It's Justin Verlander's 36th birthday.
The day he officially moves closer to 40 years old than 30. The day he creeps nearer to middle age and further away from the best physical version of himself. Not that you'd ever know it.
"Happy birthday," shouts pitcher Brad Peacock, who's seated on one of the tan leather couches in the middle of the Houston Astros' spring training clubhouse. It's 8:16 on a balmy south Florida morning, Feb. 20, and Verlander has just entered the locker room. Dressed in a powder blue, collared shirt and navy shorts, he is a whirlwind alpha-dog presence.
"Twenty-seven again," shouts Verlander with a broad and mischievous grin. Though the comment is directed at Peacock, he speaks loudly enough for everyone in the spacious room to hear. "Prime of my career."
In less than a minute, he has changed out of his golf attire and into clubhouse casual: navy Astros T-shirt, black spandex shorts and dark Under Armour slides. I approach his locker and ask if he has a few minutes to chat before the team's morning workout. His response: Maybe, but not right now.
"I gotta do my s---," he says, glancing at the digital clock on the wall. He explains that his afternoon schedule is loaded with birthday boy activities -- a round of golf, followed by a party hosted by his supermodel wife -- and therefore he probably won't be able to chat after the morning workout either. I ask if he might have some time the following morning. He thinks for a moment. "Maybe," he says. "If I'm not too hungover."
Verlander disappears for a few minutes, reemerges with a plate of food, and then plops down on the couch next to Peacock and a couple of other hurlers. He stares at a large, wall-mounted flat screen on which MLB Network's Eric Byrnes is frenetically breaking down the previous day's Manny Machado signing, and proceeds to attack his breakfast.
Like most right-handers, Verlander holds his fork in his left hand and his knife in the right. Unlike most righties, after cutting into his pile of circular waffles, he does not do the transfer. He does not pass the fork from his left to his right. Instead, he simply shovels bite after bite into his piehole with his weak hand. It's as if he's racing against the clock. As if he's running out of time.
LAST FALL, JUSTIN Verlander said he wants to be the Tom Brady of baseball.
Well, he didn't say those exact words, but that was the gist. On the day before he was slated to start the opening game of the American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox, Verlander sat in front of a microphone and a bottle of yellow-green Gatorade and -- in the same city where Brady's success and longevity have made him legendary -- refused to put a limit on his playing days.
"There's no set number for me," he told reporters. "I just want to pitch as long as I can." The ace followed that up by talking about embarking on the second half of his career. Taking him completely literally, that would mean he plans on pitching another 14 years, which would put him right on the doorstep of 50 years old when he finally retires.
Four months later, as he prepares for his 15th big league season, Verlander sits in front of his locker in West Palm Beach. About 80 miles from Bimini, the closest Caribbean island to the United States and where the Fountain of Youth was once rumored to exist, he backs up his comments from the fall.
"Yeah," he says, when asked if he meant what he said in Boston. "If anything, I'm even more convicted of it now." He talks about the core injury he suffered five years ago, the one that ultimately required surgery, sapped him of his trademark power and started a mechanical domino effect that resulted in shoulder problems and even less power. His velocity dropped. His ERA ballooned. Although he was just barely on the wrong side of 30, and only a couple of years removed from a 2011 campaign in which he went 24-5 for the Detroit Tigers and won both the Cy Young and MVP awards, people thought he might be finished. Verlander was one of those people. "I'm like, well, s---, this isn't fun," he recalls thinking at the time. "This just must be what the 30s are like. This is gonna be a hell of a grind if I'm going to play as long as I anticipate. I started seeing the end of the road."
In addition to seeing the end of the road -- because of it, really -- Verlander started seeing a physical therapist named Annie Gow. And a personal trainer named Peter Park. And a pitcher whisperer named Ron Wolforth. Together, that threesome helped put Verlander's career back on track. Five years later, he's as healthy and as dominant as he has ever been.
"To come out of that and come back to being who I always knew I could be, it gave me a perspective that the mental weakness of viewing age as a barrier -- you can do it, but it's to your own demise. I look at the way my body recovers, I look at the way I feel, and I don't look at 36 as, 'Wow, you're getting old.' I look around the room and I feel just as good as these 25-year-olds, if not more so. It's just a number."
The Astros, for one, are buying what Verlander's selling. On March 24, the club inked the veteran righty -- who was slated to hit free agency this November -- to a two-year, $66 million contract extension that takes him through the 2021 season. The deal has an average annual value of $33 million, breaking the previous record for highest AAV by a pitcher (Zack Greinke, $32.5M). When his new deal expires, Verlander won't be too far from the big 4-0. But don't try telling him that.
"I'm not gonna sit here and feel old just because people say I am. I feel great. I don't wanna feel old."
WANTING TO PITCH forever is nothing new for Verlander.
On June 17, 2006, at Wrigley Field, halfway through his rookie season with the Tigers, the former second overall pick scattered nine hits and walked three in five-plus innings against the Chicago Cubs. Pretty, it wasn't. But it was good enough for the 23-year-old righty to pick up a W, the eighth of his career.
The following day, he sat in the visiting dugout and watched as 41-year-old teammate Kenny Rogers recorded his 200th win. Afterward, Tigers closer Todd Jones was sitting with Rogers in the training room at Wrigley, a pair of old geezers who had already spent a combined 34 seasons in the majors. In walks Verlander.
"Would you trade your career right now for Kenny's?" Jones asked his young teammate.
"Nope," the rook said.
The veteran reliever was dumbfounded at just how misguided Verlander seemed to be.
"First you wanna punch him, then you wanna hug him," Jones says. "I thought he didn't understand longevity, how difficult it is to play a long time, how to make the adjustments. I just thought he was this brash young guy who didn't understand the question I was asking. I didn't realize I was looking at a unicorn. I didn't see the horn yet."
But the unicorn did.
"Nobody knew that he was part of the 0.1 percent -- except him," Jones says. "It comes off as arrogant, but I don't know if I ever met anybody that was as fierce a competitor on the field that didn't have that alpha-dog mentality off the field. That's just the way you process information. Guys like Michael Jordan. Kobe. They're assassins."
Thirteen years later, Verlander admits his response to Jones was full-on ignorant. But he's not about to apologize for it. Quite the opposite.
"It just shows you where my mind was at," he says. "I always believed I'd play 'til 45."
"Nobody knew that he was part of the 0.1 percent -- except him. It comes off as arrogant, but I don't know if I ever met anybody that was as fierce a competitor on the field that didn't have that alpha-dog mentality off the field. That's just the way you process information. Guys like Michael Jordan. Kobe. They're assassins." Todd Jones, Justin Verlander's former Tigers teammate
It's a belief that's one part math and one part, well, let's call it pride.
"I'm sure there is," Verlander says when asked if there's an element of ego that fuels his lust for longevity. "You're not going to get me to say that it's ego. But I'm sure some people would say that. It's just this deep-down burning fire, you know? And it sure as hell hasn't gone anywhere. If anything, it's gotten stronger."
It doesn't matter that he's already been a Rookie of the Year, a Cy Young winner and an MVP. Or that in 2017 with Houston, he finally won a World Series. Or that he has earned close to $200 million over the course of his career. Even the gravitational pull of fatherhood -- in November, Verlander's wife, Kate Upton, gave birth to the couple's first child, a girl named Genevieve -- hasn't done anything to put his drive in reverse.
Says current Astros teammate Alex Bregman: "He wants to be the best to ever do it."
Being the best ever, or even one of the best, means being a Hall of Famer. And here's where the math part comes in. Even though times have changed and 300 wins isn't as important as it used to be when it comes to guaranteeing admission into the Hall, this fact remains: In the history of major league baseball, there are 24 pitchers who've amassed at least 300 victories, and all 24 of them are enshrined in Cooperstown. It's a statistic that's hardly lost on Verlander.
"I've always said I want to be in the Hall of Fame," the Astros ace says. "But who doesn't? If I end up there, everything I've always done along the way has ended up pretty good."
So far, Verlander's on the right track. He's currently sitting on 206 wins, second most among active hurlers, behind CC Sabathia. Last August, after winning his 200th game, he addressed his Houston teammates. As part of that address, he told the Todd Jones story, the one from when he was a rookie and turned his nose up at Kenny Rogers' career.
"I realize what an ignorant, stupid young kid that person was," Verlander says of his snot-nosed 23-year-old self. "Now I know what goes into 200 wins. How much work that is."
FOR THE RECORD, Justin Verlander and Tom Brady have never met.
The closest thing Verlander has had to an encounter with Tom Terrific is a picture frame that sits on the floor in his Beverly Hills home. Inside the frame is a poster of Brady that the New England Patriots quarterback signed shortly after Verlander's wedding.
Congratulations to Justin and Kate.
Someday, Verlander plans to mount the frame on an actual wall in some kind of sports room that has yet to be finished. But for now, he and the missus are knee-deep in home projects, and so it just sits there on the floor, suggestive of the very believable idea that the two former MVPs are pals. Which they're not. Because they've never met.
At this point in their respective careers, too, nobody would ever get their résumés confused. Besides being five years older than Verlander, Brady has five more rings and five more seasons under his belt. And two more MVPs. And one more bestseller (a self-help book about his TB12 method).
Still, it's easy to draw parallels between Verlander and Brady. They're both really good at what they do. They're both hell-bent on defying the aging curve and continuing to be really good until roughly forever. They both have ridiculously cleft chins.
"She brings a pretty cool perspective. In her world, you have to do everything on your own. You are your own business. She was the one that really started preaching to me."Justin Verlander on his wife, supermodel Kate Upton
They also have the same number of supermodel wives (one each). And maybe there's something to that. Maybe there's something about sharing a life with someone whose very livelihood is so fundamentally tied to appearance -- to the ability to be perceived as youthful. Maybe you're around it so much it seeps into your pores.
Like face cream. Or spray-on tan.
"No, that hasn't changed it," Verlander says, laughing off the notion that his 26-year-old wife is somehow responsible for fueling his fire to stay forever young. He does, however, give Upton -- and her vocation -- credit for opening his mind to some ideas that have been game-changers in his quest for longevity. "She brings a pretty cool perspective. In her world, you have to do everything on your own. You are your own business. She was the one that really started preaching to me."
Upton's most practical sermon was about the importance of finding a good physical therapist. Verlander resisted at first, but after undergoing core surgery and then suffering through a 2014 campaign that was one of the worst of his career, he finally gave in and found Gow, whom he calls a "life-saver." That offseason, he visited Gow every other day, spending two hours a pop on her training table in midtown Manhattan. "We went through this whole body reclamation project," Verlander says. "Everything from the big toe all the way up to the top of my head, man."
The following winter, Upton suggested her husband start using her trainer, a guy named Ben Bruno. But Bruno's book was full, so he referred Verlander to Peter Park. A triathlete and former college volleyball player whose clients have included former MVP Giancarlo Stanton, all-time WNBA leading scorer Diana Taurasi and surfing great Kelly Slater, the trainer was initially shocked by the hurler's lack of conditioning and mobility. "He lived off of pure talent before," says Park, who meets with Verlander at a private gym in Beverly Hills five days a week during the offseason and emails him detailed workouts the rest of the year. "He just threw and lifted heavy weights. Didn't really care about his eating."
Four years later, thanks to a steady diet of kettlebells and box jumps, Turkish get-ups and farmer walks, slide boards and postural restoration, Verlander is a changed man. Instead of not being able to squat past 60 degrees ("Hollywood squats," Park calls them), he goes ass to grass. Instead of needing two minutes for his heart rate to get back below 110 after intense aerobic activity, he's closer to the coveted 40-second benchmark. Instead of ritualistically bingeing on Taco Bell the night before his starts, he has canceled his standing order of three Crunchy Taco Supremes, a Cheesy Gordita Crunch and a Mexican Pizza.
Not that Verlander's a robot, by any means. Although he swears by his sleep -- he requires white noise and blackout shades, sets his thermostat to 66 degrees and owns something called a ChiliPad that keeps his mattress cool -- he's not afraid to live his life. He still prefers a good cheeseburger before his starts (medium rare). He still unwinds afterward by having a glass of wine or two at home. He still comes in hot on his birthday, even though it falls squarely in the middle of spring training.
All of which is to say, contrary to Brady's new-age persona, there is something decidedly old-school about Justin Verlander. The high-profile, Joe DiMaggio-esque marriage to a celebrity often compared to Marilyn Monroe. The way he walks into work the morning after his birthday golf outing with sunburned legs roughly the same color as the flamingos at the nearby Palm Beach Zoo. The jet-setting lifestyle in which he seems to revel, and which comes standard with frequent tuxedos and Great Gatsby hair.
But perhaps the oldest of old-school things about Verlander is the reason he wants to pitch forever.
"I'D ONE DAY like to get to 300 wins," Verlander says. "I know I've got a lot of work left to do that."
He knows wins don't mean what they used to. He knows that of the eight Hall of Fame pitchers who have been inducted this century and were predominantly starters during their careers, more than half fell short of 300 wins, including the two who got in this year (Mike Mussina and Roy Halladay). He also knows if he were to retire today and never throw another pitch, there's a decent chance he'd still make it to Cooperstown. But Verlander's not the kind who's willing to leave anything to chance.
"I don't want to become complacent with where I'm at," says Verlander, who's so competitive that one time in high school, he was in such a hurry to be the first one back on the team bus after a Hardee's pit stop he choked on his hamburger and had to be given the Heimlich maneuver by his coach. After coughing up the burger, Verlander scooped it off the floor and finished what he'd started. Two decades later, that kind of extremist behavior still rules him. "If you and I are down underwater, holding our breath, I'm not gonna breathe before you. Sorry. The second I start giving in to that feeling of lack of oxygen, like I gotta come up for fresh air, I lose."
It's worth noting that if Verlander doesn't come up to breathe for another decade or so, he wouldn't be the first guy to pitch well into his 40s. But for almost everyone who has done it, there's a caveat. Tim Wakefield and Charlie Hough were knuckleballers. Jesse Orosco and John Franco were relievers. Jamie Moyer was a finesse artist, and Bartolo Colon is, well, Bartolo Colon. Of the three power pitchers who most readily come to mind -- Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens -- two of them are generally regarded as freaks of nature, the kind who come along once in a generation, if that. As for the third, he comes with an asterisk that not only tarnished his own career but also cast doubt over the accomplishments of anyone with the audacity to still be throwing mid-90s in his mid-40s. Or even his mid-30s, for that matter. Especially when that someone spent his early 30s throwing in the low 90s.
"I don't want to become complacent with where I'm at. If you and I are down underwater, holding our breath, I'm not gonna breathe before you. Sorry. The second I start giving in to that feeling of lack of oxygen, like I gotta come up for fresh air, I lose."Justin Verlander
"There will always be people out there that will assume," Verlander says, acknowledging the doubters who dwell on the fact that his average fastball went from a career low of 93.3 mph in 2014 to 95.7 mph over the past couple of seasons. "If someone says, 'Oh, you lost your velocity and you were pitching horribly and now all the sudden you came back and you're throwing hard again,' well, no s---. I blew out my groin and had a sports hernia on both sides. That s--- doesn't just fix itself, and it doesn't come back just like that."
In Verlander's case, the fix took a village. One of the key members of Verlander Village (besides the life-saver physical therapist and the ass-to-grass trainer) is Ron Wolforth, a mechanics guru who has worked with Scott Kazmir and Trevor Bauer, among others. Wolforth helped Verlander realize his core injury had caused him to start compensating. Instead of his right arm being bent 90 degrees and looking like the letter L prior to delivery, Verlander's hand had started to drift down and away from his head, creating an obtuse angle that more closely resembled a V and sapped some giddy-up from the hurler's heater.
To fix the problem, Wolforth prescribed something called a connection ball. A squishy, inflatable sphere that's wedged between the biceps and forearm and can stay there only with proper 90-degree mechanics, the tool worked wonders on his arm posture. "It started creeping up and up and up, and I started feeling better and better and better," says Verlander, who still keeps a turquoise connection ball in his locker, just in case his mechanics start to stray. "I started throwing harder and harder and harder again, and that was that. It was off and running."
Besides throwing gas, Verlander's not afraid to throw shade. "Anybody that's been around me, I'm so anti-steroid. I probably piss a lot of people off because I'm always commenting on it." One of those times was last year, when eight-time All-Star Robinson Cano got popped for PEDs. Shortly after the news broke, Verlander posted a tweet that said, "Aaaand excuse coming in 3...2...1..." Even though he took some heat for his crusty response, Verlander's not about to dismount from the high horse on which he'll someday ride off into the sunset.
"I'm chasing history. I want to know where I stack up against the best. I want to be the best. How do you know that if you don't know if everybody's on an even playing field?"
There are those who claim, PEDs or no PEDs, that Verlander isn't on an even playing field, and that his spin rate has something to do with it. With the Tigers in 2015, the first year Statcast starting tracking spin rates, he averaged 2,491 RPMs with his heater, second highest among all pitchers who threw at least 1,000 four-seamers. The following season, his 2,559 RPMs ranked first. In 2017, he was tops again, coming in at 2,541 RPMs. Last year, in his first full season with the Astros, his spin rate increased to 2,618. The 3 percent spike wasn't far off the 2 percent bump Verlander experienced from 2015 to 2016. Still, it caused some to theorize that he and his Houston teammates (former Pittsburgh Pirates starter Gerrit Cole saw his spin rate jump by over 200 RPMs last season, his first with the Stros) were taking liberties with pine tar, a substance technically forbidden but widely used by hurlers to gain extra grip on the ball.
"If only there was just a really quick way to increase spin rate," Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer said on Twitter. "Like what if you could trade for a player knowing that you could bump his spin rate a couple hundred rpm overnight...imagine the steals you could get on the trade market!"
"That's bulls---," Verlander says when asked about the spin rate haters. "Mine's been the same my whole career. It's not even worth talking about, to be honest with you. I know how much hard work I've put in, and my teammates know how much hard work I've put in. When it's all said and done, that'll be why I played as long as I did."
BACK ON THE tan leather couch with Brad Peacock and friends, Verlander's eyes are still glued to the large, wall-mounted flat-screen as he attacks his breakfast. MLB Network is still on, and Eric Byrnes is still dissecting the gargantuan Machado news.
Just 26 years old, Machado has a new deal with the San Diego Padres worth $300 million. A couple of weeks from now, Bryce Harper will sign an even bigger deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. Later, Mike Trout will set new records with his Los Angeles Angels extension. But for the moment, Machado's colossal contract is all anyone wants to talk about. When it finally expires -- 10 years from now -- Machado will be the same exact age Houston's birthday boy is today.
As for Verlander, he'll be 45 when Machado's contract is up. Maybe by then, he'll be ready to stop pitching.
Then again, maybe not.