From Tommy John to Cy Young form at 39? Inside Justin Verlander's unprecedented return to dominance

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published on June 17. Verlander won his third career Cy Young on Wednesday night, taking home the AL honors in unanimous fashion.

LAST SEPTEMBER, WITH the one-year anniversary of his Tommy John surgery approaching, Justin Verlander wanted to pitch. Even though his rehabilitation wasn't complete, even though the tendon used to tie together the bones of his elbow still hadn't morphed into a ligament, Verlander reached out to Houston Astros brass with an idea: He could throw an inning and see how things go.

The Astros were noncommittal. They had survived the season without him and eventually would go on to the World Series. The surgeon who performed the procedure, Dr. Keith Meister, was far more definitive, Verlander said. If Verlander wanted to go out in a blaze of glory, sure, he could go for it. If he preferred to keep pitching for years to come, he'd be an idiot to try.

"Everybody around me," Verlander said, "was like, hey, big fella, appreciate the trying, but don't be the stupid dog."

Now 39, Verlander understands his limitations. He obsesses over baseball -- its details, rhythms, intricacies, all the way down to the laces on the ball -- and the first arm surgery of his long career stole from him the day-to-day involvement in the game.

"Didn't watch a single baseball game for a long time," he said. "I couldn't. Why put a carrot in front of a horse? It's like the dogs that like to run and they're trained to chase that f---ing rabbit. If I'm one of those dogs and I've got a hurt leg, I'm not gonna f---ing open a gate and put the rabbit right there. What am I gonna do? I'm gonna f---ing run."

Verlander was coming off a Cy Young Award-winning season in 2019, still in the prime of his career at a time when most are long done, ready to pitch well into his 40s. With his elbow blown out, with the only remedy being reconstructive surgery, with hundreds of millions of dollars earned, he asked himself: Is it worth spending the next 18 months trying to play baseball again?