CHICAGO – He talks like a kid raised on the principles of Local 2201, and maybe that's because Justin Verlander spent countless hours in a stroller on picket lines. His father, Richard, was the president of the Communication Workers of America union in Richmond, Va., and foolish is the group that doesn't trot out children to curry sympathy.
There is something about union kids, a savvy borne of every shop's code of togetherness. It's why at 23 years old, in his rookie season, Justin Verlander talks about the Major League Baseball Players Association, long considered one of the nation's strongest unions, if not the most formidable, in reverential terms instead of asking why his paycheck gets docked $40 a day for dues.
"The people before me worked hard to get what we have now in the system," Verlander said. "If you don't take advantage of that and learn and realize what the previous guys went through to get where we are now, you can't appreciate it."
Oh, how his dad loves to hear that. Richard Verlander works for the CWA national now, and to see his boy stump for a union like that – well, it feels almost as good as watching him pitch.
Which, make no mistake, Richard enjoys above all. In quiet fashion – or at least as quiet as a 100-mph fastball sounds when it pops into a catcher's mitt – Verlander has turned in a season worthy of American League Cy Young consideration in addition to his push for Rookie of the Year, all the while dragging his team, the Detroit Tigers, off of skid row and toward the playoffs.
All in the country's greatest union town, no less.
The pieces are there for the right-handed Verlander to be the best thing Detroit has produced since the White Stripes, and games like today's against the Boston Red Sox at 7 p.m. Eastern only foster a fledgling legacy. The Tigers, reeling after a sweep by the Chicago White Sox, can close out a sweep of their own at Fenway Park with a Verlander victory against David Wells, who pitched a season in rookie ball before Verlander was born.
Victories haven't been scarce on days Verlander pitches. His 14 wins rank second in the major leagues behind former Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, and Verlander's earned-run average of 2.95 is one of only two below 3.00 among AL starters.
"He's a guy no one wants to face," said Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge, "and think about that reputation. He's a rookie. In 20 starts, he's convinced everyone that they should be scared when he's on that mound."
Scared, or frustrated, or clueless. Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya, the only Detroit pitcher who throws harder than Verlander, has seen opponents shake their heads after trying to catch up with a 100-mph fastball, then buckle their knees at a 75-mph curve. Nothing tickles Verlander more than hearing the sound of bats flying in the dugout. He knows he's got them then.
While the feeling is addictive now, it was nothing more than an interest as Verlander grew up in Virginia. Richard would gather him to play catch. Justin would tell him he'd rather watch television. Richard would tell him, in no uncertain terms, to get outside. He negotiated all day, and he wasn't going to bargain over laziness.
Verlander grew into the game, then into a pitcher's body, tall and lithe, and entered his senior year of high school among the state's top prospects. Strep throat sapped his energy early in the season, when the scouts flocked to see Verlander, and after their radar guns read 86 mph, they didn't mind letting him go to Old Dominion.
Recovered and with 15 extra pounds of muscle, Verlander established himself as the ace his freshman year and struck out 17 against James Madison. Two years later, the Tigers took him No. 2 overall and signed him to a major-league deal. Negotiated by his father, naturally.
One season in the minor leagues – including a 32 2/3-inning, one-run stretch to close out last year at Double-A – was enough to give Verlander a shot at the Tigers' rotation this spring, and his repertoire was enough to solidify that role, and now his success will be enough to push him into the heart of a pennant drive.
"Is Justin Verlander going to be successful?" Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "I would definitely have to say yes. There's no doubt in my mind about it."
Rather than let the radar guns dictate success – "Sometimes," Leyland said, "I think they pump those guns up to get the fans oohing and ahhing" – Leyland pays mind to Verlander's command. Even though the White Sox tattooed Verlander for 13 hits in five innings last time out – his third loss to them this season, prompting pitch-tipping questions – he didn't walk anyone, and that tempered Leyland. In Verlander's last 44 2/3 innings, he has struck out 38 and walked seven, two of which were to Oakland A's designated hitter Frank Thomas.
"Justin, when he was coming up as a little leaguer, took No. 35 because Frank Thomas is such a great hitter – and this was in his prime," Richard Verlander said. "Justin didn't forget that. When they played at Oakland, Thomas came to the plate, and Justin was telling me, 'I think to myself I'm wearing No. 35 because of him, and here I am facing him.' "
Little treats make a rookie season special in its own way, isolated from all the other years of a career. The first year is one of learning and wonderment. Next season, Verlander will have spent a year adjusting to hitters and detailing the game's nuances. He will be older and smarter and he might just be ready to take on a role within the union.
"Maybe in the future," Verlander said. "I'd like to get the baseball thing down first. And learn about the processes. Obviously, my dad knows a lot, but I'd have to learn for myself."
"And that," Richard said, "would be the ultimate. We've never really talked about it. But I can say he would be great at it."
That's not just a dad talking. It's a man who has seen organized labor around the country wither as shops close, who recognizes the influence his son can have, who knows that solidarity – the leading tenet Leyland teaches – keeps unions viable.
Just one more thing for Justin Verlander to tackle. He'll be ready. Kids raised on the principles of Local 2201 usually are.
- Justin Verlander