He arrives at the ballpark driving a gray muscle car. A replica, modeled after a famous car from a movie. There’s some 700 horsepower under the hood, and it is one fun, badass ride. Her name is Eleanor. He just got her this past spring. One more for the collection. He’s up to about a dozen, including five Ferraris—two of which are fully customized, he says. He hand-selected every part of the cars from the inside out.
He loves cars because his father loved cars. Growing up in Goochland County, Virginia, he saw his father bring one old sports car after another through the family garage and fix them up, have some fun with them, then sell them to make extra money. As the boy grew up, his love grew with him. He became obsessed with racing video games like Gran Turismo, playing for hours at a time. He dreamed of one day building a collection of his own. It would feature the coolest, fastest cars the world had to offer—some of them modified to his specifications.
“Now,” Justin Verlander says, “I do that in real life.”
He parks Eleanor in the garage then makes for the clubhouse, wearing black loafers, light blue jeans, a white T-shirt and black trucker hat on backward. At his locker, he changes into shorts and a tight, sleeveless shirt, then settles into a leather chair so he can talk about what it means to build. Something happens between a man and a car when he has put it together himself. “I feel like you’re more connected to the car that way,” he says.
Verlander probably didn’t mean all the car talk as metaphor, but the way his life’s gone the last few years, the metaphors just write themselves. Since entering the league as rookie in 2006, he was known for having an “explosive arm with electric stuff,” says former slugger-turned-analyst Alex Rodriguez. In 2011, Verlander won a Cy Young Award and became the first starting pitcher since 1986 to be named league MVP. He could throw 100 miles per hour well into the late innings and made it look easy, even after 100 pitches. “I was built to do it,” he says. “A lot of people that do throw that hard maybe aren’t meant to. No wonder they break.”
He calls it “a gift.” He has a natural knowledge of how to throw things with unnatural force. That’s still true. Even at 35, his arm remains explosive, his stuff electric. “I’m just glad I don’t have to face him anymore,” Rodriguez says. “Best part of being in the booth.” This year, Verlander was an All-Star for the first time since 2013. His stats—156.1 innings in 24 starts, 11-6 record, 2.19 ERA, 204 strikeouts—are all close to if not the best in the league. Houston has the best pitching rotation in baseball and maybe one of the best of all time.
“I’d say it’s impossible, what he’s doing,” Houston manager AJ Hinch says, “but we’re all sitting here watching him do it.”
Thing is, you can’t see impossible; you can only see signs that what is happening shouldn’t be. From up close, you can see clues that suggest what Verlander is doing should not, in fact, be possible at all. As he sits half-dressed in the clubhouse, he shows the expected signs of aging. Balding on the crown. Salty gray hairs peppered through the temples and beard. Lines around the eyes. Time has left its marks. More, too, counting ones you can’t see. Anger that smolders like hungry embers. Surgical scars on his hips. Mementos from paths taken in the past.
You wouldn’t know, watching him on the mound this season, that Verlander was one of the broken ones. Four years ago, three years after his MVP season, his fastball barely touched 90 at its low point. He gave up more runs than any other pitcher in the American League. His shoulder hurt. He felt weak.
“It was so emotional,” says Kate Upton, the supermodel and, as of last November, Verlander’s wife. “He was in so much pain, and he was just trying to find the best path back.”
The path he found from there to here wasn’t easy. He had to suffer new pain before he could rid himself of the old. Trust new people; a new process. To become great again he had to unlearn the techniques that made him great in the first place. He’d been harming himself unknowingly, making little mistakes that he could not see.
Upton helped show him the way. “Who knows,” Verlander says, “if I’m even here if it wasn’t for her?”