Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY Sports
DETROIT -- Justin Verlander is taking the mound Wednesday for Game1 of the World Series, given the responsibility of starting the Detroit Tigers' quest for their first title since 1984. But an entire city breathlessly awaits an answer to what fans really want to know.
Is he really dating supermodel Kate Upton?
"I'm not confirming or denying anything," Verlander says, laughing and acknowledging that even his teammates are curious. "I'll leave that to my grandfather. God bless him."
It was Richard Verlander Sr., 87, who confirmed to Celebuzz this month that his grandson was dating Upton, the Sports Illustrated cover girl. Detroit's most eligible bachelor just got a little more difficult to conquer.
"I never thought I'd have to prepare my grandfather for the media," Verlander tells USA TODAY Sports. "It's a whole different world. I can't believe that people would call my grandparents. It's tough when people start trying to dig into your personal life."
Says Richard Verlander, Justin's father: "It's pretty amazing that somebody gets paid to talk to an 87-year-old man to ask who his grandson is dating. You have to laugh, but we did have to counsel Pa-pa."
Hey, when you have the looks of a movie star and the arm and tenacity of Bob Gibson, and you're dating the hottest model in the country, it's tough to keep secrets.
People shriek on the streets of Michigan when they see Verlander in person. He can't stop at a gas pump or go grocery shopping. Everyone knows where he lives in the offseason (Troy, Mich.), what he eats the night before he pitches (Taco Bell, for three crunchy Taco Supremes, a Cheesy Gordita Crunch and a Mexican Pizza, hold the tomatoes) and where he grabs his morning coffee.
Verlander and three of his teammates went to see George Lopez's comedy act Saturday at the Fox Theatre, but the show was interrupted when the crowd, realizing Verlander was in attendance, broke into applause and chanted his name.
"It's pretty cool to see how excited people are," Verlander says. "This is what you dream of when you're a kid. You don't want to be famous. I wanted to be a great baseball player. But when you dream of that, this stuff goes hand in hand.
"It's definitely exciting, but different. You have to learn to adjust. Everybody wants to say hi, take a picture, get an autograph. You've got to make your time."
'Height of depression'
Verlander, 29, has been in the big leagues for seven seasons but has accomplished what most won't approach in a lifetime.
He is the defending Cy Young Award winner and MVP of the American League. He is a five-time All-Star. He has pitched two no-hitters. And he and former Los Angeles Dodgers great Don Newcombe are the only pitchers to ever win the MVP, Cy Young and rookie of the year awards.
He is fabulously rich, in the third year of a five-year, $80 million contract that could look like chump change when he's eligible for free agency in two years.
He has two homes and seven cars, including a Ferrari 458 Italia that can go from zero to 60 mph in 3 seconds. (Kids, don't try it at home.)
"It's like role reversal now," Richard Verlander says. "Most kids ask their parents if they can borrow their parents' car. I'm asking my kid for the keys."
Verlander also drives the Tigers as the face of the franchise.
You see or hear his name wherever you go in the Detroit area. Verlander is known for his charitable work, permitting only veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan to use his stadium suite on days he starts. And it seems you can't turn the TV channel without seeing Verlander endorsing Chevrolet, aspirin or video games.
"When I got here in 2006," says Verlander, whose parents worked for the local telephone company in suburban Richmond, Va., "it was kind of the height of depression. Things in this city weren't going well, with the car manufacturers and everything. People were losing their jobs.
"It's a shame that sometimes the city gets forgotten or gets a bad name, but things like this bring people to the city. Now, you feel like you're a part of something, really helping the city."
This may not be former Tigers outfielder Willie Horton taking to the streets of Detroit in his uniform during the riots in 1967, but hey, when you can help the local economy and have folks feeling good about themselves, it's nice to realize your impact.
"He's bigger and more popular than we ever were," says Hall of Famer Al Kaline, who played for the 1968 Tigers that won the World Series in seven games against the Cardinals. " Right now, he's pitching as well as anybody I've ever seen."
Verlander, who went 17-8 with a 2.64 ERA and a league-leading 239 strikeouts this season, has elevated his game in the postseason. He is 3-0 with a 0.74 ERA, striking out 25 in 24 1/3 innings.
In the Division Series, he went from cheering on the bench in Game 4 against the Oakland Athletics as the Tigers were three outs from the ALCS, to seeing closer Jose Valverde blow the save and being counted on to rescue the team's season as Verlander got the start in a decisive Game 5.
Verlander got back to the team's San Francisco hotel that night, chatted with his parents in the lobby, and then went to bed and slept like a baby.
Was there any doubt in his mind he would pitch a gem, a four-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts?
"No, not at all," Verlander says. "You can never doubt yourself."
This is the way Verlander has been his entire life -- intensely competitive and supremely confident.
"We had to rein him in a little bit, even at the age of 8," says his mom, Kathy Verlander. "He wanted to be the first to finish his dinner. He wanted to play the adult rules when we played putt-putt. And still to this day, you play a game of Monopoly in this house, you're taking your life in your own hands."
"It's a crying shame he's so good at everything. And if he's not good at something, he won't play. He knows we can beat him in Scrabble, so he won't play it."
House of trophies
The tattered brown box sat for days on the front porch of his parents' home in Goochland, Va., before they even noticed it.
Richard and Kathy Verlander, who normally leave through their garage, stumbled upon the package and wondered what was inside, believing the contents had to be broken.
Richard Verlander opened it, saw all of the Bubble Wrap and shrieked, "Oh, my God!" There was his son's Cy Young Award.
"The box looked like it had fallen off a truck," Richard Verlander says. "I couldn't believe what was inside. We didn't even have to sign for it. Can you imagine?''
The Verlanders now have trophies sitting on their dining room table, with Kathy Verlander hoping her son will forget about them, knowing there's a greater prize awaiting: the World Series trophy.
"I've waited my whole life for this," Verlander says. "You look at a guy like Derek Jeter, he has done it for so long, and won so many championships.
"Well, I want to get to that level. I don't think anybody's goal is to be mediocre. I think everybody should want to be the best. I've always felt that way. I want to be at the best at everything I do.
"I want to be in the Hall of Fame one day."
Verlander doesn't mean to sound cocky, but, yes, he says he's the best pitcher in baseball and the Tigers will win the World Series, last accomplished when he was 20 months old.
"He was always determined to be the best of the best," says Daniel Hicks, his best friend from high school. "He idolized Nolan Ryan, but he knew he had a chance to throw like that too. He just had that look in his eyes. And you can see it now.
"He's dreamed about this forever, not winning the personal awards, but winning the World Series for his team, and everybody jumping on his back and going along for the ride."
The confidence has not waned, although Verlander does ocassionally poke fun at himself, saying he's the one to blame for the Tigers opening the World Series on the road. If he didn't try to appease the fans by showing off his 101 mph fastball, maybe he wouldn't have given up five runs in the first inning of the American League's 8-0 All-Star Game loss.
"I keep telling everyone, 'God, if I hadn't given it up,we'd be at home,'" he says.
Verlander vows the next week won't bring a repeat of 2006, his rookie season when he went 0-2 with a 5.73 ERA and committed two costly errors in the World Series won by the St. Louis Cardinals in five games. He may have been fatigued, but he would have strangled someone if they tried to shut him down before the postseason, and feels terrible for Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg who got that treatment this season.
"That's got to be tough," Verlander says. "I know it was an organizational policy, and they stuck by their guns, but whew."
Now, six years later, Verlander has chance for redemption, carrying the team on his shoulders, and bringing pride to the city.
"There were so many emotions that we went through, it wasn't an embarrassment," Verlander says of 2006. "But it was so disappointing. We just play didn't well. The errors sucked. Everything sucked. When it was over, you feel like it's supposed to happen every year.
"Now, you have more of a respect more what it means to get there, and how tough it is to accomplish. It's a completely different feeling now."