The Runner Sports

Justin Verlander Will Give Astros What They’ve Never Had. A Ring? Maybe. Legitimacy? Definitely

With one last-hour phone call and one last-minute “yes,” the Houston Astros accomplished more in 55 minutes than the franchise has in 55 years. There are three men to thank: Detroit Tigers GM Al Avila, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, and of course, the man to whom much has been given, and from whom much is expected, starting pitcher Justin Verlander.

Tigers’ ownership trust probably had little to do with the transaction, short of ordering it done, happy as they probably are to be rid of the 34-year-old right-hander’s annual salary, perhaps in the neighborhood of the current quarterly earnings of General Motors.

Mad props, though, should go to Luhnow (and Astros owner, Jim Crane) for the guts to actually pull the trigger on “the trade they said couldn’t be done.” The drooping players’ shoulders, lackluster August, and terse tweets that followed Houston’s virtual inactivity at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline should now be exchanged for parades and hurrahs for the bare-bones bravery it took to finally land Verlander.

Volumes have already been written about that final hour on August 31, the revocable waiver deadline for deals involving players allowed to be on playoff rosters. This reporter added to the puddle of ink, and while Verlander has since pledged loyalty, excitement, ad campaigns, and autograph sessions to the Astros, I still can’t help but question his hand-wringing decision he claims he was cornered to make in the waning minutes of that hot August night.

Verlander, Verisimilitude, and The Voice

One of the many entertainment reality shows American Idol has whelped in the past two decades is the chair-turning singing battle, The Voice, where contestants sing to the backs of four rumored celebrities, who are obliged to push a button to whirl their Barca loungers to suddenly face a singer they like.

When all four celebs adore a particular singer and have whipped their motorized chairs around, the contestant must choose which celebrity to have as their personal coach as they progress through the series.

Invariably, the contestant endures a gum-chewing, stomach-twisting torture, as a “sudden” decision now must be made before several hundred in a cramped studio, and the millions watching at home. Really? The singing contestant has never thought of which “coach” he/she would like in the eventuality all four turn around? That decision is left till it has to be made on the show? Really?! You’ve never given a previous thought that you might prefer, say, Adam Levine over Blake Shelton, as the MC builds the tension toward a four-minute commercial block?

Cut to Verlander Thursday, August 31 at 11:20 pm (CT). He was suddenly confronted with a choice between the Dodgers (a Verlander favorite who weren’t the least bit interested) and the Cubs (a second Verlander favorite unwilling to part with the bundle of top prospects Detroit was demanding).

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Then, according to Bob Nightengale of USAToday, “Verlander was informed by the Tigers it would be the Astros or nobody.

“So, after getting permission from the Tigers, he started making calls. The Astros called him. He had questions. Lots of them.

“He talked with Astros ace Dallas Keuchel. He talked with Astros owner Jim Crane. He talked with Astros manager A.J. Hinch.”

As Nightengale reminds us, the Tigers and the Astros have been trying for nearly two months to consummate a deal to bring Verlander to Houston. And Verlander was curious about Houston only in the last half-hour prior to last Thursday’s deadline, thus prompting a flurry of phone calls to Crane, Keuchel, and Hinch? Really?

If it had been common knowledge that a Verlander trade by Detroit was imminent and talks were in progress for weeks, why on earth did it never occur to Verlander to make those eventually hurried phone calls to the Astros during the many weeks he first learned he was on the block, even though he’d had it written in his contract, “No Houston?”

I think it’s safe to assume he made inquiries to the Dodgers and Cubs during this time, as they were teams he would have been more than happy to join, with their respective storied pasts, and recent legacies of winning. Or if he didn’t make phone calls of inquiry, he was satisfied with them being possible landing sites, and they were not on his no-trade list, as the Astros reportedly were.

Even if he were certain Houston couldn’t be a possible trade destination, perhaps three minutes of due diligence might have been in order. Again, he knew Houston was, from Detroit’s front office perspective, a team being contacted regarding a trade. To paraphrase the apt saying: “Lack of planning on Verlander’s part does not constitute an emergency on any number of Astros’ parts.”

Not only did ignoring the writing on the wall cause a knotted stomach for himself the night of the trade, but never imagining going to Houston caused several needless inconvenient late-night phone calls to obtain answers that easily (and conveniently) could have been offered during regular business hours weeks before.

Finally, it was Avila’s insistence that Detroit was jettisoning its established players, going young, and losing any chance of winning the next couple of years that convinced Verlander to accept a trade to Houston. In other words, it’s the Astros or stay with an imminent loser. That, and he’s long been a fan of Hall-of-Famer Nolan Ryan, Astros ace in the 1980s and currently Crane’s executive advisor, and now, most likely, Verlander’s.

Again, from Nightengale’s piece: “‘He was a little worried about Houston (in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey),'” Crane told USA TODAY Sports. “I told him, ‘This town is going to be fine. It’s going to take time. You will be received great here. We’ve got a good team, a good manager, a good front office. There won’t be any problems here.’

OK, I’ll give the 13-year Tiger the Harvey doubts. The storm had hit the Texas gulf coast just a handful of days before the trade deadline.

“The big thing to him was that he had never been traded. He didn’t know a lot about the city. I told him, ‘We’ve got a lot of good players for a few more years. This is a great spot for reaching your goal of winning the World Series. You got to take a shot.’

He reportedly also had questions about the bandbox reputation of Minute Maid Park. A quick look at several baseball stat websites (as well as drawing on his experience and confidence) could’ve dispelled those fears. Didn’t know about the city? Web search. Plus, he’d been there countless times in Minute Maid’s visitor’s clubhouse and dugout.

“He had to make up his mind in a hurry because there wasn’t much time.”

Yes, there was.

Turning the Page

National sports reporters, digital, print, and broadcast, can now add Houston to the discussion of potential postseason combatants for 2017. At least, without stifling a giggle. Even Houston’s powerful offense, patchwork starting rotation, and owning the best record in the American League hasn’t been enough to convince many TV talking heads that Houston could go far in the playoffs, and some weren’t even shy about doubting their ability to clinch the AL Western Division crown.

Adding a pitcher with the stature and experience of Verlander instantly gives the Astros the respect, legitimacy, and yes, gravitas that has been missing from this franchise for decades. Now, the onus falls on the team to bring it on home and actually win out this time.

The Astros made it to the World Series in 2005, but were flicked off the diamond by the White Sox in a four-game sweep, outscored by Chicago, 20-14. Houston’s vaunted mid-1980s rotation of Ryan, Mike Scott, Jim Deshaies, and Bob Knepper had the respect, but despite a thrilling 1986 playoff run, still couldn’t claim ultimate legitimacy without a Series ring.

Long a team thought of as less-than by media types and even fans has been supplanted, now, by an urgency and near-inevitability that borders on crusade now that Harvey has left his cruel imprint on the community, regardless of what happens in what’s left of the regular season and what awaits in the postseason.

There isn’t much time.

Brad Kyle

Brad Kyle

Brad Ramone with (L-R) Dee Dee, Johnny, and Joey Ramone, backstage at Houston's Liberty Hall, July, 1977.

Johnny, the Ramones' influential guitarist, who passed away in 2004 at 55, was an avid baseball and New York Yankees fan since childhood. He even once ranked baseball above rock'n'roll in a personal Top 10 List!

Like Johnny, my love for rock is only equaled by my love for baseball and my hometown Houston Astros, present and past!

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Brad Kyle