One of the things I experience as I go along through life, and all the moreso as I advance in years, is that things change. Nothing sits still. The comfortable, familiar things in our lives eventually pass away. Our parents grow old and die; our children grow up and leave the nest. Books go out of print. Raisin Mini-Wheats disappear from the shelves because no-one besides me will buy them. Bell-bottom jeans and Nehru jackets go out of style (demonstrating conclusively that change is not necessarily a bad thing). . .
Forgive me if I indulge myself in a bit of sports-as-metaphor-of-life. I am a lifelong fan of baseball in general, and the Detroit Tigers in particular. The past decade has generally been an era of notable success for my Tigers, with four American League Central Division titles and two World Series appearances (neither of which they won, alas). I've taken to referring to this latest period of success as Tigers 5.0 (if you're interested, 1.0 was the Ty Cobb-era team of the 1900s/10s, 2.0 the Charley Gehringer-Hank Greenberg teams of the 30s/40s, 3.0 the Al Kaline-Willie Horton-Mickey Lolich teams of the 60s, and 4.0 the Whitaker-Trammell-Jack Morris teams of the 80s; and if you're not interested, just ignore what you just read); this season, and yesterday most particularly, brought the sad news that Tigers 5.0 is now definitively over. Justin Verlander was traded to the Houston Astros.
You could see this day coming, even a few years ago, realizing that players age, and get injured, or sign free-agent contracts with other teams (*cough-Max Scherzer-cough*). One way or another, the good times never last forever. Nothing sits still. The end of the era began in earnest back in 2015, when the Tigers traded David Price and Yoenis Cespedes at the July trade deadline, in exchange for young players who, it was hoped, would one day develop into Tigers 6.0 (they have shown flashes of promise, but the jury, alas, is still out. . .). And the team's payroll was bloated way past their market size, to say nothing of their recent level of success. (Just as a footnote, it blows my mind just a little that, for the second half of the 2014 season, the Tigers' starting rotation of pitchers included four Cy Young award winners, and the fifth starter, Anibal Sanchez, won an ERA title, and threw a no-hitter, besides).
This season began with hope that the band could come together again, and perhaps do something wonderful one more time. But alas, such was not to be. Our best hitter, Miguel Cabrera, hurt his back during spring training (curse you, World Baseball Classic!) and has been a shell of himself all season. Ian Kinsler, our all-star infielder and clubhouse leader, has had an awful year. Victor Martinez, who's been a key hitter all through the team's run of success, is on (almost literally) his last legs. Pitchers who'd had off-years in 2016 were hoped to recover the old glory; none did. And on and on and on. Only two hitters were having strong years - Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez, and both of them were eligible for free agency at the end of this season.
The final agony began in July, when J.D. Martinez was traded to the Arizona Diamonbacks. That was a little hard to take - J.D. had really established himself with the Tigers, and become a fan favorite; still, it was understood that the Tigers had to trade him, to get something in return, rather than let him walk for nothing at seaons's end. That was followed by Justin Wilson (our best relief pitcher) and Alex Avila going to the Chicago Cubs. And then yesterday, the day began with Justin Upton (the other hitter who was having a good year) being sent to the Los Angeles Angels.
I have always had a special affection for Justin Verlander. Even as a young pitcher, you could just see the power he pitched with. On his good days, hitters were almost defenseless against his combination of blazing speed, wicked breaking balls and a baffling change-up. And he had a lot of good days. Denny McLain, back in the 60s, is the only other pitcher the Tigers have had in my lifetime who could just dominate opposing hitters game after game after game; but Denny only did it for a few seasons, before hurting his arm (Denny was also one of the world's great a**holes, but whatchagonnado?). JV, as he's known, threw two no-hitters for the Tigers, and won a unanimous Cy Young award in 2011. Twice, he shut out the Oakland A's in the deciding game of a playoff series. At his best, you wondered every time he took the mound if he was going to throw a no-hitter that night. He's been that good. He had a couple seasons (from roughly mid-'13 to mid-'15) in which his effectiveness was diminished by a core-muscle injury, but since the middle of the '15 season, he's been pretty close to the old JV. Last year, he came within a whisker of winning his second Cy Young Award (and God bless Rick Porcello, but JV should have won it; just sayin'). And after a slow start this season, he's again been blowing hitters away, especially over the past two months.
Verlander has been, along with Miguel Cabrera, the visible face of Tigers 5.0. And so, it is with great sadness that I watch him go. Through the course of this season, it has seemed ever-clearer that he would soon be moving on. His contract was just too big for a team that needed to cut payroll, and invest in younger players. And the idea of JV, in the golden years of his career, pitching for a team of youngsters just learning how to play and win, seems somehow not quite right. He really should be pitching for a playoff contender, trying to win the World Series championship that he never quite got in Detroit. When Clayton Kershaw was injured, I was all-but-certain that he was going to the Dodgers. But the Astros were always part of the conversation, and for the past month, it has been, 'why aren't the Astros going after Verlander? They certainly need the pitching.' And finally, at about the time that it looked like he'd be staying after all, the Astros and Tigers finally pulled the trigger at 11:59, and JV is a Tiger no more.
It is hard to see the face of my favorite team leave town. But nothing sits still. He leaves with absolutely no ill-will from me. I know I'll be pulling for the Astros in the post-season, and hoping for JV to finally win the ring that he so richly deserves (and there is something portentous, is there not - in a Saints-win-the-Super-Bowl kind of way - in Verlander going to Houston, trying to win a World Series in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey?) (and also something delicious in Justin Verlander going to work for Nolan Ryan). . .
(Just as an odd aside, the Tigers began the season with three players named Justin on their roster - Verlander, Upton, and Wilson - and all three are with other teams now; and if you include JV's fiancee, we've lost two Uptons, as well; God bless you, Houston. . .)
(edit 6Sep: As another aside, the number of ex-Tigers distributed across this year's playoff-contending teams is almost staggering - Rick Porcello, David Price, Doug Fister and Rajai Davis with the Red Sox, Max Scherzer and Edwin Jackson with the Nationals, Curtis Granderson with the Dodgers, Robbie Ray, Fernando Rodney and J.D. Martinez with the Diamondbacks, Alex Avila and Justin Wilson with the Cubs, Austin Jackson and Andrew Miller with the Indians, and now Justin Upton with the Angels and Justin Verlander (and even Cameron Maybin!) with the Astros. If the playoffs began today, there would be 17 ex-Tigers distributed across 8 of the 10 playoff teams; y'all are very welcome. . .)
Nothing sits still. This past Monday brought the news that Jud Heathcote, who coached my beloved MSU Spartan basketball team from 1976-95, had died, at 90 years of age. Jud was certainly the greatest basketball coach in MSU history not named Tom Izzo. In fact, Tom Izzo was essentially Jud's parting gift to MSU when he retired, as Jud convinced the university to hire Izzo as his successor, a year or two before he finally retired.
Jud was a wonderful coach. His teams won three Big Ten championships in 19 years, played in nine NCAA tournaments (seven in 11 seasons, once the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985), and famously, won MSU's first national chapionship in 1979, with a team featuring Magic Johnson and Gregory Kelser.
His talent as a coach, however, goes beyond mere wins and losses. The aforementioned Magic Johnson aside, Jud developed the talent of players like Jay and Sam Vincent, Scott Skiles, Steve Smith, Shawn Respert and Eric Snow, all of whom had successful NBA careers, and all of whom came to MSU with a notable lack of recruiting fanfare. Jud was a notoriously indifferent recruiter. He wouldn't cheat to get a kid, and he absolutely refused to kiss the asses of 18-year-old prima donnas. So (Magic aside), such success as his teams had, was mainly accomplished with less-talented rosters than his major opponents.
But for all his success, Jud will be remembered by the MSU community as an absolutely unique character. His public face tended to be that of a grumpy curmudgeon. His 'Jud thuds' were legendary, when one of his players would make a mistake, and he would ball up his fists and slam them against his own forehead, usually two or three times. In one game at Illinois, he was upset with the officiating (as basketball coaches will be, from time to time). The ball happened to roll out-of-bounds into his hands, and he slammed it violently to the floor, whereupon it bounced up and smacked him right in the face. On his 'retirement tour' in '95, the Illinois coach gifted him with an Illini football helmet, in memory of the event. (Here is a wonderful article by Jack McCallum in Sports Illustrated, from back in '95, that does a great job of capturing the Essential Jud)
In the years since his retirement, Jud mainly kept a low profile. He moved back to Spokane, Washington, to be closer to his adult children, but also to leave Tom Izzo the freedom to establish his own coaching career without the Old Man looking over his shoulder. But he would show up for all of the tournament games. It reminded me, in a way, of how my dad was to me, in his later years - a source of wisdom, for sure, but just comforting to have him around. The last time I saw him on TV, I remember thinking that he was getting old, and feeling a little sad about that. And now he's gone. Nothing sits still.
A friend of mine once sat next to Jud on an airplane. When I asked him how that was, he smiled oddly. "Jud is a very funny man," he said. "And VERY profane." So there you go.
I have my own Jud story to relate (and now seems a fitting time to tell it). I was in my last year at MSU, which coincided with the national championship team of '79. That team lost six games, five of them by one or two points. The exception was an 18-point loss to Northwestern, which is about as inexplicable as things come in college basketball. My roommate and I had a regular paddleball date on Monday afternoons, and it was the Monday after that Northwestern game. All the regular paddleball courts were in use, so we ended up playing on the designated Handball court (which was identical to the paddleball/racquetball courts, but it was 'reserved' for handball; meaning that, if someone wanted to play handball, they could claim the court, and any paddleball/racquetball players had to relinquish the court to them). We'd been playing for a half-hour or so, when a voice came from the balcony above and behind us - "I'm sorry, fellas, but I'm here to play handball. So finish your game, but I need the court." We looked up, and there, to our astonishment, was Coach Heathcote. So we finished our game, and went up to the balcony, figuring we'd enjoy watching Jud playing handball with whomever his partner turned out to be. But no partner ever appeared. Jud bounced the ball, and - WHAM!! - smashed it against the front wall, then stomped after it in a deliberate, plodding manner and - WHAM!! - smashed it again, then stomped after it again, and - WHAM!! - and again and again. My roommate and I turned and smiled at each other, and continued watching for a few more minutes, as Jud smashed out his frustrations on that poor little handball. After that, the team went on a long winning streak, which eventually carried them all the way to the national championship.
Rest in peace, Coach. We're gonna miss you.
Nothing sits still. . .