As midnight ET approached on Thursday night, Justin Verlander was at his home in suburban Detroit. Tigers officials were in the house with him, offering updates on the status of trade conversations with the Astros and Cubs. The fates of multiple franchises -- hopeful hearts in a hurricane-ravaged city, the winner of the 2017 World Series -- all hinged on one man's decision.
When the Tigers and Astros first agreed on an exchange of players, Verlander, who has a full no-trade clause, was asked for his permission. He said no -- or, more accurately, not yet . He was not averse to pitching in Houston. But Verlander and his fiancée, Kate Upton, have always loved Chicago. (The Dodgers, also near the top of his wish list, weren't seriously involved Thursday.) As long as the Cubs were an active possibility -- and they were, into the final hour -- Verlander couldn't commit anywhere else.
But late Thursday, in the final moments before the midnight ET deadline to set players eligible for playoff rosters, the Tigers officials told Verlander more definitively than ever before: The Cubs, having made so many trades in an effort to become (and remain) World Series champions, weren't offering enough prospect value for a franchise pitcher.
If you're going anywhere, the Tigers told Verlander, it's going to be Houston. With barely a minute to spare, Verlander agreed to leave the only organization he's ever known.
Now that the deal is done, the fit makes more sense than ever.
Verlander, 34, is under contract through 2019 with a team wholly devoted to the achievement that's eluded him in a storied career: a World Series title. He arrives to a proud, but weary, city, desperate for optimism in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Verlander is the boldfaced pitching name with the rich postseason pedigree, the type the Astros failed to acquire at the non-waiver Trade Deadline -- to the disappointment of multiple Houston players.
And then, there's the Nolan Ryan connection.
Verlander was born and raised in Virginia, but his boyhood idol was an iconic Texan. From the time he discovered magic in his right arm, Verlander wanted to throw hard like Ryan, to intimidate like Ryan, to have a plaque in Cooperstown like Ryan.
"The Hall of Fame's always been a goal of mine, ever since I was a little kid," Verlander told me for a 2009 story in the Detroit Free Press. "When I was younger, I wanted to beat Nolan Ryan's strikeout record, but I know that's not going to happen. The Hall of Fame is something I feel is attainable, but that's a long way off. I don't think long-term. I think start to start, and break it down into small variables."
Verlander's next start will be for the best team in the American League -- the franchise for which Ryan earned 106 of his 324 victories and threw one of his record seven no-hitters.
And when Verlander first takes the ball for the Astros -- likely in Seattle next week -- he will do so for Ryan, an executive advisor to Astros owner and chairman Jim Crane. Ryan's son, Reid, is the team's president of business operations.
Ryan's No. 34 is retired by the Astros. No. 35 -- which Verlander wore in Detroit for more than a decade -- belongs to veteran left-hander Francisco Liriano.