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6/19/2007 11:58:00 AM

AL Central: Roots of Verlander's stardom

By Joe Lemire

I don't like you either, Justin Verlander.

It was bad enough when Mark Buerhle threw the season's first no-hitter on a Wednesday night, but Verlander had the audacity to toss his on a Tuesday. Though this may seem like a trivial matter to most folks, spectacular feats by White Sox and Tigers on Tuesday and Wednesday nights are personal affronts to a man who writes a weekly AL Central blog published Tuesday afternoons. Don't they understand the news cycle I'm working with?

My timeliness already ruined, I decided to turn back the clock even farther than last week and focus on what happened years ago in Goochland, Va. I caught up with Verlander's old AAU catcher, Mike Vranian, who caught Detroit's young gun throughout his teenage years and who now marvels at how far Verlander has come.

"Of all the kids on the team, he was not the one you'd expect to go far," says Vranian, now in medical school. "He had the body and he definitely had the velocity, but he threw a 55-foot curve ball. He could rarely get it over the plate."

Though its Verlander's velocity that still gets most of the attention -- and rightfully so for someone who hit 101 mph in the ninth inning -- his offspeed pitches stole the show last week, prompting Milwaukee's Corey Hart to call his curve and change "plus-plus."

As erratic as that curve used to be, it's not a complete surprise to Vranian that Verlander has harnessed its sharp break.

"[Verlander] was probably the hardest worker on the team," says Vranian. "He was always throwing long toss, and one of our coaches was an instructor at the Richmond Baseball Academy, so he took a lot of lessons with him."

Verlander learned quickly, too. Despite an ill-timed battle with strep throat during his senior year of high school that cost him strength, velocity and a high draft pick, he starred at Old Dominion University and later became the No. 2 overall pick of the 2004 MLB draft. Through it all, however, Verlander's delivery hasn't changed.

"His motion looks the exact same," says Vranian. "He still looks like the exact same guy I caught. He was always about 6'4" but seeing him in that Detroit uniform -- it's pretty surreal to see him pitching on TV."

Verlander's current catcher makes boasts like this one -- "He's got the stuff to be the best pitcher in the game," Ivan Rodriguez said -- even if it's old AAU catcher taking the credit.

"Whenever baseball comes up, I'm always asking, 'Have you heard of Justin Verlander? Yeah, I was his catcher,'" says Vranian, before adding with a laugh, "I'm claiming about two-thirds of his major league potential."

  • Royals fans finally have something to vote for. No Kansas City player deserves an All-Star start, but the Royals are looking for a signature song to play after "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in the seventh inning stretch. (For the record, the Royals, desperate for any kind of All-Star headline, are actually urging people to vote for John Buck.)

    Back to the matter at hand: Fans can go to Royals.com and vote for a seventh-inning song, choosing among classic titles like "The Limbo," "Kansas City," "Sweet Caroline," "Come On Eileen," "Ring of Fire," "Cotton Eyed Joe" and "Dancing Queen." Though "The Limbo" would be fitting, as the Royals are always finding new ways to go lower and lower, my vote's for "Ring of Fire" -- you just can't go wrong with Johnny Cash and there's some good singalong potential.

    But can't we find a better catalog of songs? "Sweet Caroline" is already a Boston trademark in the middle of the eighth (and has already been shamelessly ripped off by the Mets), and the Yankees already stake claim to "Cotton Eyed Joe." One thing's for sure, though: Don't follow this misguided advice from Chuck Woodling and write in "YMCA." Haven't we all suffered enough, Chuck?

  • The Twins easily have some of the best player commercials with their "This is Twins territory" campaign to advertise games on FSN North. Two of my favorites involve Joe Nathan -- this one in which he carpools with Johan Santana -- and one in which Nathan saves everything from coupons to a cat in a tree. Sadly, I can't find that one on YouTube, so instead I'll share another classic: this takeoff on the old Joe Greene Coke ad, only with Joe Mauer sharing something more unique.

  • A staple of last year's AL champion Tigers -- the bullpen -- continues to be in flux this year.

  • Happy Opening Day! ... of the New York-Penn League. In my effort to bring you completely useless updates of a short-season Single A league for which I have an odd affinity, I bring you a preview of tonight's Oneonta Tigers game and a profile on Indians' top pick -- and Mahoning Valley Scrapper -- Beau Mills, the son of Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills.
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    posted by SI.com | View comments |  


    Posted: June 19, 2007 12:43 PM   by Anonymous
    Thanks for the AL Central words. I tune in every week to hear your insights about the best division in baseball.

    If only I weren't a Royal fan...

    GO YMCA!
    Posted: June 22, 2007 12:48 PM   by Anonymous
    I appreciate your facination with the Ney York Penn league Go Scrappers
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