By Ron Rop
Local Sports Journal
Richard and Kathy Verlander are small town, community oriented, down-to-earth people.
They live out in the country just outside of Richmond, Va. where hunting and fishing are the norm.
But every five days in the summertime, they watch their oldest of two sons, Justin Verlander, take the mound as the ace of the Detroit Tigers’ pitching staff.
His love affair with baseball began at an early age, playing catch in the front yard of their Virginia home. And there were times his mom and dad had to prod him to get to baseball practice.
Today, Justin Verlander is one of the most recognizable athletes not only in Detroit, but the entire country. And he isn’t afraid to thank his parents for the significant role they played in his life and that includes nudging him get to baseball practice on time.
“We usually use the word ‘surreal’ and it really kind of sticks, but you know, it’s hard to believe,” Kathy Verlander said. “I said to him not too long ago, ‘Justin, did you ever dream this big and he said ‘yes.’”
Verlander’s accomplishments are well documented. He won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2001, the Cy Young Award and the AL MVP award in 2011. He’s a 20-game winner, led the league in strikeouts and had the lowest earned-run-average.
And now, Kathy and Richard have written a book that documents the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of how their son has risen to the top of his game. That book is called “Rocks Across the Pond.” But it’s not just about Justin. Their younger son, Ben, plays baseball at Old Dominion University.
“It’s also sort of an affirmation to see them pursue their dreams and do the hard work,” Richard Verlander said. “There’s a lot of stuff fans don’t see. It’s easy to say a guy has a gift, but there are a lot of gifted athletes out there, and not just athletes, but people who are blessed and just let it all go. They don’t do the work necessary to pursue it. He’s worked hard and it’s gratifying as a parent to see that.”
And each time Justin takes the mound, all the eyes of major league baseball are on him. The expectations are high and the results have been outstanding.
“He loves what he does,” Kathy said. “He still loves baseball as much today as he did when he was little. You have to love it at this level or else it would be miserable. It’s not an easy life, I wouldn’t think.”
And yes, another baseball season is upon us and Justin Verlander already has a month of work done even before the report date for pitchers and catchers.
“We always have a family dinner before he goes,” Kathy said. That was the first week of January. Then Justin heads off to Lakeland to get a head start on his workouts. This week, he is taking a break from baseball to play golf at at Pro-Am at Pebble Beach in California.
But within a few days, Justin will be back working out and preparing for the 2013 regular season.
“He doesn’t rest on his laurels,” Kathy said. She said it’s the hard work that got him to where he’s at, but he’s never totally satisfied. He knows the hard work must continue.
“There’s the cliché that you’re always working hard to get better, but Justin really always works hard,” Richard said. “Last year was good, but last year wasn’t good enough.”
When Justin is getting ready for the season with weightlifting, his legs get all the attention.
“He’ll hit the weights, but only on his legs,” Richard said. “He’s always had, even when he was a little tyke and he was really skinny, but he always had massive legs.”
“We used to call him ‘tree trunk legs,’” Kathy said. And that’s one of the reason why Justin can dial up a 100 mph fastball, even in the late innings.
Last season, the Tigers advanced to the World Series before losing to the San Francisco Giants.
But a new year is about to start and Richard is looking forward to the return of Victor Martinez not only to the field, but the clubhouse.
“Justin loves the team, but I will tell you, from my observations from afar and through Justin, I really think they missed Victor Martinez last year,” Richard said. “They’ve had quiet leaders in the clubhouse and Victor is an outspoken kind of guy and you just need that – a sparkplug kind of guy and Victor is that guy. He brings a lot and just having him back in the clubhouse will be good.”
“Justin really loves the chemistry on the team,” Kathy said. “He loves everyone on the team.”
Justin also likes showing off Ben to his teammates. Ben also was a Tigers’ draft pick, but opted to stay in school. One of the perks of being a younger brother of a major leaguer is getting access to the clubhouse, taking some batting practice and getting to know his older brother’s teammates.
“Ben has taken batting practice at Comerica Park and he’s hit a lot of home runs,” Kathy said. “Ben is a really good hitter. Justin is very proud of him and when you’re a big brother and you bring your little brother around, you want your brother to perform in front of your friends.”
Kathy figures the last time Ben took batting practice at Comerica, he launched 10 balls over the fence.
“When Justin comes home he brags about his little brother,” Kathy said. “You know that’s really good because Justin is not a bragger about anything.”
Ben has said when he faces Justin in the major leagues, he will hit a home run off him. To which, Justin strongly disagrees because “they are brothers, after all,” Richard said.
There are some benefits to the parents of major league baseball players, but Richard and Kathy certainly didn’t get them right from the start.
“Justin is so unassuming and wouldn’t ask for anything when he was a rookie and didn’t realize that when he’s making his major league debut that his parents might actually get some decent seats,” Richard said.
Kathy vividly remembers their seats for his major league debut in Cleveland were “in the nosebleeds”
“It was the Bob Uecker section in the top corner and we’re sitting up there with all these Cleveland fans,” Richard said. “So here we are ,we didn’t know any better. Now we feel like it’s a moral obligation for us to show other young parents the ropes a little more.”
And come playoff time, the parents travel with the team. This past season allowed the Verlanders to get to know several of the other families quite well like the families of Andy Dirks and Drew Smyly.
“Now we’re kind of the veteran parents,” Kathy said. “We hung out with the Smylys and the Dirks and a little bit with the Scherzers.”
There are several other perks the Verlanders have come to enjoy.
Not only do the parents fly with the players to playoff games, but during spring training, when the Tigers are on the road and Justin isn’t pitching, he gets to spend the day with his parents, who will be heading to Lakeland in the next couple of weeks.
Richard and Kathy will stay in Florida for about a week, then it’s back home to watch Ben’s Old Dominion team, which already begins its college season on Feb. 15.
Pick your friends wisely
The fact Justin is almost 30 years old doesn’t stop Kathy from doing what moms do best … handing out priceless motherly advice.
“He’s single and we’ve had a talk and, you know, even though he’s almost 30, he’s our son,” Kathy said. “I’ve told him to be careful and to be sure he surrounds himself with good people.”
That hasn’t been a problem for Justin or Ben, Kathy said.
“We’re lucky, both our kids have been really good at picking good friends,” Kathy said. “So he told us, you don’t have to worry, I surround myself with good people, but you know, as a mother, I felt like I still had to have a little discussion with him.
“But, he is a smart guy.”
For more information on the Verlander’s book “Rocks Across the Pond” visit their website at verlanderbook.com