Justin Verlander is five-time All-Star, going 124-65 with a 3.40 ERA in his career, winning the AL MVP and Cy Young in 2011. / Charlie Neibergall, AP
Justin Verlander barely dropped his bags off at his locker, and hadn't even gotten dressed his first day at the Detroit Tigers' camp, when he uttered these words:
"I want to be a Tiger forever,'' Verlander told myself and a few reporters. "I love Detroit. I feel like I'm a kindred part of that town. I grew up in front of these fans, and earned my way into their hearts.''
The comments drew skepticism from coast to coast, only fueling speculation that he'd be a Yankee or Dodger one day.
Those thoughts abruptly ended Friday morning.
Verlander, 30, will be a Tiger, and yes, perhaps forever.
Verlander signed a five-year, $140 million contract extension that pays him a record $28 million a year beginning in 2015, the most ever paid to a pitcher. He already was earning $20 million in 2013 and 2014, meaning that he'll earn $180 million over the next seven years, also a record for a pitcher, keeping him in a Tigers' uniform through 2019. He also has a $22 million option in 2020 that will vest if he finishes in the top five of the AL Cy Young voting in 2019.
So, given that Verlander also has a complete no-trade clause, unless he plans to pull a Nolan Ryan and pitch until he's 46, he'll be a Tiger for life.
"It doesn't very often happen anymore where a guy sticks with one team his whole career,'' Verlander said on that February morning. "You don't get that kind of loyalty from either side.''
Well, now you got that loyalty, from one rich guy to another.
Sure, it's hardly as if Verlander gave owner Mike Ilitch a hometown discount out of his sheer love for the city of Detroit.
Still, he certainly could have made more in New York in two years, when the Yankees stopped caring about their luxury tax, and could have set up a plethora of supermodel Kate Upton and Verlander commercials coming to a TV set near you.
That cheering you heard was not only throughout Michigan, but all of the way to the Major League Baseball offices at 245 Park Ave. in New York.
Commissioner Bud Selig traditionally grates his teeth and sneers at anyone who looks at him whenever a club establishes a new salary benchmark.
Yet, this day is different. Verlander is staying home. In the Midwest. In a struggling city that is in desperate need of good news. And playing for one of the most beloved owners in sports in 83-year-old Ilitch.
"I want to win the World Series,'' Ilitch told me in his office last April, "but not for me. For our community. For what it would mean to everyone that lives here. It would bring so much joy, so much happiness. Really, it would mean everything.
"Baseball just has such a tremendous effect on a city.''
And, if the Tigers don't win it while Ilitch is around, he made sure they'll have a fighting chance for the future, by keeping Verlander around.
It came at a hefty price, but these days, money is all relative, right?
Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez set the record for a pitcher's salary in February by agreeing to a seven-year, $175 million extension, eclipsed just a month later by Verlander, and a record that may not survive until opening day.
Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, 25, also happens to be negotiating a long-term contract. He just happens to be five years younger than Verlander, and also is eligible for free agency after 2014. He's also pitching for a franchise that was sold for $2.15 billion and is on the verge of a $7 billion TV deal.
"I don't want to talk about it,'' Kershaw told reporters this week.''
Yet, if Verlander can receive an average salary of $25.7 million over the next seven years, putting himself in A-Rod glorified air, surely, Kershaw will trump it.
It's the price of doing business these days.
Baseball is flush with money, projected to bring down $8.5 billion in revenue this year, with new contracts being negotiated everywhere you look. The Tigers will earn $100 million from its national and local TV deals beginning in 2014, and that's just the beginning.
Their current deal with their local FOX affiliate expires after the 2017 season, and instead of receiving $50 million a year, there's no reason to believe they won't quadruple that total.
Ilitch, who has done everything humanely possible to help resurrect the city of Detroit, much less the Tigers, is a shrewd man. He knows what sells.
Fans love stars. TV viewers love stars. Heck, he loves stars.
There's a reason why he has three of the greatest, and richest stars in the game: Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.,
"If you want stars,'' Ilitch said to me, "you have to pay the price.''
The Tigers are paying the price, but, you know what, they're also getting the results.
They've won two American League pennants in the last seven years. They're heavily favored to win their third consecutive AL Central Division title.
And, yes, the fans are paying attention. The Tigers have drawn more than 3 million fans three times since 2007, and there's' no reason to believe they won't cross that magical barrier again this year.
"We're going to bring a World Series to Detroit!!!'' Verlander tweeted just after the news of his deal. "Couldn't be more excited to spend my career here!'''
Well, considering Verlander's star power, and his resume, Ilitch and the rest of the Tiger's front office couldn't be more excited to be keeping him. The man is already a five-time All-Star, going 124-65 with a 3.40 ERA in his career, winning the AL MVP and Cy Young in 2011.
Sure, it's an expensive investment, but if Ilitch didn't believe this was a shrewd business deal, this never happens.
The former Tigers' minor-leaguer didn't amass a $2 billion fortune on sentimentality, either.
Ilitch needed Verlander, and, well, Verlander needed him, too.
Just wonder what Kate Upton is thinking now.
Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @BNightengale
Copyright 2013 USATODAY.com
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