Detroit Tigers icon Justin Verlander coy about Hall of Fame cap, but here’s why it’s not his decision

Detroit Free Press

Justin Verlander is 40 years old.

If he plays until age 45, which he plans to do, the legendary pitcher will play his final game in the 2028 season, meaning he would be eligible for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in the class of 2034.

Verlander is almost certainly a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and one of the best to ever stand on the mound at the highest level, but the team he wants represented on his bronze plaque remains a mystery in the final stretch of his illustrious career.

The three-time Cy Young winner has returned to Comerica Park — where he spent parts of 13 seasons with the Detroit Tigers while growing into a franchise icon — as a member of the New York Mets, following parts of five seasons with the Houston Astros. On Tuesday, two days before his first start of the season, he didn’t want to talk about the logo on his Hall of Fame cap.

“Ha, boy is that unfair,” Verlander said. “Next question, please.”

Which is fair.

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Selecting the logo of the cap on the plaque isn’t that simple, according to a person from the Hall of Fame with knowledge of the situation: The Hall’s researchers and leaders talk to the inductees, soliciting their preference for the plaque, but ultimately, the final decision is the Hall’s call, not the players.

Verlander, drafted No. 2 overall by the Tigers in 2004, provided a more in-depth response when previously asked about the Hall of Fame situation — the logo of his cap on the plaque — in September 2022, when the Astros played the Tigers at Comerica Park.

“I try not to think about it, quite honestly,” Verlander told reporters then, about three months before signing a two-year, $86.7 million contract with the Mets. “I have a bit of time left on my clock, and I think that is going to determine a lot of things. I’ve had a good run here in Houston. I don’t know if I’ll still be here in the coming years. If I played until 45, that’s six more years. Might be less, might be more, who knows, but that’s still a significant chunk of my career.”

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The collaborative process between the elected player and the Hall of Fame — with the Hall of Fame getting the final decision, rather than the player — has been implemented to protect new Hall of Famers from selecting the cap of their favorite team, even if they didn’t play much for that team.

Outfielder Dave Winfield, a 12-time All-Star, entered the Hall of Fame in 2001 with the San Diego Padres’ logo on his cap, rather than the New York Yankees. He played for the Padres from 1973-80 (1,117 games) and the Yankees from 1981-1990 (1,172 games) before finishing his career with four teams across five seasons.

Winfield won the 1992 World Series with the Toronto Blue Jays.

The New York Post reported in April 2001 that the Padres, seeking the franchise’s first Hall of Famer, offered a financial package of $1 million for Winfield to enter baseball royalty as a Padre. Winfield’s attorney, Jeff Klein, denied the report and told The New York Post that the “decision with respect to the cap had nothing to do with economics, not in the slightest.”

Regardless, Verlander will have a choice to make — possibly more than a decade from now — when he collaborates with the Hall of Fame. So far, he has won 244 games with a 3.24 ERA and 3,198 strikeouts across 3,163 innings in his 482-game career.

The likely question: Tigers or Astros?

The Tigers traded Verlander to the Astros on Aug. 31, 2017, for three prospects: right-hander Franklin Pérez, outfielder Daz Cameron and catcher Jake Rogers. (Rogers is the only player from the trade currently with the Tigers in the big leagues.) In many ways — specifically, off the field — Verlander’s life has changed since 2017 with the Tigers, and the changes occurred while playing for the Astros.

“I mean, I feel like I’m pretty similar, like pitching-wise, similar arsenal,” Verlander said. “I got more information as I left with analytics and obviously went from like zero to 100 going from Detroit to Houston at the time, back in ’17. I don’t know how they are now.

“Quite different as a person, just growing up a lot with my family and maturing as a human being. It’s just growth. It’s been quite the journey, and it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve enjoyed the ride.”

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With the Tigers (2005-17), Verlander went 183-114 with a 3.49 ERA and 2,373 strikeouts in 2,511 innings across 380 games. With the Astros (2017-22): 61-19, 2.26 ERA, 825 strikeouts, 652 innings, 102 games. He missed the entire 2021 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.

As for accolades, Verlander won the 2006 American League Rookie of the Year, 2011 AL Cy Young and 2011 AL MVP with the Tigers. He also earned six of his nine All-Star selections with the Tigers. But Verlander won the 2017 World Series, 2019 AL Cy Young, 2022 World Series and 2022 AL Cy Young with the Astros (along with World Series losses in 2019 and 2021).

The Tigers lost the World Series in 2006 and 2012.

Thirteen players have been induced into the Hall of Fame as Tigers: Ty Cobb (1936), Hughie Jennings (1945), Mickey Cochrane (1947), Charlie Gehringer (1949), Harry Heilmann (1952), Hank Greenberg (1956), Sam Crawford (1957), Heinie Manush (1964), Al Kaline (1980), George Kell (1983), Hal Newhouser (1992), Jack Morris (2018) and Alan Trammell (2018).

Verlander, who undoubtedly loved his career with the Tigers, could join them one day in Cooperstown.

“It was one hell of a run,” Verlander said of his 13 years in Detroit. “From the Cinderella story of 2006 through, really just year in and year out, the team was a juggernaut and going deep in the playoffs every year. Mr. I (Mike Ilitch, owner) was doing anything he could to put an unbelievable product on the field. I mean, what a time to be not only a player for the Tigers’ organization but a fan. You said ‘the glory days.’ It felt like that as a player, too.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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