-hop, and laces up his left shoe before his right.
If there’s one thing that Verlander has learned, it’s how to stay calm. When he pitched the first game of the World Series in 2006, he tried not to put any more emphasis on the day than he would on any other game day. “I didn’t want my emotions to get the best of me,” he says. “I tried to keep myself in check by telling myself it’s just another game.”
He used the same strategy when he was pitching his 2007 no-hitter. By the third inning, Verlander knew in his gut that a no-hitter was a possible. “Some people say they don’t think about it or they don’t know it, but they are aware of it,” he says.
Teammates kept their distance when they realized the situation. Hernandez admits he didn’t know whether to follow routine or not — he and Verlander normally meet and talk after each half inning while the pitcher is toweling off. He continued the routine until the last couple of innings. Then he came down to their regular meeting spot but didn’t speak.
Up in the bleachers, Yuen was struggling as well. “Justin has made me superstitious,” she says. “At 10 p.m., I still had my sunglasses on. I didn’t want to change anything. My heart felt like it was going to explode.”
A Frayed Note
Daniel Hicks knew that Verlander had talent, so when he asked to borrow 50 cents for chocolate milk in the 10th grade, Hicks made the loan after getting Verlander to sign a note saying that he would give Hicks one-tenth of 1 percent of his signing bonus. Hicks slipped the paper into his wallet and carried it with him for a year. He eventually moved it to his gun cabinet for safe keeping when it was getting frayed around the edges.
The note didn’t come up in conversation until after Verlander had been drafted by the Tigers and received a $3.12 million signing bonus.
The two were playing golf when Hicks whipped out the note. “Justin asked me if I was going to cash it in. I said, “No. Maybe when you get the next bonus.’
“Really, I don’t plan on ever cashing it in.”