LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The baseball scout snickers.
"He's pitching here?" he says, peering down at the field. "These are high schoolers."
Down on the sun-baked diamond here at the Disney Wide World of Sports complex, one of the more dominant closers in recent major-league history is preparing to pitch to teenagers. The Canadian National team is in town for an extended spring training game against a low-level team in the Detroit Tigers farm system. (Correction: it's actually a scrimmage.) The first pitcher they'll face was 49 for 49 in save opportunities in 2011, finished fifth in the American League's Cy Young voting, and went to his third All-Star Game. He closed out the New York Yankees in the A.L. Division Series with millions of Detroit Tigers' fans' hearts in their throats and more than 50,000 hostile New Yorkers staring him down.
Today, a Monday in April, he's pitching in front of 63 people.
How did this happen? Jose Valverde was once as automatic as it gets, entering last season with a 51-save streak that ranks third in major league history. When he blew a chance on Opening Day against Boston, Tigers manager Jim Leyland and some teammates actually expressed relief that the reliever could put the burden of the streak behind him and have another amazing year.
But something wasn't quite right with the man they call Papa Grande.
He had 35 saves – certainly not a wretched total – but his ERA jumped from 2.24 in '11 to 3.78 in '12. His strikeouts-per-nine innings, 9.9 over his 10-year career in the majors, dropped to 6.3. In 71 games, he struck out 48, lowest since his second year as a pro, when he struck out 38 in fewer than half as many innings.
Then, in the playoffs, disaster.
He blew a 3-1 lead in Game 4 of the ALDS against Oakland, allowing the A's to force a deciding Game 5. Three days later, he blew a 4-0 lead in the Bronx by allowing two two-run homers. The Tigers won both series, yet Detroit fans were apoplectic not only at Valverde, but at Leyland for riding with a closer who clearly didn't have his stuff. Valverde lost his job, watched Phil Coke finish the ALCS for Detroit, then gave up four hits and two runs and got one out in his only World Series appearance.
Valverde became a free agent after the season and nobody wanted him. Leyland expressed his support in spring training, but Papa Grande was still toxic to fans who used to adore him in Detroit, and Valverde started the season without a team. He was a fossil in big league bullpens: Of the 203 relievers who have gone at least three outings this season, only 28 are as old as Valverde.
On April 4, oh so quietly, the Tigers signed him to a minor league contract. It was a shot in the dark, with no real downside considering Detroit is struggling to find someone to fill the closer role. Now an unmistakable baseball face who just five months ago pitched for baseball's biggest prize is a hulking, 35-year-old pitching for his career.
So the question in front of him and the Tigers now is this: Can Jose Valverde fix himself? Or is he permanently broken?
A close friend of his makes an optimistic case. Orlando Ventura, who has known Valverde for most of his major league career, sits several rows behind the Tigers dugout as Valverde warms up. Ventura says his friend worked seven days a week over the off-season and dropped 30 pounds.
"He doesn't want to get to the same fatigue level of last year," Ventura says. "Two hundred innings pitched for a reliever in three years – that's a lot of innings."
The innings do add up: Valverde had 75 appearances in 2011, 71 in '12, and that doesn't include the playoffs. These aren't unheard of numbers, but 70-plus appearance is a lot for a closer. Consider Mariano Rivera, who's logged more than 70 appearances only three times in 19 seasons.
"He was fried," Ventura says. "He ran out of gas. It's hard to understand anybody dropping 4-to-5 mph that quickly. Nothing was hurt."
Maybe that's a subtle indictment of how the Tigers used him. Or maybe it's a loyal friend's excuse. Valverde was paid millions to be ready whenever the Tigers needed him. By the end of the 2012 season, he wasn't. And now here we are.
Valverde has a strange and slightly revolting routine when he enters a game. He exits the bullpen, stops, then spits a fountain of tobacco-ridden juice into the dirt. Then he continues to the mound.
On Monday, he's starting. So after the visiting Tigers bat, Valverde leaves the dugout, stops in front of the grass, spits, and walks to the mound. It's a little ironic, as a few of the batters he'll face are not old enough to even use tobacco.
It's eerily quiet in the stadium. Many of the spectators are scouts. Almost every word yelled from the dugout is audible, as is the crunch of cleats on the dirt basepaths.
Valverde is 6-foot-4 and well over 250 pounds, so he looks like a pro wrestler on the mound with nothing behind him but his fielders and a scoreboard that reads "DETROIT" and "CANADA." The first batter steps to the plate. Valverde throws three pitches – all strikes. The batter walks away.
The second hitter arrives, sees three pitches, and departs.
The third batter swings at the first pitch, nubs one to second, and is out by a mile at first. Valverde leaps over the first-base line – another superstition – and disappears into the dugout.
Ventura, the friend, moves behind the plate to sit with a Tigers player who's holding the radar gun. He jots down his friend's pitch speed – 93, 94, 95, 96 and 97.
Could it be that simple? He was out of gas and maybe a little bit out of shape?
"Mentally he couldn't understand it," Ventura says. "The only conclusion was that he was tired."
Valverde wasn't necessarily set to pitch two innings, but he comes out again for the second. He throws four pitches to the first batter (three strikes and a ball) and three strikes to the second.
"He sure looks ready to go back to the majors," says a scout.
The third batter, the best on the Canadian team, grounds out. Valverde leaps over the first-base line, enters the dugout, takes off his jersey shirt, and then climbs up into the stands to see his pal.
Fifteen pitches, 14 strikes, six outs. Against teenagers, yes, but he showed velocity, precision and movement.
Valverde says he feels good, happy with the command of his change and his sinker. He doesn't seem bitter or down. He bought his new teammates pizza and he cheers them on from the bleachers. He seems to still have the obliviousness that all closers need. Then again, if he was truly oblivious, he wouldn't have worked seven days a week in the winter as if his future had just gone poof.
He's asked how he feels compared to the past.
"What's the past?" he says with a smile. "2012 or 2011?"
That sounds like a hint of the fatigue his friend was talking about. But Valverde won't go there.
"I feel 100 percent," he says.
Was he disappointed in the playoffs last year?
"It's over," he says. "You have to be … you have to be ready for this year. You can't [think about] 2012 – right now it's 2013. 2012 is in the garbage already."
Was he tired last season?
"I played for 14 years," Valverde says. "Sometimes you tire a little bit."
Was he tired in the playoffs?
Eventually he's asked if he has any message for Tigers fans. They were clearly tired of him in the playoffs, expressing disappointment normally reserved for the Lions.
"No, no message for nobody," he says. "I only have a message for my wife, my mom and my sister. That's it."
He softens a little.
"When I get to Toledo [the Tigers' Triple-A affiliate], maybe."
"I like the fans in Detroit."
The fans might have to like him back. The team doesn't really have a closer anymore. "We are still kind of searching," Leyland said this week. Bruce Rondon has lots of talent, but is a World Series contender really going to roll the dice on a rookie who's currently in the minors? The other options are decent – Coke, Joaquin Benoit – but this is likely a playoff team and nobody else in the organization can say he's led his league in saves one year, let alone three.
Valverde says he's not thinking about Detroit. "I'll be back soon," he says. "I'll be more excited when I touch the field there."
Valverde's career, like many of his outings, will end either with a flourish or a failure. It is possible an offseason of rigorous training will make the difference, and he'll have a chance to pitch the Tigers deep into the playoffs. What a story that would be: from pitching for 63 to pitching for a ring.
Then again, it's also likely he just doesn't have it anymore. We'll find out sometime this summer if he's belted by bats or boos or both.
Valverde remains in the stands on this Monday, sitting behind the plate. He grabs the radar gun and holds it in his pitching hand. He sits in silence, looking at the gun every now and then. He has to know his future is right there. He was once a star at the top of the sport. Now he's in baseball purgatory. The numbers on that gun are the only things that can get him out. As the line from Shawshank Redemption goes, "Salvation lies within."
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