Each week, The Detroit News will look back at events and people from past sports moments, enlarging on experiences that might have been forgotten with time, or revisiting behind-the-scenes drama that never made it into print or on airwaves.
Gone, would have been those 183 games he won for the Tigers from 2006 until the day he left for Houston in 2017. Gone, would have been 16 playoff starts, as well as his two no-hitters for Detroit, the 2011 Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Trophy, not to mention his first-place finish as 2006 Rookie of the Year.
It wasn’t happening.
Not with the Tigers.
Not until Justin Verlander’s dad, Richard, called in October of 2004 and said:
“Let’s talk and see if we can get this contract to work.”
It can so easily be forgotten 16 years later, how close it had all come to not evolving. To never having been at the heart of Detroit’s baseball renaissance.
Nor, perhaps, would it have unfurled quite so smoothly for Verlander. Not in the same fashion, and maybe not in the graced way his career continues to glisten. It would have been unwieldy, at best, for the man picked second overall in the 2004 Major League Baseball draft to take his chances as talks broke down, to bypass the Tigers and try his luck in the 2005 sweepstakes.
And yet by mid-autumn of 2004 conversations between the Tigers and Verlander had ceased. Four months of dialogue had burned to ash as the Tigers and SFX agent Mike Milchin made little progress on money. The sides were so distant that neither could see even a halfway point.
The Tigers wrote a mid-October press release saying they had ended negotiations with their first-round pick from Old Dominion, a right-handed power pitcher they had thought could be a rotation centerpiece for a then-dreary team’s baseball reconstruction.
“No question, it was over,” said Greg Smith, now the Pirates director of scouting who in 2004 was in the same seat for the Tigers — and who was chief negotiator in signing that year’s draft picks.
“I remember telling them (Milchin and his cohorts): This isn’t posturing. It isn’t bluffing. Take me at my word, please: This isn’t a play, a tactic, or a strategy.
“I’m being as forthright and as unfiltered as I can.”
Smith and the Tigers had offered a package worth some $3.5 million, built around a signing bonus of $3.12 million, plus extras that would come by way of a Milchin-Verlander demand: a major-league contract versus the standard minor-league deal.
It would guarantee Verlander an invitation to next year’s spring camp, entitle him to all the perks covered by the big-league Collective Bargaining Agreement, and allow more than the standard monthly minor-league salary.
But still the sides were millions apart.
“We were moving on,” Smith recalled. “I was lower than low.”
Leader of the pack
For a scouting director, this was personal. Smith and his staff had been scoping Verlander for years. True, he had been undrafted out of Goochland (Va.) High, but some of that had to do with strep throat that had socked Verlander his senior year.
Whether it was strep or simply a different developmental script, Verlander was then firing his fastball at 86, maybe 88 mph — speeds that can get you a ticket on the freeway, but won’t often excite big-league scouts. Verlander shrugged. He had a scholarship waiting at Old Dominion where, quickly, very quickly, the fastball began to click. He was soaring to 6-foot-4, and eventually to 6-5 as his arm became an extension of an almost-ideal pitcher’s frame.
And now the scouts were showing up.
Inside of two years, that 100-mph heater and knee-carving curveball Verlander was wielding to wipe out 16 or 17 batters a game had made him first-round fodder. The question was: How rapidly would he go when some scouts saw less polish and more of a pitching project than clubs sometimes prefer with a college starter?
Smith’s problem, apart from knowing he couldn’t gamble and botch a pick this vital, was the Tigers’ second-chair status. San Diego had first crack. But the Padres were going to do Smith and the Tigers a whopping favor. They opted for a San Diego prep shortstop, Matt Bush, granting Detroit one of the baseball draft’s all-time gift cards.
Smith and his cross-checkers were interested in others, absolutely, that June: Jeff Niemann, Philip Humber, and a high-school hotshot from La Grange, Texas, named Homer Bailey. One of those three, all pitchers, would have been the pick had San Diego not gone with Bush and grabbed Verlander.
But the more Smith had seen of Verlander through that spring of 2004, the more certain he was that a kid from Old Dominion had to be Detroit’s choice.
“I don’t want to say it was a no-brainer,” Smith said during a phone conversation last week. “The crystal ball then wasn’t all that clear. But the three things that we felt separated him were that while there was rawness and a lot of refinement needed, there was a bit more in this guy’s total arsenal and a package that we could build on.
“The second part was Justin seemed to have an extra gear that he didn’t have any problem getting to. And the third component we could detect was that Justin always had a bit of an edge.
“You have to be careful, because you’re looking for an optimal point there — is it too much, is it not enough? But we always felt he had that fine-line edge that can get those guys to the next level.”
Smith by late October had figured all those trips to Goochland and to sandlots spread across Virginia’s hills had been sacrificed in a contract conflagration. All those treks to inspect him with Team USA, or wherever he was flinging fireballs, seemed to have been lost in a needless money scrap the Tigers, in Smith’s view, had worked admirably to avoid.
A few days after the “It’s Over” press release had been dispensed, Smith and Dave Dombrowski, then the Tigers’ front-office chief, were at a game at the Disney complex outside of Orlando. It was the tail-end of that autumn boot camp known as Instructional League and the Tigers kids that day were scrimmaging Braves prospects.
Smith’s phone rang. It was office assistant Gwen Keating, with a message:
“Mr. Verlander is trying to reach you.”
Not every 911 call is placed more quickly than Smith phoned Richard Verlander.
The conversation was cordial — world-record cordial. There was a sense of relief on two sides.
The Verlanders would grab a flight in Richmond, Virginia, and meet with Smith and Detroit’s front office within hours, if possible, in Lakeland, at the team’s minor-league headquarters. Instructional League was just wrapping up and neither side was interested in waiting.
Smith and Dombrowski huddled. They rehabilitated the earlier offer and had it blessed by owner Mike Ilitch after he had agreed a week earlier to say farewell to Verlander and to Milchin following months of wheel-spinning.
Even more than the Tigers in 2004, the Verlanders were in a bind. The date to re-enroll at Old Dominion for Justin’s senior year had vanished. Classes had begun weeks earlier. He had missed the deadline.
Verlander was free to play in Japan, or in Korea, or in an independent league in 2005. But otherwise he was staring at a cruel vigil ahead of the June 2005 draft. It wasn’t necessarily fantasy, but it was close, thinking he could reclaim that second-overall glitter from 2004 and cash on a par with what Detroit had offered.
The Tigers were better off, but only marginally. And even then, only in the context of 2004, with no realistic thought that a kid from Goochland would in 25 years or so be giving his Baseball Hall of Fame speech.
The Tigers at least would recover their 2004 second-overall pick with a compensation turn in 2005, also at second overall. They also would hang onto their natural 2005 first-round turn, at 10th overall, which they would spend on Asheville, North Carolina, prep star Cameron Maybin.
But neither party saw much upside to 2005 over 2004’s choice. Until the phone rang that day at Disney.
Dad steps in
As the Tigers were to learn, Richard Verlander knew all about contracts. And impasses. He was a union man and bargainer, an organizing coordinator for District 2 of the Communication Workers of America, and past president of CWA Local 2201.
He knew how to initiate. How to do an artful end-around. How to get to decision-makers with a sensible appeal and plan.
“For things to get to that point, this is where my negotiating experience tells me it’s time for the parties to reach out, personally,” Richard Verlander later told The CWA News, the union’s newsletter. “I don’t think it’s too often the case that a parent is fortunate enough to have the background to jump in and say: ‘This is a train wreck. Let’s see what we can do to get things moving again.’”
It took hours, and not many of them, to get a deal and a signature once the Verlanders had wheeled into TigerTown.
The gang headed that night for Lakeland’s prime-time steak joint, Texas Cattle Co., which through the years has more or less doubled as The Official Dining Spot for The Detroit Tigers Front Office. Dombrowski and Smith, as well as Alan Trammell, who then was Tigers manager, joined the two Verlanders for a feast that none could imagine would be the beginning of not only a career, but an era in which a pitcher’s sublime skills would so impact the game at-large.
“I don’t drink a lot of alcohol,” Smith said last week, “but that was a fun night to celebrate.”
John Westhoff remembers. He was the Tigers’ legal counsel at the time, in charge mainly of negotiating the team’s big-league contracts with Tigers players and free agents. But he was there that week, at Lakeland, as the team got ready for organizational meetings.
“If it wasn’t for Richard Verlander, we would not have had Justin,” Westhoff recalled last week. “He was so professional — didn’t cast aspersions on any agents, and a pretty eloquent gentleman.
“I think he knew what was best for his son. But I’ve got to tell you, at that point, before Richard called, it was over. That ship had sailed.”
The Tigers instead were sailing in two years to a World Series. They played in another World Series in 2012 and five times in nine seasons made the playoffs, with Verlander twice winning clinching Game 5’s in what then were best-of-five divisional showdowns.
They had run out of roster parts by 2017, leaving Verlander all but orphaned on a retooling team that was years from seeing another playoff ticket. He was dealt to the Astros as 2017’s in-season trade deadline moved toward midnight. Only in the last hour, and only reluctantly, did he say yes to joining Houston.
He was weeks from a World Series parade, coronating a new championship team and town he had in mere weeks affected so deeply. The Tigers could relate. They could remember 2004. And to a phone call that might well have inaugurated the Verlander saga, and baseball history that two cities yet savor.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.