One of baseball’s more glamorous profiles is the curriculum vitae owned by the Tigers 27-year-old right-hand pitcher Justin Verlander.
He was Rookie of the Year in 2006. He threw the first Tigers no-hitter in 23 years in 2007. And last year, he was Major League Baseball’s strikeout champion.
His expanding trophy case has everything to do with the way Verlander throws, which is exceedingly hard. His fastball, which can cruise at 100 mph or more, remains the definition of a power pitch. Verlander’s curveball, likewise, is hurled with so much spin and speed that it can turn a batter’s knees inside out.
Now sprinkle in his hocus-pocus pitch, a change-up. Verlander flings it with the same arm motion as he fires his fastball. But it arrives at home plate much later, in some cases, just as the batter has completed his swing and begun a string of silent curses.
Even on his so-so days, Verlander can be frustrating. On his better days, he’s intimidating. His status as one of baseball’s elite pitchers explains why the Tigers in February signed him to a five-year, $80- million contract extension that runs through 2014.
He has been even more dominant than the Tigers might have hoped when they plucked him from Old Dominion University as the second overall selection in the 2004 draft.
Verlander, who shares year-round homes with his longtime girlfriend, Emily Yuen, spoke about his life in Detroit, and away from it, during a break at spring training in Lakeland, Fla.
You’re a Middle Atlantic guy, born and raised in Virginia. What were your first thoughts about Detroit, about the metropolitan area, when you were drafted by the Tigers, and how did those notions compare with what you came to experience?
The city was, and is, about what I imagined. There are some areas that need some work. But it’s been better since I’ve gotten here. The Super Bowl obviously helped, and Mr. Ilitch has done a lot downtown. The suburbs are nicer than I would have thought. I enjoy both areas.
You pretty much were looking at your pick of cities and teams had you decided to become a free agent after the 2011 season. And you probably would have been looking at money well beyond what you got for signing with the Tigers. Beyond some terrific financial security, what was it about Detroit and the Tigers that worked for you?
It was a no-brainer. I love it here. I enjoy [my teammates]. I enjoy the area. I enjoy the fans. The crowds have what I would call a sense of purpose. You suddenly realize you’re not just playing for yourself, you’re playing for an entire city. That means a lot to me.
So, you really do believe baseball towns and fans can be different, and that Detroit is an example?
Definitely. There are only a couple of places I’d say are real baseball towns, and Detroit is one. What you notice is that the fans are very knowledgeable. You don’t find that very often. The way you can tell is how they respond to certain game situations. These are smart baseball fans, very smart. And they’re a big reason why I wanted to stay. From day one, the fans here energized me. Even through some bad times, they had my back. Part of that, I believe, is because Detroit people have known hard times. They can relate.
With as consuming as baseball and six months of travel can be, you need a life away from the game. What’s a perfect evening for you when baseball isn’t a preoccupation?
Just give me a relaxed dinner and a movie. There are a few places in Troy we like to go: Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Morton’s, Ocean Prime. I’m a steak guy. And Emily enjoys one, too. Movie-wise, I like pretty much everything. It doesn’t matter. I can get lost in about any kind of movie. My favorites, probably, are Tin Cup, For the Love of the Game, and Transformers — the new one. I saw Avatar with 3-D glasses, and that was awesome.
You live during the season in Bloomfield Township, but you’ve had an off-season home in Lakeland, Fla., for a few years. What is it about Lakeland that attracted you more than, say Orlando, which is where so many athletes live?
Especially those early years, when I was young, Lakeland was good because I was able to work here [the Tigertown complex] every day during the off-season. I know the ropes here. And I like to play golf, so it all worked out.
Tell me a bit more about Emily. How did you meet?
High school. We’ve been together since we were teenagers.
What makes her special?
We get along so well. She’s my best friend. She’s just great.