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Verlander welcomed 'home' with open arms

Former Tiger showered with ovation, video tribute in first visiting start at Comerica
MLB.com @jonmorosi

DETROIT -- On Aug. 12, the Tigers retired new Hall of Famer Jack Morris' No. 47 before an adoring crowd at Comerica Park. Two weeks later, they repeated the ritual with Alan Trammell, the 1984 World Series MVP and Morris' Cooperstown classmate.

On Monday night, a soulful crowd of 19,711 gathered at the same stadium to remind Justin Verlander of his own appointment with them -- year and date to be determined -- in what felt like a dress rehearsal for his own Hall of Fame homecoming.

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DETROIT -- On Aug. 12, the Tigers retired new Hall of Famer Jack Morris' No. 47 before an adoring crowd at Comerica Park. Two weeks later, they repeated the ritual with Alan Trammell, the 1984 World Series MVP and Morris' Cooperstown classmate.

On Monday night, a soulful crowd of 19,711 gathered at the same stadium to remind Justin Verlander of his own appointment with them -- year and date to be determined -- in what felt like a dress rehearsal for his own Hall of Fame homecoming.

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Verlander's dominance in his first start as a visitor at Comerica Park will be cherished in Detroit -- and by Verlander himself -- for the messages it included. From Verlander's pacy warmup walk to right field at 5:32 p.m., to the tribute video that nearly brought him to tears, to the standing ovation as he left the mound after the seventh inning, the embrace of his old home was unmistakeable throughout the Astros' 3-2 victory.

Video: HOU@DET: Verlander receives tribute in Detroit return

The pregame montage on the left-field scoreboard -- the no-hitters, the postseason heroics, the career milestones -- so overwhelmed the routine-obsessed Verlander that he halted his walk to the dugout in order to watch.

"I don't think in sports you get a lot of moments like that," Verlander said, "especially from a team that you're no longer associated with in the moment."

Verlander paused ever so slightly before he said those last three words -- in the moment -- thus capturing so much of what made the night special. Verlander is no longer on Detroit's active roster, but his place in franchise lore never has been more secure.

Rare is the baseball superstar who waives his no-trade clause, wins a World Series championship with his new team, and returns to universal acclaim barely more than one year later. All of that was true Monday in Detroit.

"That was important to me," Verlander said. "My legacy here was something I didn't want to take for granted. I didn't want to leave a sour taste in the fans' mouths here. I tried to make the best decision I could for myself personally, and for this organization.

"I think it was the right time to go, and I think they understood that. The writing was on the wall. We have very intelligent sports fans here in Detroit. They understood why I made that decision, and I made sure to express those sentiments to them."

Video: HOU@DET: Verlander receives ovation, fans Candelario

A lot has changed since Verlander bid farewell to his teammates at Comerica Park last Sept. 1. Verlander arrived in Houston after Hurricane Harvey devastated the city. Within two months, he had helped the Astros win the first World Series in franchise history. Verlander married Kate Upton in Italy. Now, the couple is expecting their first child.

The Tigers are completing their third losing season in a four-year span. Victor Martinez -- who's on the verge of retirement -- is the only active Tiger who appeared alongside Verlander in Detroit's 2013 American League Championship Series loss to the Red Sox. That defeat still haunts Verlander. The '13 Tigers likely were the most talented Detroit team of his tenure.

Verlander nearly cried when an image of Mike Ilitch, the late Tigers owner, appeared in the tribute video. "I still wish I could've gotten him a World Series ring -- and this city one," Verlander said afterward.

While Verlander's time with the Tigers is complete, that history is relevant because those years provide the bulk of his Hall of Fame credentials. Detroit was where he earned the plaques that serve as the tentpoles of his Cooperstown argument -- the 2011 AL MVP Award, the 2011 AL Cy Young Award, the 2006 AL Rookie of the Year Award -- and where he started Game 1 of the 2006 World Series at age 23.

The criteria for starting pitchers to be elected to the Hall of Fame is evolving along with the game, but Verlander's case is compelling in any age: He became a full-time Major League starter in 2006. Since then, Verlander has more wins and strikeouts than any other pitcher.

Video: Verlander and Cole both notch 250 K's in 2018

Verlander may win two more World Series rings with the Astros before departing Houston as a free agent after the 2019 season, but the Olde English D still would be most appropriate for his Hall of Fame plaque. There's no evidence that Verlander is poised to sign a long-term extension with the Astros. He could wear another two or three jerseys before he's through in the Majors. (Verlander said earlier this year that he'd like to pitch until he's 45 years old.)

In that way, perhaps Verlander's career will mirror that of Jim Thome, his longtime AL Central adversary and Hall of Famer alongside Morris and Trammell. Thome played 13 seasons for the Indians, just as Verlander did in Detroit. Thome played for five other teams, but Cleveland always seemed to be his baseball home. Monday's emotions showed the same is true for Verlander and the team that drafted him No. 2 overall in 2004.

Morris left the Tigers as a player, too. Trammell never did. Now their numbers reside forever, side by side, on the brick facade in left-center field, at a ballpark where Verlander holds virtually every meaningful pitching record.

Asked if he'd followed the twin jersey retirements from afar and wondered about having a day of his own, Verlander said, in part, "Having a number retired here was never a specific goal. It was just to give everything I've got, every fifth day, and see what happens. For the most part, I've stayed healthy ... When it's brought up, it's pretty cool to think about. Maybe in the future."

Maybe? Probably.

The Tigers' roster is laden with September callups. No one has claimed Verlander's old No. 35.

Jon Paul Morosi is a columnist for MLB.com.

Detroit Tigers, Justin Verlander