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.”
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images
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?”
They met in early 2012 while shooting a commercial. The first time they hung out, Verlander and Upton realized that whatever happened between them would happen with the outside world watching. They went to an Aerosmith concert in Detroit and afterward to a bar, where a random woman took pictures of them with her phone. They appeared online. Reporters called. Bar sources confirmed canoodling. Gossip ensued.
They kept their relationship light and fun through the next year—“just friendly,” Verlander says—until a day cruise with some friends on a yacht off the coast of Southern California deepened their bond. “It felt like the first time we really got to know the other person,” Upton says. “It felt…like finding a friend. A real friend.”
As the couple’s relationship progressed, Verlander’s body began to show signs of wear. His arm started hurting during the 2013 season, and although he managed to perform at a high level—he earned an All-Star spot and pitched well throughout the playoffs—the pain steadily grew. Then, during the offseason—a time in which rest and training should render one renewed—Verlander hurt his groin while doing a squat.
It was a freak injury—one that can happen but typically does not without some sort of slow erosion or mounting pressure being put on the body. An MRI revealed that, in addition to separating the tendon from the bone, Verlander also had an undiagnosed core muscle injury in his rectus abdominis (abdominal muscles). His adductors (hip muscles), doctors explained, had finally given out after having compensated for a weakened core for some time. “It had slowly started peeling away,” Verlander says. “Something’s gotta take the brunt of it, right?”
Verlander needed bilateral sports hernia repair surgery. So he went to a top surgeon in Philadelphia and afterward, recovered in a nearby hotel. Upton—living in New York at the time—was the first person to visit him. They watched TV and played board games in their pajamas. Lots of Yahtzee. Both Upton and Verlander, it turned out, were fiercely competitive; upon losing, they cursed and threw things. “That’s probably where I’m most comfortable,” Upton says. “Playing board games and joking around and just hanging out is kind of what I love doing.”
Jeffrey McWhorter/Associated Press
Richard and Kathy, Justin’s parents, also visited from time to time. They teased their son about his constipation—a common side effect of such surgery. How is your stomach? Does it hurt? As the jokes continued, Upton went to a store, bought everything that Google said could remedy such discomfort, and returned bearing bags of pills and “holistic movement solutions.” “His parents say that was the moment they knew they loved me,” she says.
The 2014 season was full of more struggles. Verlander worked his way back onto the mound, but his shoulder still hurt. (“Just a hot fucking mess,” Verlander says.) The more games he pitched, the more pain he felt in his shoulder, and the more his performance declined. No other pitcher in the American League gave up more runs than he did that season.
The world responded accordingly. National media types lit into Verlander relentlessly and incuriously. Local writers seemed disinterested in following up on his health or its effect on his play. Detroit fans outright booed him off the field. Social media became an endless stream of vitriol.
Trolls went after Upton, too, saying she ruined him. And saying, well—other dark, twisted things. “People suck,” Verlander says.
(Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Later that season, at a game in Pittsburgh on August 11, Verlander’s coach pulled him after the first inning and told him to get an MRI. On the way to the clubhouse, Verlander stopped on some stairs, sat down and cried.
He knew he would need surgery on his shoulder. Meaning that, at 31, he could be done. “I really thought it was the end,” he says.
But just as Verlander was falling apart, he was also falling in love. And that helped him cope with his troubles.
“She was instrumental in me not…like, jumping off a bridge,” he says. “I was depressed and kind of just upset at the world and trying to hide my own shit.”
Upton understood him. And she had a combination of qualities that could help him through his ordeal.
“Fuck, man,” he says, voice shaky. “She was what I needed.”
Not many people in the world could comprehend what he was going through. But she was there to listen, to help him.
“I don’t like to talk to people about being hurt. As athletes, you’re not supposed to. It’s an excuse. … But she was someone I could talk to. I mean, basically a therapist,” he says. “Somebody I could trust with … worries about my career. Worries about, Can I make it? Worries about what I’m going through to get back. And just the overall shittiness of it all.”
Bill Baptist/Getty Images
Upton knew plenty about having a career with a limited life span, about dealing with people who say you suck. She related to Verlander, told him what she’d been through, which helped put things into perspective for him. After Upton’s first Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover came out in 2012, the magazine sent her on a national press tour. A firestorm of criticism followed her. People said she was too fat. “She obviously had dealt with more than me in her life,” Verlander says. “I mean, being a woman? Being in that industry? Being that famous? That was a level I hadn’t dealt with.”
She showed Verlander how much it helped to really know one’s body. To know one’s body was to know the truth in the face of criticism, and that truth was like armor against doubt. “When someone attacked me, I knew I was living my life a healthy way,” she said. Hence: “Those comments mean nothing.”
The MRI on Verlander’s shoulder showed no structural damage. “It was basically every type of tendinitis, tendinosis, that you can think of,” he says. “Which, I was so relieved. I mean, just—wow. Holy shit. I’m not dead.”
He resolved to do all he could for his body. He tended to himself like his father had tended to those old sports cars. He obsessively reviewed footage of his pitching. (Even asked Upton for her take. “We’re going through slo-mo video of him throwing in the backyard,” she says. “I’m sitting there like, yeah, great, um, slider!”) He listened to Detroit’s trainers. He trusted their guidance.
And yet, pain.
“Clearly, I needed to change something,” he says.
Then, on August 31, Verlander’s phone was hacked.
A series of pictures were stolen. Their naked bodies, their intimate moments, all over social media and the internet.
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
It was painful. Embarrassing. Traumatizing.
“It was an extremely difficult time that we were able to grow stronger from,” Upton says.
And there was still the physical discomfort Verlander had in his arm. Upton, long accustomed to trusting her intuition on health matters, suggested Verlander try to find help somewhere else. “You would never expect that when you get to the major leagues, you’re not receiving the best of the best,” she says. “As a woman, you learn to always question everything everyone is telling you. My industry? My perspective of things? We can’t depend on anyone. Everything is our responsibility.”
So he trusted her, asked around and was recommended a trusted physical therapist, Dr. Annie Gow. Verlander made plans to see her after the season concluded in the fall, at her office in Midtown Manhattan, not far from Times Square.
On October 28, 2014, Verlander went to see Dr. Gow. They started off arguing with each other: She said he needed a full assessment; Verlander just wanted his shoulder fixed.
“Look,” Gow said. “If you’re going to tell me what to do, you are not going to get the best of me.”
Then she blew his mind.
She said to undress down to his shorts, including shoes and socks. She needed to see his feet.
“Your shoulder’s the victim,” she says. “That doesn’t mean that’s where the problem is.”
She asked Verlander to squat. He said he couldn’t. Not since the surgery.
Gow put a foam roller beneath the balls of his feet.
David Zalubowski/Associated Press
Now try, she said.
So he did.
Verlander’s problem was that he wasn’t flexible. At all. That was the source of his pain, his rapid decline. It started long ago, she said. Old tissue, left untended, had built up around bones and joints in his feet and ankles. Then it spread upward from there. To compensate for his decreasing range of motion, Verlander had been slowly changing his movements every season until essentially he was throwing just using his arm.
“It was really quite interesting,” Gow says. “He was this amazing pitcher in spite of himself.”
She took care to teach him what was happening. She embraced explanation as much as rehabilitation; for her, explanation was rehabilitation. “How else,” she says, “can you heal?”
They watched videos of his pitching. She saw things that, for all his obsessive study, he never even knew to look for. The over-rotation of the hips, the lack of firing in the legs and glutes, the way he started hiking his shoulder when everything else became too stiff and weak to support it.
“My body was a disaster,” he says.
Paul Sancya/Associated Press
They worked up to six hours a week for the next three months. They focused on improving Verlander’s soft tissue and joint mobilization through an alternative therapy technique called myofascial release. “He had to train himself how to pitch again,” Gow says.
By the end of spring training in 2015, Verlander started seeing the fruits of his labor. In his final start, he hit 97 mph on the radar gun again, and it felt effortless for three innings.
Then his arm got hurt again. Tigers trainers diagnosed a triceps strain. “I knew something was wrong,” Verlander says. “They take me out and misdiagnose me. … Didn’t get an MRI. Because it was so mild.” (Through a spokesman, the Tigers would not confirm or deny Verlander’s medical diagnosis due to HIPAA laws. The team also declined to comment on Verlander’s assessment of his care.)
A few weeks later, when Verlander hurt himself again, an MRI revealed a tear in his latissimus dorsi (his back). Verlander kept Gow involved after that. He’d go work with the Tigers trainers, then FaceTime her and let her do her thing. “I was the eyes,” Gow says, “and I used his trainer as my hands.”
(Leon Halip/Getty Images)
He finished out the 2015 season with three good months and suspected he was back for good. The following season, in 2016, he proved it: Verlander finished second in the American League Cy Young Award voting.
He didn’t have to go to Houston last August. When the deal was struck, he had 30 minutes to decide whether to waive his no-trade clause. He was curious about Houston’s analytics-heavy approach to pitching—maybe the Astros would see something he didn’t even know to look for. Kind of like Annie Gow.
He called a few people close to him. Some said he should stay in Detroit. He was torn. Upton helped him make up his mind. They’d gotten engaged during spring training in 2016. Her life was his life now. “If she had been anything less than enthusiastic,” Verlander says, “I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
When word reached the team, shortstop Carlos Correa says, “I threw my glove up in the ceiling and I broke it because I was so excited.”
Everyone basically reacted the same way.
And Verlander pitched great, of course. “It’s kind of boring, too, sometimes,” Correa says, fake complaining. “Because he strikes out so many. I tell him all the time, ‘You don’t get me my ground balls, bro. You need to get me more ground balls. I need my defensive stats.’”
Jeffrey McWhorter/Associated Press
But many great veteran athletes have arrived on promising teams and dragged them down with the weight of their toxic self-importance.
“He’s not an asshole,” Hinch says. “I’ve been around a lot of stars in my day. He gets it. For someone who virtually has everyone’s dream life and dream ability, he gets it.”
What’s mattered just as much as what he’s done on the mound is who he’s been to everyone there. “He is your favorite guy to play behind,” Correa says.
Maybe success is impossible without some sort of counterbalance. Verlander has ebbed this way his entire career. He falls in love, then his body falls apart. He gets traded to a World Series contender, and a postseason run threatens to upend one of the most important moments in his personal life.
Verlander and Upton planned their wedding to be a multiday affair for early November at a resort in Tuscany. They planned themed days and events and booked private villas for their guests. “We wanted it to feel like a vacation with 100 of our closest friends and family,” Verlander says, “and someone just happens to get married.”
In the chaos of moving to Houston and then making the playoff run with the Astros, it fell to Upton to handle moving, along with final wedding plans, along with, you know, being a working supermodel, too.
Early in the World Series, Verlander awoke to Upton slapping him, panicked. She suffered from night terrors. But the pressure from the wedding had gotten to her as well. The band she’d booked for their wedding had a two-hour limit. “We need a second band!” she yelled. “One band is not enough!”
So she booked another. “We wanted to dance all night,” she explains.
By Game 5, everything had fallen into place. Everything, that is, except Verlander’s schedule. In Game 6, he was slated to start.
“The only thing that could fuck it up,” Verlander says, “was Game 7.”
He tried for a perfect game. And he tried to get it all by himself.
“He kept talking about it,” Upton recalls. “I was like…there’s a whole team out there!”
Verlander was nearly unhittable through five innings, striking out 8. But the Dodgers scored two runs in the sixth and went on to win 3-1, forcing a Game 7.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
They would have to make do. Hastily so. After the Astros won Game 7 in Los Angeles, Verlander and Upton took a private plane from Los Angeles International Airport to Rome. A driver took them to Valentino’s in the heart of the city for Upton’s final wedding dress fitting. They returned to the airport, where, garments in hand, they boarded a helicopter. It took them right to the resort.
As they approached from the sky, one hundred of their closest friends and family were waiting for them. They were late, and it was beautiful.
“Makes it better that we weren’t there for the start of it, I think,” Verlander says. “If we’d won Game 6, and everybody made it perfectly on time? … It’s just like”—he makes a face and throws up his hands like a kid displeased with a gift—“Oh. Everything’s fucking perfect.”
The next day, they got married.
Then they danced all night.
When I meet with Verlander for lunch during a summer day in San Francisco, there’s a lightness to him. He pokes fun at himself. When he makes a joke, his eyebrows raise from behind his sunglasses in a show of sarcasm.
He seems to know now what he was built for and what it takes to navigate through his life with all its ups and downs. Pain leaves its marks but also gifts.
Rob Carr/Getty Images
A few weeks later, Upton announced on Instagram that she and Verlander were expecting. Like many new or expecting parents, they see the world a new way now, and they wonder what kind of world their child will inherit.
One thing is for certain: The kid will appreciate the beauty of a badass ride. Just like Verlander. Just like Upton, too. About that: She wasn’t wild about Verlander’s cars at first. Then he told her about his father, about his childhood dreams, about what they meant beyond the sum of their parts. She started coming around.
Now she has a custom-built car of her own. She hand-picked all its parts; watched it take shape from the inside out. “Won me over,” she says. She felt the connection.
Funny thing about it, though—she’s still a truck girl at heart. Probably always will be. Before she was a model, she rode horses. Grew up on ranches, on rough roads, around work that required vehicles that could haul heavy loads. Ferraris are built to be unbeatable. Trucks, unbreakable.
Sometimes when they’re about to leave the house for somewhere unfamiliar, Verlander tries to map out the journey ahead. He thinks hard about the roads they will take and wonders if there will be any potholes or unpaved terrain. On such trips, the Ferrari might not be the right fit. Nor would Eleanor. They need something else—something built for what is in store. On these days, she says, “Let’s just take the truck.” And they do.
Brandon Sneed is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag and the author of Head In The Game: The Mental Engineering of the World’s Elite Athletes. His writing has previously appeared in Outside, ESPN The Magazine and more, and has received mention in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter: @brandonsneed.