The Christmas card came from Justin Verlander's parents a few years back. It wasn't like anything you could buy in a store. It wouldn't have been fit for anyone but Verlander, anyway.
But for him, it was perfect. The best Christmas card ever.
And it was also a challenge.
One side of the card listed Verlander's career numbers. The other had the career numbers of Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Fame pitcher Verlander idolized as a kid growing up in Virginia.
"My parents got [Ryan] to sign it," Verlander said this week. "I always loved that card, because I looked at it like, 'Hey kid, you've got a long way to go.'"
He still does. But as Verlander prepares to pitch Game 6 of the American League Championship Series on Friday night at Minute Maid Park, his idol is right there in front of him. Right there, sitting in the front row, as Verlander pitches for Ryan's team, the Houston Astros.
"That's pretty cool," Verlander said.
So is this: The winter Ryan turned 35 years old, in January 1982, he had 189 career wins. Verlander turns 35 in February. He has 188.
Wins have gone out of style as a way to measure pitchers' success, and understandably so, but to pitchers like Verlander, they still matter. Even if he pitched to 46 as Ryan did, Verlander might never come close to his totals of seven no-hitters (Verlander has two) or 5,714 strikeouts (Verlander has 2,416), but joining him in the 300-win club (Ryan had 324) wouldn't be outrageous.
In the much more immediate future, this weekend Verlander could do something Ryan never quite managed, by pitching the Astros into a World Series.
He can't do it by himself, thanks to three straight Astros losses to the New York Yankees this week at Yankee Stadium. But another Verlander win Friday, perhaps a repeat of his brilliant effort in Game 2, would send the ALCS to a decisive Game 7 on Saturday.
They may as well take it to the last day, to the last minute, even to the last second. After all, wasn't that how the Astros got Verlander in the first place? It was sudden, it was stunning and it even included two guys sitting in a parked car for an hour. More on that later.
First, here's what Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila told Astros GM Jeff Luhnow the night of the trade: "This guy is going to take you to the World Series. And he might win it for you."
"He did [say that]," Luhnow confirmed nearly seven weeks later, with the Astros one step from the Series. "He was still selling at that point. I said, 'You don't need to sell. I've already given you everything I can give you.'"
He gave the Tigers Daz Cameron, Franklin Perez and Jake Rogers, three prospects he had resisted giving up. The Tigers agreed to pay a little more than $17 million of the $61 million or so remaining on Verlander's contract. Verlander agreed to waive his no-trade protection in exchange for the Astros dropping a $22 million vesting option for 2020.
And just like Nolan Ryan nearly four decades earlier, Justin Verlander became a Houston Astro.
None of this seemed possible in the early days of July, when Verlander had a 4.96 ERA and had just allowed seven runs to the Cleveland Indians in just 3.1 innings. Nobody was trading for Verlander then, not if it meant taking on any significant part of a $28 million-a-year contract that ran for two more seasons after this one.
He was a guy who had thrown too many pitches over the years, a guy who was getting old, a guy on the decline. Except he never believed that.
Verlander felt too good to be struggling. He kept watching video, kept making changes, kept listening to suggestions, and he kept going out to the mound and seeing nothing substantial change.
Then one day it did.
"I still remember late one night him telling me and [Mick] Billmeyer he knew why he'd been struggling," said Matt Martin, who was on the Tigers coaching staff with Billmeyer. "I rolled my eyes, but when he told me what it was I said, 'That makes sense.' He took off from there."
It was a small adjustment, Verlander said, a mechanical tweak so small he had missed it all those other times he looked at the video. One day, he saw it, and he fixed it.
Plenty has been said since Verlander came to the Astros about how Houston pitching coach Brent Strom helped him with his changeup and how the Astros' high-def cameras helped him fine-tune the release point on his slider. It's not wrong, but it is a little misleading.
The Astros didn't fix Justin Verlander. They traded for an elite and ultra-competitive pitcher who a month earlier had basically fixed himself.
In the final 11 starts of a Tigers career that began when they made him the second overall pick in the 2004 draft, Verlander had a 2.31 ERA. He was even better in three starts against teams that would make the 2017 playoffs, with an 0.87 ERA against the Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers and the Astros, whom he shut out for six innings on July 30.
By then, the Tigers were well out of the race and fully committed to a rebuild. They assembled thorough scouting reports on the farm systems of the Dodgers, Astros, New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs. Those turned out to be the four teams that would reach the League Championship Series, but they were also the four that seemed to fit best for a Verlander trade.
At the July 31 non-waiver deadline, not one of them bit.
The Dodgers and Yankees both told the Tigers they weren't interested, according to sources familiar with the trade discussions, because adding Verlander's contract would make it nearly impossible for them to get under the luxury-tax threshold next year. The Cubs made a July 13 trade with the Chicago White Sox for starter Jose Quintana. That left them with enough prospects to make a deadline deal with the Tigers for reliever Justin Wilson and catcher Alex Avila (Al Avila's son), but not enough to get Verlander.
If Verlander was going anywhere, it was going to be the Astros. And at that point, Luhnow wasn't prepared to part with the prospects or take on the money.
The calendar turned to August, and Verlander stayed with the Tigers.
Four things happened in August that changed the story.
First, Verlander's resurgence on the mound continued. Twice he took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, ending up allowing one hit in eight innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates and two hits in eight innings against the Dodgers.
Second, the Astros' lack of a move at the deadline brought quick and harsh criticism, even from within their own clubhouse.
Third, the Astros slumped on the field. They still had a healthy lead in the American League West, but they were 11-17 in August, the only month they had a losing record.
Finally, when the Tigers placed Verlander on the type of waivers required to make a deal after July 31, no team put in a claim. A claim would have blocked the Tigers from trading Verlander—but would also put a team at risk of assuming the pitcher's entire enormous contract. No team was willing to take that risk, despite repeated public statements by Avila that he wouldn't give Verlander away.
Even with all that, a Verlander trade remained a long shot. Tigers president Chris Ilitch, who took over control of the team from his late father, told Avila he was fully prepared to pay the rest of Verlander's contract, unless a deal could be made that helped jump-start the Tigers' rebuild. No team was showing real interest. Finally, on Aug. 31, the final day an acquired player would be eligible to play in the postseason, Luhnow checked back in.
Even then, the chances of a deal seemed remote.
So at 6 p.m. ET, after making a trade to send Justin Upton to the Los Angeles Angels, and with no Verlander trade in sight, Avila and his staff left Comerica Park and headed for Avila's home in suburban Bloomfield. Avila's wife would cook dinner and with the Tigers off that night, they'd watch whatever game they could find on TV and wait out a quiet deadline.
A few hours later, it was anything but quiet.
The Astros had a series in Anaheim the weekend before the deadline. They were supposed to go home after that, but because of Hurricane Harvey, their series against the Texas Rangers was moved to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. Luhnow stayed in Southern California, where his wife's parents live.
As Avila remembers it, Luhnow called him again at about 10:30 p.m. ET. The Astros wanted Verlander, and they were ready to offer enough of the players the Tigers wanted to get a deal done. It didn't take long for the teams to reach an agreement on players and money. By 11 p.m. or so, they had a tentative deal. But there was just one hour to go until the deadline, and a lot still to do to get things finalized.
Both teams had to get ownership approval. The Tigers had to review medical reports on the three prospects involved. Fortunately, Avila was prepared. He had kept athletic trainer Kevin Rand on call, and Rand started going over medicals even before the full deal was agreed to.
Verlander had to agree to the deal or none of it would have mattered. Not only did he have to agree, but the Tigers had to have Verlander's signature on a form saying he agreed.
Fortunately, Avila was prepared for that, too.
Verlander was at his apartment in Birmingham, Michigan. Sometime around 11 p.m., a car pulled up outside the apartment and parked. Avila had instructed two of his assistants to go there and wait, ready to get Verlander's signature and send it to the Commissioner's Office in New York by midnight.
Verlander had less than an hour to make one of the biggest decisions of his life. He says now he was never close to turning the deal down, but it took time for him to say yes. He had a lot of questions that needed answers.
At some point during the hour, Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel called. Verlander didn't have much time to talk.
"I know you've got to go," Keuchel told him. "But if you come here, you won't regret this decision."
"What he said resonated with me," Verlander said.
"I don't know if I helped," Keuchel said. "But I like to think I'm a good salesman."
As the hour passed, Luhnow called Avila asking for updates. Avila checked in with Verlander to remind him they needed a decision. The two Tigers staffers stayed in the parked car, waiting.
Maybe 10 minutes before the deadline, Luhnow told his manager, A.J. Hinch, that he didn't think the deal would happen. As it turned out, right about that time, Verlander was telling Avila he would accept the trade.
Avila called his aides and told them to go up to Verlander's apartment and get his signature on the form. With no time to make it back to Avila's house, they pulled out a phone, took a picture of the signed form and sent the picture to New York. The Tigers and Astros both sent their part of the paperwork to New York, too, getting done with maybe a minute to spare. Avila put Verlander on one speakerphone and the Commissioner's Office on the other, so New York could hear Verlander say yes.
Meanwhile, in California, Luhnow got in his car and took his wife to dinner. He still didn't know if everything had gotten to New York in time.
"MLB didn't call me until 15 minutes after the deadline," he said. "Even then, I thought it was 50-50 it had gone through. For those 15 minutes, I could barely breathe. My wife is asking me questions, and I couldn't think about anything. When MLB finally called, I answered on the first ring."
The deal had gone through. Verlander was an Astro. He would fly to Houston the next day. He made his Astros debut Sept. 5 in a 3-1 win in Seattle, and won again a week later in Anaheim. Five days after that, in his first home start, he allowed one run in seven innings in the game that clinched the division. He won twice in the ALDS against the Boston Red Sox, once as a starter, once in relief. He beat the Yankees in Game 2 of the ALCS, pitching perhaps as well as he has in any start in his career.
"Where would we be if we didn't have him?" Luhnow asked this week.
It's not just where the Astros are this year or where Verlander is right now. The way he's pitching, few who watch him have any doubt he can keep this up through the end of this contract or even further.
Ryan pitched until he was 46. Could Verlander do the same?
"If that's what he wants, he can get it," said Jack Morris, another former Tigers ace.
"I'm going to play as long as I can," Verlander said. "I love the game. I've always told everyone, I realize how fortunate I am to make a lot of money, but if I wasn't playing this game at a big league level, I'd be in some backyard playing baseball. I love the game."
He wants to win a World Series. He wants to add to his own win total. He knows the numbers Ryan finished with.
They're right there on the card.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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