The angst over Justin Verlander’s contract is unwarranted–for now


During the Detroit Tigers’ Winter Caravan last week, Justin Verlander briefly discussed the talks (or lack thereof) to extend his contract beyond the 2014 season. Verlander, of course, is saying all the right things, stating that he wants to be a Tiger for life, which fills fans’ hearts with glee.

Still, some fans have begun to sweat a bit as Verlander can see the prospects of free agency on the horizon. Many were hoping for at least the beginnings of talks–talking about talking, if you will–to at least provide something a little more concrete than glowing words at a souped-up week-long pep rally.

Oct 16, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander waves to the crowd as he is relieved in the 9th inning during game three of the 2012 ALCS against the New York Yankees at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: John Munson/THE STAR-LEDGER via USA TODAY Sports

It is understandable that some fans would be nervous. Detroit fans have never taken free agents leaving well.

I call this, the “Jack Morris Syndrome.” After he jumped ship prior to the 1991 season, several favorite Detroit athletes have followed suit.

When Barry Sanders left the Detroit Lions on the eve of the 1999 Training Camp, fans were extremely upset with their beloved hero. A couple years later, Grant Hill left Motown, but his exit was handled much better. Barry lacked certain social skills at the time, but Hill was a marketing genius. He actually organized a sign-and-trade and took out a full-page ad in the local newspaper to thank the fans and say goodbye. His exit was sad for many, but the way he handled it softened the blow–not to mention the trade also paved the way for the Pistons to win the 2004 NBA title. Finally, there was Sergei Fedorov. Remember him? He didn’t take kindly to playing in the tall shadow of Steve Yzerman, tried to leave once after the 1997 Stanley Cup title, and finally left the Red Wings in the lurch by signing a massive deal with Anaheim in 2003. His career was never the same and now it is exceedingly rare to hear “Fedorov” uttered when you ask a hard core Wings’ fan who was his or her all-time favorite player.

Back to Morris.  His career ERA of 3.90 is one of the major factors at keeping the best pitcher of the 1980’s out of Cooperstown. Tigers’ fans have a different view, because he was one of the best pitchers in franchise history. Face it, the Tigers do not have a long history of solid pitching. It seems that every generation of fans have one, and only one, great pitcher.

Our generation currently has Verlander. Our fathers’ generation had Morris. Before him was Denny McLain or Mickey Lolich, and the generation before that was Hal Newhouser. And that about rounds out the Tiger pitching greats. One could throw in Mark “The Bird” Fidrych and Willie Hernandez, but their residence at the top of their respective game was all too brief.

Lolich’s 1968 World Series was something of legend, but, while he was the Tigers’ ace for awhile, he could never re-capture that magic again. McLain’s stay in Detroit was brief, just like Fidrych and Hernandez, but his 31 wins in 1968 will undoubtedly sit in the record books until a comet obliterates the Earth. Usually a Tiger holding a seemingly unbreakable record would be a point of pride, however considering the stain on humanity that McLain has been throughout his post-baseball life, I am not sure anyone would really be sad to see another pitcher eclipse 31 wins.

Fans were very angry when Morris left for the Twin Cities in 1991. Long-time fans can remember the Bronx cheer he received after surrendering eight runs (seven of which came in the first inning) during his first career start against the Tigers in Detroit on May 19 of that year.

Yet time heals all wounds. Barry has been accepted back, no one holds any ill will toward Grant Hill, and no one really remembers Sergei. Despite being on the announcing team of the rival Twins, Morris is once again considered a Tiger, even throwing out the first pitch before Game 3 of the ALCS this past October.

Oct 16, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers former player Jack Morris waves to the crowd before game three of the 2012 ALCS between the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

While we as Tigers’ fans once again relish him, it is perhaps a bittersweet moment when Morris talks of his best moment in baseball coming with another team, the storied complete game, 10-inning, 1-0 victory in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series.

And therein lies the rub with Justin Verlander.

He is “our” guy. He was a product of our system, not a trade from another organization. Just like Morris was. But if he leaves, it will be devastating, just like it was when Morris left. To see him perhaps throwing another no-hitter, or winning a World Series with another team–or having the best game of his career wearing Pinstripes, or Red Sox colors, or the Angels’ halo makes me want to vomit. Hell, if he went to play cricket in Australia, we’d still be extremely upset.

Not to mention, there have been few storybook endings with this club and their star pitchers over the decades.

So while I can understand fans being a bit antsy about the end of 2014 looming, it is likely unwarranted. Usually teams wait until the off-season before the final year of the contract to talk extensions. So that will most likely be addressed then.

That’s not to say that J.V. won’t do all he can to become the first $200 million pitcher in baseball. Lest we all forget he nearly did not sign with the Tigers after prolonged contract negotiations nearly led him to go back into the 2005 draft.

These are all valid concerns, however they are concerns for a year from now. For now, we just have his words to keep us going until the worry sets in next winter.

“I’ve made it no secret that I love Detroit,” Verlander said. “I grew up in front of these fans. I feel like I’ve been a big part of this city and this city has become a big part of me. So, obviously, I’d love to play my career here.”