Family ties: Verlander united with Tigers

Family ties: Verlander united with Tigers

DETROIT -- Justin Verlander grew up in a union household. His father, Richard, works as a negotiator for the Communication Workers of America. He's seen his dad help protect workers' rights during labor disputes, and he saw his dad step in to help finish up negotiations on his contract out of the Draft when talks broke down.

So it stands to reason that even as he tries to grasp the newfound status of a five-year, $80 million contract, he feels a connection to the city and the region he has called his home for the first five seasons of his Major League career, and the next five to come.

He could've become the marquee free agent on the market in two years, set to be wooed toward New York or Boston or some other East Coast city. But as long as there's a chance to win, he said, he wanted to be in Detroit.

As one Detroit columnist pointed out, while so many people either have to leave Michigan for work or want to leave, Verlander wanted to stay.

"I do want to be here," he said in an interview last week, "and I feel like I share something with those fans and people in Detroit. This is a blue-collar town, hard-working people. And just because I signed a big contract for whatever, it doesn't mean that I'm going to change."

On the field, Tigers fans certainly hope that he doesn't. Between his 19 victories, 240 innings pitched and 269 strikeouts, he led the Majors or shared the big league lead in three of four major pitching categories. Still a week and a half shy of his 27th birthday, he has established himself as one of the stingiest competitors in baseball, not to mention one of the game's more intimidating presences on the mound.

Off the field, he's starting to gain a presence here as one of Detroit's more recognizable athletes. The Tigers' winter caravan last month included a solo stop for Verlander at Cornerstone Schools, where he helped accept an award for an advertising campaign that included him as a spokesperson to raise money for the schools. He was arguably a headlining presence at TigerFest, where he teamed up with catcher Gerald Laird for an hour-long Q&A session with fans near the end of the day, after many other players had already finished up their sessions and headed home.

"I think there's a few faces of this franchise," he said. "I don't think you can pin it on me, but I definitely embrace the fact that I can be one of them and do some great things for this city.

"I grew up in a blue-collar family, union yes, and I've always been hard-working," he continued. "And I feel like we're kind of a kindred spirit. Like I've said a few times, I feel like I've grown up in front of these fans, and they've embraced me, and it means a lot to me.

"Coming back this time of year when baseball's not really on the forefront of everybody's mind, just getting everybody excited about it, and to come and be able to help out with things [is fun]," he said. "I got to go to Cornerstone Schools and speak with families, and do some other little things that mean a lot, and get to see my friends again. I think that kind of reiterates that this is a family. And I want to be a part of this for a long time."

His real family has been a part of his career for a long time already. Among those in attendance at the press conference announcing his contract was his longtime girlfriend, Emily Yuen. He thanked his mom and dad during the press conference right alongside Tigers officials and his agents.

His father wasn't in the crowd, but he can be found sometimes in the stands on summer nights when his son is on the mound, whether in Detroit or closer to their Virginia home. More accurately, he can be found everywhere but his seat. With Verlander on the mound, his dad is a study in perpetual motion.

"He's actually gotten a lot better," Verlander said. "He can actually stay in the same general area for a few minutes. You'll see him there, there, over there, all probably in one inning. He can't sit still."

It was Richard Verlander who quickly realized that his son had more talent than he could reasonably coach, so he got in touch with some professional instruction. But it was also Richard who salvaged negotiations with the Tigers after they broke down in 2004.

If not for that, Verlander might never have been in position to sign this new deal.

"I don't know where I'd be if we didn't get that ball rolling again," he said.

When he calls his team part of a family, too, it's not a term he uses lightly.

"I mean, for 180-some days, we're together all the time," he said. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a family that spends more time together than we do. So I think that makes us one."

It's a family, he said, with a common goal to win. Once he was convinced the Tigers were committed to that, he said, it was an easy decision for him to listen to what the Tigers had to offer. Not even the lure of free agency could break that.

"You know, it wasn't very tempting, to be honest," he said. "I mean, it's fun to think about, but you know what? For all the reasons I touched on earlier about being a Tiger at heart, that's where I want to be. And why risk anything else if you know that this is where you want to play baseball. There's really no point. I certainly don't plan on my career being over in five years, so hopefully I stick around here for a lot longer."

He doesn't expect the new contract to change him.

"I think my personality works well with this," he said. "I'm not going to change, and I don't feel I can give any more effort than I already have. So therefore, there's nothing more to give. When you think about it that way, there's no pressure on my shoulders just because I make more money. Nothing changes."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.