PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Cool.
Justin Verlander was informed that Aaron Rodgers officially intends to play for your New York Jets this year, and that was the fellow right-hander’s initial reaction.
Verlander had just come off the spring training mound Wednesday after throwing five scoreless innings at the Cardinals in a performance best described as dominant by any right-minded person in the ballpark, except for the pitcher himself. His summation after striking out eight, walking none, and surrendering only one hit went like this:
“Need some work,” Verlander said after a laugh. “I ironically felt a little sloppy today.”
He would claim his slider was a bit loose, despite the fact a procession of pros paid handsomely to identify and hit that slider couldn’t touch it. Verlander maintained that his body was running away from a pitch that was just rolling out of his hand, and that the Cardinals had recognized what was coming and, in effect, had won the battle with that very recognition.
In other words, the guys who struck out and trudged back to the dugout had made it a very long day at the office for the Mets starter, who took a hard grounder off his calf to boot.
But that day brightened some after Verlander finished up his shoddy work, and heard that another eventual first-ballot Hall of Famer had declared his intentions to play for the Jets on “The Pat McAfee Show.” Verlander is 40, and Rodgers will turn 40 in December, when the Jets will be trying to finish first in the AFC East for the first time in two decades.
Verlander is a three-time Cy Young winner and two-time World Series winner. Rodgers is a four-time league MVP and one-time Super Bowl champ. Assuming the Jets complete the deal with the Packers, both superstars are about to spend their final seasons trying to elevate their historical standing in their respective sports.
Verlander and Rodgers were smart enough to see the value in New York. The value in potentially winning one for the road in the big city, for franchises that haven’t won it all in the longest time — the Mets since October 1986, of course, and the Jets since January 1969, of course.
Verlander brought up a Tuesday conversation he had with former Yankees reliever and current teammate David Robertson about the World Series title he helped the Yankees win in 2009.
“And what it was like winning a championship in the city and what the parade was like,” Verlander said. “And obviously in that city, it’s just iconic. So I don’t know what it would mean for my legacy. I do know that’s why we play the game.
“You want to win a championship, and if we were able to do that for this organization particularly, one that has gotten close a couple times and hasn’t quite been able to get over the hump in a while and has a wonderful fan base that I’ve come to know in a short period of time, those are the stories that live forever, you know? It would be pretty special.”
Imagine the Mets winning it all with Verlander and fellow slam-dunk Hall of Famer Max Scherzer at the top of the rotation. Now take that thought and multiply it by 10 and you end up with Rodgers winning the Super Bowl for the Jets, and becoming an even bigger No. 12 in team lore than Joe Willie Namath.
The NFL is a much more popular enterprise now than it was when Namath helped lay the foundation; pro football has replaced Major League Baseball as the national pastime. And since the Jets’ title drought is more biblical than the Mets’, Rodgers has a little more to gain here than do Verlander and Scherzer.
But not much. Those of us old enough to remember what it was like when the Mets took the city from the Yankees in the 1980s understand what’s in it for any ballplayer who contributes to the first title team at Citi Field.
“I’m not afraid to talk about winning a championship,” Verlander said. “I think establishing a culture that you expect to win a championship is important. You should be able to talk about it. That’s what we’re here for; you don’t shy away from it.
“However, you don’t put the cart before the horse. You start envisioning the parade and you’re too far ahead. Start envisioning winning [the World Series], making the right pitches and hitting the game-winning home run or … making a defensive play. … The parade — after it’s all said and done, and you’re exhausted after a long season and you’re laying down on the battlefield victorious, that’s the moment you enjoy it.”
It’s fitting that Verlander was pitching while Rodgers was revealing his plans to play for the 2023 Jets. After he signed with the Mets, Verlander said he “took a leap of faith.” Rodgers is about to take an even bigger leap of faith than that.
But it’s the smart play for both of these aging wonders. Ask Mark Messier. Few things in sports enhance a legacy like ending a championship drought in New York.
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