Henning: Verlander, Scherzer reflect on Tigers years, reunion: ‘It’s fun, man’

Detroit News

West Palm Beach, Fla. — During those merry times a decade ago at Comerica Park, everyone knew the Tigers had a 1-2 punch on the lethal level of a double-barrel shotgun.

Devastating, were Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.

Not everyone could have guessed the Tigers in fact had two guys topping their rotation who were on a march to the Hall of Fame, which is where they’ll be headed five years after they wrap up two radiant big-league careers.

Whenever that is.

They wear different uniforms now: Mets togs. Both of them, reunited this season after Verlander decided to join Scherzer as a free-agent pledge to an MLB team from Queens.

Look at them. How little has changed, even if Verlander last month turned 40 and Scherzer in four months hits 39.

Verlander, on a chilly, breezy, south Florida Monday evening, stood outside the visitor’s clubhouse at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. He was wearing his new blue Mets cap and a grin that lighted up Palm Coast after a Grapefruit League tune-up against the Nationals.

“Max?” he answered, quizzed on what it was like to have his old Tigers fire-baller a few lockers away. “It’s fun, man. We’re both grown men now with kids and families. Established ourselves in the game. We’ve talked a lot this spring, and I’ve enjoyed it.”

Scherzer’s takes have been steady: “I’ve pitched with ‘Ver’ before … Going to be fun … Makes our ballclub better,” etc. And he means it, especially how he loves trading thoughts with Verlander — how to attack hitters, how to play chess against a batter, how he marvels at that slider Verlander now throws that with the Tigers wasn’t part of a right-handed master’s quiver.

But they haven’t forgotten Detroit. Neither of them.

Greener pastures

It has been eight years since Scherzer left for a free-agent deal with the Nationals, ahead of his Mets migration. Verlander departed, reluctantly, six years ago when the Tigers were undergoing demolition and opted to offer their ace a shot at playing for a championship-grade team, the Astros.

Not a coincidence that two months later the Astros won a World Series. The Tigers, meanwhile, thought they had a lovely package heading a rebuilding team’s way, courtesy of Houston. But it blew up when the big prize, a No. 1 prospect pitcher named Franklin Perez who hadn’t had any real physical issues, seemingly ran into a black cat at 2018 spring camp and hasn’t been healthy since.

In the meantime, since those deals and departures, Verlander and Scherzer have won a collective three World Series and four Cy Young Awards.

The Tigers, meanwhile, have specialized in several last-place finishes.

Was it all about money? Their leaving? The playoff exile that since has followed for a team that gorged on October baseball when two gunslingers, Verlander and Scherzer, were wiping away hitters?

A certain slice of the Tigers crowd always has suspected dollars were behind not only the two extraordinary starters’ exits from Detroit, but that caps on cash have been heavy behind the Tigers’ nine-year, no-playoffs tailspin.

It isn’t that simple, and isn’t close to being accurate, as two celebrity pitchers acknowledged the past week at West Palm Beach.

Scherzer waded into his Tigers time late Saturday night as he stood in the Mets clubhouse, his right shoulder red from the ice-sling in which his arm was being cooled following a Scherzer-brand start against the Astros.

Some history needed to be chewed on. Specifically, it was asked, could the Tigers realistically have bought him out of free agency in 2014? Could they have so sweetened a then-whopping six-year, $144 million offer to a 29-year-old pitcher that Scherzer would have stayed with Detroit?

Knowing then the Scherzer a world knows even better now, no, he wasn’t signing.

He was a business major at the University of Missouri, a finance guy, an investor, a man who loved the markets and sage gambles. He would, absolutely, relish a shot at trusting his talent and the appetites of MLB bidders.

He would win, especially after he took out a heavy insurance policy that protected him during the 2014 season — after he had declined a Tigers offer plenty of MLB analysts thought had been overly generous and even dangerous when Scherzer was about to turn 30.

As it turned out, he did win. The Nationals that autumn snared him with a creative, deferred-compensation package worth $217 million.

But, no, he conceded Saturday evening as post-game fireworks boomed outside the clubhouse — there was little, practically speaking, the Tigers could do.

“You’re selling your free-agent years short if you do an extension,” said Scherzer, thinking back to 2014.

“That’s a calculus.

“Once I had the insurance policy, I could kind of reduce the gamble, no matter what happened. I had, at that point, set myself up for the rest of my life, financially. And, so, at that point in my career, I felt very strong about where I was.

“I had a chance to be one of the top free agents and push the market further. That was all part of the decision-making.”

What if late owner Mike Ilitch had offered him the rough equivalent of a blank check?

“I mean, should have, could have, would have,” said Scherzer, shaking his head at a scenario that simply wasn’t realistic. “No. I’m sure there was a number I would have signed, but one of the keys was getting paid through age 36.

“That was a sticking point.”

It must be remembered a heavy majority of industry analysts would have told Ilitch in 2014 he was nuts to offer a man four months from 30 a six-year deal for $144 million that could have left the Tigers in payroll jail.

Scherzer, at the time, was not viewed as bionic. Stuff tends to happen to pitchers, especially in their 30s. Tommy John surgeries. Velocity falloffs. Fading arms and bad free-agent deals have been an MLB hallmark since the days of Wayne Garland in 1976.

But even more at the heart of Scherzer’s wager in 2014 was that he wanted the thrill and potential payoff of an open-market, free-agent adventure.

He got it. His health endured. He is Hall of Fame-ticketed.

Verlander’s exit was different, much different.

He hoped to stick in Detroit. Unlike the pure business evaluation Scherzer forged, Verlander’s heart was in trying to win a tussle with his head. He knew the Tigers had peaked and were headed for what probably would be a messy reconstruction.

Yes, he wanted to play for a team that was maybe a prime-time starter from a World Series championship.

Still, he loved it in Detroit — everything from downtown Motown, to Birmingham, to those giddy escapes he relished, specifically the M1 Concourse Car Club in Pontiac.

So, he had to think it over — hard — when the Astros deal, dripping in midnight oil, was settled on Aug. 31, 2017.

A question Monday for Verlander, necessary to ask:

Didn’t the Tigers, in fact, do him a favor with that trade to the Astros? It wasn’t a charity move — Detroit got a then-promising parcel of prospects important for its roster redo — but wasn’t part of the motivation ensuring that his skills were going to be appreciated, on the playoff stage, for a team needing him more than the remodeling Tigers?

“Oh, man, that’s not fair,” said Verlander, with a sly grin. “Obviously, Detroit was a wonderful chapter in my career.

“But, looking back, they weren’t going to be a winning team. And I like to have the opportunity to win.

“This is a business,” continued Verlander, his voice kicking up an octave. “They were going to try and make a trade and get as many pieces for me as they could.

“I think it’s clear now, looking back, probably one team benefited more than the other. But nobody could have known that at the time.”

He wishes that part of 2017’s drama had turned out differently — for the Tigers. He knows Perez was a potential ace pitcher who a year later was derailed. He realizes Daz Cameron, the trade’s bronze-medal prize, of sorts, has done little.

He was pleased to learn that Jake Rogers is back from a Tommy John-layoff and is set for fairly steady work at catcher in 2023.

“I think everyone wishes it could have been a win-win trade,” Verlander said. “I wish those guys nothing but the best, man.

“Nothing but the best.”

Together again

The TMZ crowd, of course, is intrigued by Verlander and Scherzer being paired again when rumor has it these two weren’t exactly best chums in Detroit.

That’s true, to an extent, in normal and unsurprising ways.

They’re different people entirely. Different personalities.

Verlander is animated and flamboyant. He is comfortable with the spotlight and with celebrity trappings. He and his skill set pair nicely with baseball’s Hollywood stage.

Scherzer is cerebral and reserved. His discipline and dominance attain for him a desired level of respect quite personal and individual.

To the degree there is rivalry here, even a flash of resentment, means Verlander and Scherzer are, in fact, human beings no different from doctors or lawyers or professors or even clergy.

All endeavors, all professions, feature distinguished people, ostensibly working the same side of the street for a common goal. All have their moments or even years of discomfort.

What matters is respect. And that, in excess, is what Verlander and Scherzer hold for each other. Then, and now — this time with the Mets.

What came across during two conversations this past week was fulfillment. It’s all about for them what they’ve achieved — extraordinary grandeur, and not only in shared pitching glory during these remarkable years when, twice now, they’ve worked for the same team.

Verlander is 40. Scherzer in 16 months turns 40. The Cy Youngs, the World Series parades — this is all gravy.

And yet the pitches they flashed during two starts these past few days were stunningly powerful and precise.


As the elder gent said late Monday evening, his face glowing like a full moon, his voice carrying the same tingle as when he was a Tigers rookie in 2005:

“It’s fun, man.”

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.

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