Seconds after Alex Rodriguez swung and missed to end what had been a record-laden Yankees season, the Detroit Tigers infield swarmed the pitcher’s mound, pushing and tugging at the reliever that had just secured the team’s passage to the league championship series. Minutes later, in a plastic-covered locker room deep inside Yankee Stadium, they would be drowning that same reliever in streams of champagne, attacking him so relentlessly with the bubbly that his eyes grew red and he had trouble giving interviews.
So rough-and-tumble were the celebratory pats on Jose Valverde, viewers of last night’s 3-2 Detroit Tigers win over the New York Yankees might be forgiven for wondering if the champagne-soaked pitcher made it out of the locker room alive. Yet if you've been watching the Tigers this season, you too might have gotten some joy out seeing the entire Tigers organization wrap its arms around Valverde for a squeeze that said I love you man, but I actually, really, really hate you for putting me through that.
There are people like Jose Valverde walking almost every facet of life. There’s the functional alcoholic media executive: the guy who never seems to have his stuff together, fumbling and fidgeting in his office to the bewilderment of colleagues… until 30 seconds before the Very Important Meeting, when he proceeds to make a presentation so awe-inspiring, it secures bedazzled clients for years to come. There’s the eternally distracted pharmaceutical lab supervisor, smiling and making small talk and not seemingly working, whom subordinates assume has no idea even how to operate a Busen burner… until he makes the nick-of-time observation that everyone immediately recognizes as a scientific breakthrough. There’s the station chef who seems to be just going through the motions, working in what seems to be a haze, possibly stoned… until he comes up with a dish so incredibly visionary, it ends up getting the restaurant three stars on a New York Times review.
And the list goes on: people walking almost every facet of life, except, perhaps, baseball. In establishing a pattern of zigging and zagging through the ninth inning, getting into seemingly impossible jams and then almost unfailingly getting out of them, Valverde has earned a reputation among fans and teammates as a guy seemingly as reckless as he is untouchable. This is remarkable stuff for baseball, a sport very much of statistics and probability. In a game where, if you play with fire enough times, you always get burned, Valverde is made of asbestos.
Valverde had a perfect 49-for-49 record of achieving saves on save opportunities during the regular season, meaning that, whenever he was put in the mound with his team ahead but the potentially-tieing run waiting in the batter’s deck, he always delivered. Closest in that statistic was the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera, who was 44-for-49. Brandon League, of the Seattle Mariners, was 37-for-42.
Yet behind those perfect results was a stomach-churning tendency to load up the bases before squeaking by for the win. In 72.1 innings of ulcer-inducing baseball, Valverde let a man get to at least first base 87 times. Rivera’s stat is 55; League’s is 66. Total bases, a statistic which accounts not only for letting a man on, but also for whether the pitcher got hit for a double, triple or home run, were more in line for the three pitchers. Valverde’s number is 74; Rivera, 63; League, 76. All of which means Valverde not only let more men touch a base, but that when he did, it was normally a result of hits or walks, not doubles or triples. If it weren't so inconceiveable, one could almost think of the pitcher as a baseball sadist: slowly, methodically drip-feeding tension into a game he has no plans on losing.
Valverde’s knack for keeping his team in a rollercoaster ride was even more evident in the Tigers’ first two post-season victories. In the first, October 2 game, Valverde came into the ninth with a 4-run lead, then proceeded to give up two runs and put two men in the bases before retiring the side. Trying to keep the ball from getting wet in the driving rain, he adopted an unusual windup stance, pressing his glove into his body just south of his belly button and hunching over. Instead of the fire-throwing fastballer the Tigers needed him to be at that moment, he looked like a kindergartener who really, really needed to go to the bathroom. In the October 3 game, he came in with a slim 5-4 lead, then proceeded to walk two batters. Of course, the Tigers still won.
“If you watched our games all year, the heart has been fluttering,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland, whose chain-smoking habit has probably not been helped by his mercurial closer, told USA Today after the second of the Tigers’ playoff wins.
Off the field, Valverde seems to relish the same affinity for pulling the dragon’s tail. In an interview after the second victory, he told a group of reporters assembled in front of his locker the Tigers that the Yankees “have a good team, but the series is not (coming) back to New York,” essentially boasting the Tigers would win the next game. While the comment was made in jest, it made waves in media-heavy (and baseball-mad) New York.
Another instance of Valverde’s off-the-field personality shining through was described by a teammate in an interview to Sporting News.
“It’s funny—on the plane, he can get kind of loud sometimes. We’ll hit some turbulence, and he’ll act like he’s on a horse,” said center fielder Austin Jackson. “Personally I’m scared, and he thinks it’s funny.”
Thinking the situation is hilarious when everyone else is petrified. Valverde in a nutshell.