One-on-one with Justin Verlander: thinking beyond baseball, adding new top priorities to life

Posted at 12:16 AM, Sep 13, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-14 10:51:53-04

Justin Verlander is the first to admit he was green and wide-eyed when he arrived in the Major Leagues.

He knows he has been hard to deal with at times, because when it comes to life, baseball has always come first.

But things change.

"I actually talk to my family sometimes on days I pitch now. Which is a big step for me, to actually text message somebody or even talk on the phone on days I pitch," he admits at his home before a recent game.

The Tigers pitcher has called Detroit home for 11 full baseball seasons since he made his debut in 2005. But in the midst of a bounce-back year on the field, Verlander is adding top priorities to his daily routine. 

"As you get a little bit older, it's a little easier to let people in here and there," he says.

"I've always been somebody that's had such laser focus on baseball that I was never really able to see the bigger picture."  

Life has a funny way of opening people's eyes at the right moments.

The 33-year-old invited me to his apartment to discuss how much his eyes have been opened to the world, how his upcoming marriage to supermodel Kate Upton helped that new vision, and why he wants his Wins for Warriors foundation to be the best place for veterans to find help.

Who are you calling nervous?

We talk at an interesting time in Verlander's baseball career. He's evolved from a hard-throwing kid who made a quick ascension into the league's best, into a seasoned ace who's regained his form.

Verlander looks back on his last two seasons with a cautious grin.

"I've always been the guy who thought I was going to play 'til the wheels fall off, 'til I can. And all of a sudden, I start thinking, 'If it hurts like this on every pitch now, how am I gonna do this for five, six, seven, eight, 10 more years?" he says.

Injuries to his abdominal area, shoulder, and triceps put him in a position he had never been in his life.

He was nervous thinking about baseball.

"That's not fun, that doesn't seem fun to me," he recalls.

The second half of last season, he made big strides. Tigers general manager Al Avila recently admitted he and owner Mike Ilitch added to the payroll this past offseason because of the way Verlander turned around his 2015 season.

Starting off 2016 wasn't as easy. After a rough series of starts, Verlander made a promise in Cleveland on May 3. He had just given up seven runs in a loss to the Indians.

"It will get better. I know it will. I'm not just saying that, I wholeheartedly believe that. I know things will change," he told reporters.

After that comment, he allowed a total of four runs over his following four starts. He's gone 12-5 since then, slashing his ERA from 6.49 to 3.33. Verlander is a big reason the Tigers find themselves back in the playoff race.

"I worked my butt off and here I am pitching well again," he says.

The wedding planner

All of this transition at the office comes at the same time his personal life is changing more than ever. Verlander and Upton are engaged.

Talking about his wedding is more of a TMZ topic than it is something we'd talk about in the Tigers clubhouse. So here we are, talking about his partner away from the field.

"I'm very lucky. I'm very blessed. Things seem to come at the right time and things happen for a reason. I couldn't be happier," he says.

"To have her support with everything we have going on -- we're both excited about a lot of different things going on."

Digging in with Detroit

Upton and Verlander have both dedicated their time to Wins for Warriors, Justin's foundation aimed at helping veterans. 

He started the charity in 2013 by donating a million dollars.

Recently, he ratcheted his efforts up a notch, hoping to create more awareness for veterans assistance. He moved Wins for Warriors headquarters to downtown Detroit this year.

"We talked about baseball. This is a great country. It's a free country. I wouldn't be here playing this game if it weren't for these men and women that are over there protecting our rights," says Justin.

Verlander recently announced the Fifth Third 4Star 4Mile Race in Downtown Detroit, taking place on November 6.

"The stuff I have afforded to me, I feel is here because of them. So I want to give back as much as I can."

"I like to have my name on it because this is what I'm passionate about. But I want it to be a great charity for veterans. I don't want it to be 'Oh, this is Justin Verlander's charity.' I want it to be 'That's a great charity for veterans, and oh yeah, Justin Verlander started it.'"

As we sit in his living room, the Tigers pitcher says he probably wouldn't have allowed three cameras and a TV crew into his house 10 years ago.

Life's funny way of opening up that perspective? I suggest the woman he's about to marry helps with that.

"I'm sure it does. I'm positive actually."

Brad Galli is an anchor and reporter at WXYZ Detroit. Follow Brad on Twitter @BradGalli