By: Will Burchfield
Michael Fulmer was proud of Justin Verlander, as proud as the pupil can be of the master. He was blown away by what his mentor had accomplished in two months with the Astros.
World Series champion. ALCS MVP. Title holder — once again — of best pitcher in baseball.
Fulmer wanted to congratulate Verlander, wanted to send him a fist bump or a hug, but he figured the man of the hour was already being swarmed with attention. So he held off.
“He just got married, just got back from his Honeymoon. I’m sure he had tons of texts. I wasn’t going to bother him,” Fulmer said.
Then, sometime around the holidays as Fulmer recalls, his phone rang. It was Verlander.
“He FaceTimed me,” Fulmer said with a smile. “Kind of caught me off guard a little bit.”
In the month or so since winning the World Series in Los Angeles, marrying Kate Upton in Italy and setting off on his honeymoon, Verlander’s life had calmed down. He found time to reach out to a few people, and Fulmer, his teammate for two years in Detroit and his protege in the Tigers’ rotation, was on the list.
Specifically, Verlander wanted to know how Fulmer was recovering from the elbow surgery he underwent last September. (On Thursday Fulmer said he feels “fantastic.”)
“He just said ‘Merry Christmas’ and asked how things were going, how I was feeling,” Fulmer said. “He still cares, and that meant so much to me.”
When Fulmer first arrived in Detroit in the spring of 2016, Verlander took him under his wing. He brought him to dinner and bought him a couple suits, per the veteran’s routine, and offered him tips between starts. Then he sat back and watched the rookie become one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball.
In Fulmer, Verlander saw some of himself. More than the powerful right arm, it was the drive, the hunger, the fierce competitiveness. No one wants the ball more than Verlander, but Fulmer, at 23 years old, was coming pretty darn close. A mutual respect was born.
Last season, Fulmer was voted into his first All-Star Game. Verlander, a veteran of six Midsummer Classics, sought him out to offer advice. Enjoy every moment, Verlander told him, attend every event. And make sure everyone signs your jersey. Fulmer followed through.
About two months later, Verlander was shipped to Houston. He was on a mission to win his first World Series and help the Astros do the same. He followed through.
Man, he followed through.
In his five regular-season starts following the trade, the 34-year-old went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA. In October, where legends are born, he went 4-1 with a 2.21 ERA.
Fulmer, watching from afar, was transfixed.
“Obviously we were all pulling for him, and what he did after the trade, I’ve never seen anything like it. The ball’s exploding out of his hand, he’s hitting his spots, sliding it, curving it, changing his speeds. I texted him, like, ‘Dude,'” Fulmer recalled with a laugh, ‘What are you doing?'”
“We’re just so happy for him that he was able to get that first one.”
The departure of Verlander signaled the end of a Tigers era. It also left a void, both in the team’s rotation and the fans’ hearts. If there’s anyone who can fill it, who can inject meaning into a potentially hollow season, it’s Fulmer.
“Last year we had our guys, man, our veteran guys who were going to be there. But now those guys are gone and basically we’re going to start fresh,” Fulmer said.
But he’ll carry with him everything he learned from Verlander. And he certainly won’t forget a phone call he received around Christmas.
“I was just happy he reached out to me,” Fulmer said, “and still had enough care to FaceTime me and talk.”