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03/05/12 5:26 PM ET

Finding balance a breeze for Verlander

Building fame hardly fazes 2012 AL MVP/Cy Young winner

LAKELAND, Fla. -- It was Justin Verlander's first start of the spring, the first time the Tigers ace would take the mound since winning both the American League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Awards.

So the fans at Joker Marchant Stadium gave Verlander a standing ovation when he approached the dugout Monday and cheered while he did his running.

Which, of course, brought up the question of how he should handle it. He was a man at work, after all, but it would have been impolite to ignore those who were showing their appreciation for all he has accomplished.

Verlander gave a small wave and kept running.


It's not always possible to find the proper balance. The priority is always going to be performing at the highest possible level. But the better a player does, the more attention he'll receive and the more outside demands there will be. Verlander, who has firmly established himself as one of baseball's very best pitchers, has seemingly remained unfazed.

"He's handled it so beautifully," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "He's one of the huge names in baseball now. I don't want to hide from that. I don't want him to hide from that, and I don't think he has. It's how you embrace it. It's how you handle it, and he's been unbelievable.

"That's a beautiful thing. I'll say it. Justin Verlander is one of those guys who had established himself to the point where, I don't know. I can't put a number on it. But 1,000 or 2,000 extra people might come to the game when he starts. That's just the way it is. That's good. Look at The Bird. Look at what Mark Fidrych did. He attracted people. Verlander attracts people."

Hey, if it was easy, there would be no celebrity gossip magazines.

He's had a game plan that's helped him win 61 games over the last three seasons. And he's developed an approach about handling success, too, both from talking to players who have come before him and watching the pitfalls others have experienced.

"I just learned not to do too much," he said after pitching two scoreless innings in a 4-2 win over the Blue Jays. "And I feel like that wasn't learned from me. That was kind of learned maybe by seeing some other guys or hearing stories about guys who have done too much or become complacent. I don't have any particular names, and I wouldn't say them if I did. But I don't want that to happen."

He also doesn't want anyone to think he isn't appreciative of the support.

"They started an 'M-V-P' chant. It's pretty special," he said with a smile. "I think the fans see how much hard work I've put in for this city and this team. That's how they show their support, and it doesn't go unheard. I know before the game, especially, I don't really react at all. But I hear it, and it definitely hits home.

"It's their way of showing their excitement, respect, whatever. That's not what I work for, but that's part of it. I work very hard for my inner drive. But as well, I want to please these fans and the city of Detroit."

Leyland finds the 29-year-old's off-the-field demeanor every bit as compelling as what he's done on the mound.

"His physical ability, learning more about pitching, knowing himself. That's fantastic," Leyland said. "But what's impressed me is how he's matured so much. And he might not even realize it. I can't credit him enough with how he's handled everything that's happened to him the last couple years. I don't know sometimes if people know how it happened or why it happened, but he's been terrific."

The 67-year-old manager noted approvingly that Verlander, like many veterans, goes out of his way to make the less established players feel comfortable, which led to a hilarious riff on how different it was during Leyland's seven years as a Minor Leaguer in the Tigers' system.

"I'm not saying when I played, because I didn't play, but when I was around the game as a young guy, I came over here and I saw Al Kaline. Shoot. He was great. Don't get me wrong. But you were scared to death to say hi to him. You never bothered a guy like Norm Cash or Al Kaline or Mickey Stanley," Leyland said.

"Now it seems like Verlander and Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera, they embrace these kids. Victor Martinez took all the catchers to dinner last year. The big guys invite them to dinner and take them to play golf.

"When I was here, you got a sandwich and an iced tea over at Tigertown. And you could only have one milk. I want to emphasize how good Al Kaline was to me. He was absolutely unbelievable. But if 40 years ago or whatever it was, Al Kaline had asked me to go to dinner, I'd have passed out. I'd have been so nervous I wouldn't have been able to eat."

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.