Sunday, January 24, 2010

No Matter the Cost, Verlander Should Be a Tiger for Life

Mike Ilitch is a pizza guy, so he’s used to raising dough. He ought to know what to do.

Yes, it’s not the most creative of puns, but it’s also very appropriate. Ilitch, you see, needs some cash. Some dough. Some of that filthy loot.

He ought to know what to do.

Tack on a quarter to every pie he sells. Gouge the customers a little more on the beer at Joe Louis Arena. Nudge the price of a red hot a dime or two upward at the old ballpark.

He should do it all, and then some, until he has enough moolah to keep Justin Verlander around town for, oh, the rest of his career. Or at least to make JV feel good about such a prospect.

It’s the dead of winter, and in this day and age, that means we talk business when it comes to baseball. Then if there’s time, we’ll talk about the game itself. But there’s usually not much time left.

It’s the dead of winter, and arbitration doesn’t mean umpiring. It’s a bean counter in a suit, sitting before player and management, with two salary figures in front of him.

The arbiter is like the umpire, though—he has to pick one or the other.

Safe or out. This figure or that figure. No in-between. You’re not "kind of" out, you know?

The player will state his case, and so will management. It’s also known as nitpicking time.

I have no idea what the Tigers will say at such a hearing about Verlander, if it comes to that.

The Tigers want to pay Verlander $6.9 million this season, according to reports. The kid wants $9.5 million. Don’t reach for the calculator—that’s a $2.6 million difference.

So what will the Tigers say about Verlander, who led the majors in strikeouts last season, who won 19 games, who had a fine ERA of 3.45, and who stopped one losing skid after the other, and whose next start all summer was anticipated more than Dec. 25 by a six-year-old?

What will they say about a kid who isn’t quite 27, who has already won the Rookie of the Year Award, who’s thrown a no-hitter, who’s pitched in the World Series, and who keeps adding to his career high in season victories—from 17 to 18 to, now, 19?

Joe Garagiola once wrote a book called Baseball is a Funny Game . It’s funny, all right. It’s so funny that you can use the word “only” in front of “$6.9 million” when it comes to a player’s salary.

As in what the Tigers are offering Verlander. For now.

An arbitration hearing can be avoided if the Tigers and their star pitcher, within the next month, agree on a salary figure to get them through the 2010 season. That $2.6 million gap can still be bridged. Or else, it’s off to a hearing and it’ll be the mother of all nitpicking.

What will the Tigers say to the bean counter in the suit? That they don’t like the way Verlander ties his shoes? That he could use a mint?

But even if the Tigers and Verlander agree on a salary for 2010, that just puts off the inevitable: keeping the Old English D on his left breast for as long as they both shall live.

The Tigers have three players, basically, whose names should never be spoken by other teams wanting to do some wheeling and dealing. Names that ought to be forbidden to even be mentioned—and that includes by any delusional fans from Detroit.

One of them is Miguel Cabrera, the man-child slugger. Another is Rick Porcello, the baby-faced hurler whose potential is so bright, they ought to give away sunglasses at every one of his starts at Comerica Park.

And the third of these unspeakables—forget untouchable—is Verlander.

The Toronto Blue Jays, a month or so ago, traded their ace starter, Roy Halladay, for three unknown entities, a.k.a. prospects. They did so because they either couldn’t afford to pay him, or didn’t want to.

I think Ilitch wants to pay Verlander. I think he looks at him as a cornerstone of his baseball franchise. Mike just needs to find the cash somewhere.

It’s going to take a king’s ransom, but the Tigers ought to put shackles and a ball and chain on Verlander and keep him in Detroit until he gets gray and distinguished. No Roy Halladay nonsense. I’ve written it before: Halladay has the stuff to win the Cy Young Award in any given season; Verlander has the stuff to throw a no-hitter in any given start.

No pitcher has gone into the Hall of Fame with significant time as a Tiger on his resume since Jim Bunning, and he last pitched for the Tigers nearly 50 years ago. Before that, it was Hal Newhouser, whose era was World War II.

That’s about to change.

Put these words into a time capsule if you wish, but Justin Verlander is going into the Hall of Fame. He is. And he ought to go in as a Tiger. Which means you have to pay him.

I know it won’t be cheap. I know it won’t always be comfortable to cut those checks twice a month. But this town doesn’t make starting pitchers, as a rule. Detroit has famously made beer, tires, soda pop, potato chips, coney dogs, and, on occasion, automobiles.

But Vernor’s fled. So did Uniroyal. And Stroh’s. And Jack Morris. The least the Tigers can do is keep one of the few homegrown products we have left in our midst.

So pass the hat, Mikey. Gouge us some more, we don’t mind. Justin Verlander bailed your baseball team out last season more than Charles Rogers’ lawyer. Rake up the loot. Find it somewhere.

Make Verlander a Tiger until there’s not one single pitch left in his golden arm. These types don’t come around very often, especially here.

Soon JV will have his hand on your wallet. And when he does, just turn and cough.

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