Those of us who appreciate baseball's long history were lucky Thursday night. You don't always know that the players you're watching on a given night are the future Hall of Famers, the ones you're going to boast of seeing 10 or 20 years from now. So many players only seem historic in retrospect. When the Hall of Fame voted in, say, Rick Ferrell in 1984, perhaps it succeeded in completing its collection of catchers to that point, but what it could not do is send the message back in time to the thousands of fans that watched him play in St. Louis or Boston or Washington and tell them, "Pay attention! You're watching someone special here!" They didn't know; it was 1984's judgment that he was historic, not 1932's or 1942's.
We are powerless to affect the past. We can find a fresh appreciation of a player who was dismissed in his own day through something obtuse or primitive in that era's perceptions in the same way that critics eventually proclaimed Moby Dick, a flop in its own time, a masterpiece of American literature, but we can't make that player a star in his day any more than the critics can make Melville's book a bestseller in 1851. They missed their chance to experience it as it was happening, which is a different experience than looking back. It's like trying to get a sense of what it was like to watch Eric Davis play -- and Davis never finished higher than ninth in the voting for Most Valuable Player, so this applies to him -- from the stats on his Baseball-Reference page. You get the echo, not the blast.
There probably wasn't much chance of that happening with Justin Verlander, not after he had already collected almost all the hardware a ballplayer can get -- with Rookie of the Year, MVP, and Cy Young awards to his credit, all he's missing is a Gold Glove and a World Series ring, and he may yet get the latter in the next couple of weeks -- but if you hadn't yet gotten the message that yes, this is a guy for the memory books, this is a guy you go out of your way to buy tickets for his starts when the Tigers come to town, or at the very least make sure you're situated on a sofa or barstool at the appropriate times, you found out on Thursday night.
(Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)
This has very much been the postseason of the rookie hurler, with rookies like Michael Wacha, Gerrit Cole and Sonny Gray taking spotlight turns, teams putting all their chips on kids who trumped their lack of experience with gumption and great stuff. The Tigers, on the verge of leaving the postseason derby empty-handed for the third year in a row, rallied to force a Game 5, then turned to the 30-year-old with two career no-hitters to save their striped bacon. Not only is the workhorse Verlander the furthest thing from a beardless youth, he was supposed to be a degraded version of himself, a fading star whose heavy workload over the last five years had eroded his velocity and reduced him from elite to merely solid.
None of that was in evidence on Thursday night. Verlander threw 95, he commanded his pitches, and no-hit the Oakland A's for 6⅔ innings. He left having thrown eight scoreless innings, striking out 10. It was one of the great postseason performances, a season-saving performance against an excellent team, Verlander playing Horatius at the Bridge.
Verlander should have many seasons in front of him. Perhaps he will never again pitch as well as he did in this game, or have a season as good as the one he had in 2011, when he went 24-5 with 250 strikeouts and a 2.40 ERA. It wouldn't much matter; he's already had the heart of a Hall of Fame career, and if much of the rest turns out to be padding he'll still be one of those special players, not a Ferrell, but a guy that you knew about. Alternatively, he could have several more 2011s and finish not just as a great pitcher but one of the greatest.
The Tigers will be happy to leave that reckoning for another day, with the hope that whatever it ends up being that the climax was not reached in the ALDS but will be achieved in some other time and place, say the deciding game of the World Series. Either way, it's a judgment that will likely be made by others. Just as we cannot change the past, we also have no control over the future. The best we can do is try to influence it by pausing at moments like these to drop some kind of marker, a stele that says, "If there is any question in your mind as to this pitcher's greatness, understand that had you been here to see it, you would have known."
That's how good Verlander was Thursday.