Verlander's big year a boon to veterans
Local VA medical centers receive money due to ace's prowess
DETROIT -- Justin Verlander has long since pledged not to set statistical goals for himself. If he had set a goal of a 20-win season, he said in September, he would've had a handful more starts to fill once he got there. Better to take one start at a time, and check out the stats when they're done.
So no, Verlander has never been a big stats guy for a goal. That doesn't mean he doesn't like a nice round number. The biggest of them at season's end honored those who battled on a field much tougher than a baseball diamond.
He never set awards as a goal, but Verlander was up for a bevy of them at season's end. Among the first were the Players Choice awards, where Major League players voted him as both the American League's Outstanding Pitcher and the Major League Player of the Year. The dual honors included awards of $20,000 and $50,000, respectively, to be donated from the MLB Players Trust to the cause of the winner's choice.
Verlander immediately had a cause in mind. In his mind, though, $70,000 wasn't quite enough. So when he designated the money for his Verlander's Victory for Veterans Foundation, he chipped in $30,000 of his own cash.
That's a cool $100,000 that will go to two area Veterans Affairs medical centers that could really use the money.
"I added a little bit to make it a nice round number," Verlander said. "I wanted to donate some of my own money because it's a personal cause. It's something I believe in."
It's the least he could do for a cause near and dear to his heart.
"This is something I feel greatly about," he continued, "so I wanted to give some of my own money."
As much as Verlander's dominance shaped the Major League season, the cause of wounded veterans shaped his year. From the time he made the big leagues, he had hoped one day to be in a position to help. It's a responsibility that goes with being a star player.
Verlander had the means when he signed a long-term contract to stay in Detroit. This ended up being the cause.
Though his family is best known as negotiators -- his father works as a union attorney and helped finalize Verlander's first pro contract, while Justin has grown to become the Tigers' representative with the players union -- they also have a history as soldiers. Justin grew up listening to stories from his grandfather, Richard, who served at sea during World War II. His cousin, Christopher Verlander, has been serving in Afghanistan. While Justin Verlander was pitching the season of his life, his cousin was on duty a half a world away.
When Justin earned the use of a luxury suite at Comerica Park as part of his contract, his superstition left it sitting empty on days he started. Once he saw the Tigers honoring veterans who had come home from Iraq and Afghanistan by having them deliver the game ball to the mound, he realized how he could put it to good use.
Quietly, Verlander began having veterans watch him pitch from his suite, and bring their families with them. The response was more than he could've imagined.
"The feedback we got was tremendous," he said. "I got so many letters, responses, not just because of the veterans, the injured veterans, or whoever was using the suite at the time, but from the families, as well. They got to share this moment with their family, which is not something that happens very often."
It became a regular occurrence for Verlander, who made it a formal program with a foundation this summer. He not only supplied the suite, but the parking, the food, everything. The veterans, injured in combat, came from the John D. Dingell Veterans Affairs Medical Center facilities in Detroit and the Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor Healthcare System.
The personalized welcome letters came from Verlander.
"What better way for me to be able to say, 'Thank you,'" Verlander said when he talked about the program earlier this year.
Verlander hosted 85 veterans and 324 guests during the first year alone. Some had seen him pitch plenty of times, but never from a suite. Others hadn't been to a game in forever. One veteran said he hadn't been to a game since 1994, the year a work stoppage ended the season without a World Series.
Sergeant Joshua Sparling served in Iraq in the 82nd Airborne, and was injured by an explosive while fighting in Ramadi. He goes to several games a year in the stands, and usually tries to time things out for when Verlander pitches. When he got to watch from a suite, it was a different experience. When he was able to meet Verlander upon the announcement of the program, it was an honor.
"That's one in a million," Sparling said. "That's probably the closest I'll ever come to being able to throw 100 miles an hour, shaking his hand. So it was really fantastic."
Rudolph Martinez of nearby Flint saw an early-season game from the suite. He called Verlander a future Hall of Famer, but pegged his impact beyond that.
"You look at the list of all the great baseball players, he's on a very small list," Martinez said, "not to mention the amazing things he's done in the community."
The donation was the logical next step. His award-winning season, fittingly, helped him to do it in a big way.
"It means a lot for me, what these guys do for our country and this city," Verlander said of his program when he started it. "And this is my way to say, 'Thank you.'"