- David Fleming, ESPN Senior Writer
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I was only halfway through my gargantuan Taco Bell order when Sydney the cashier stopped what she was doing and looked out into the parking lot, and then back at me, before asking: “There are more people coming to help you eat all this, right?”
Because it was still technically breakfast time, the Border was pretty much empty, so I took a moment to explain exactly what I was up to.
See, Sydney, I said, I left my beloved, rugged hometown of Detroit about 20 years ago -- along with about one million other people. But most of us still miss the place, especially the sports teams. When the Tigers made it back to the World Series, I was looking for something, anything, to reconnect and support the team from afar as they prepared to face the red-hot Giants.
I was at the fiery postgame riot after the 1984 World Series, and recently I have been on a crusade to help save the old Tigers Stadium site -- but as Game 1 loomed, I just hadn’t found anything to sink my teeth into with the 2012 team.
That’s when I saw a story about Cy Young Award winner and Game 1 starter Justin Verlander.
There were many impressive tidbits about Verlander, including a 100 mph fastball, an $80 million contract, a 7-0 record in recent starts, a reported relationship with supermodel Kate Upton and a Ferrari.
But none as fantastic, at least to me, as this: Before every start Verlander consumes a 5-course, 1,650-calorie meal from Taco Bell, consisting of three Crunchy Taco Supremes (no tomatoes), a Cheesy Gordita Crunch and a Mexican Pizza (hold the tomatoes).
After winning AL MVP last year, he went on Conan O'Brien's show to share his secret.
“The night before [each start] -- as you can tell by my amazing physique -- I eat Taco Bell, every night at home, every start,” Verlander said. “You’re welcome, Taco Bell.”
Replied Conan: “Which then also results in your game-day diarrhea tradition. You’re welcome, Taco Bell.”
Yes, the meal contains almost 100 grams of fat and more than 2,300 mg of salt, but the Tigers needed me. I’ve got a soft spot for weird pitchers in Motown. Tigers legend Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, who used to groom the mound by hand and talk to the baseball before each pitch, was my all-time favorite baseball player growing up. (Ron LeFlore and Rusty Staub were close behind.)
So before Verlander took the mound in Game 1, out of solidarity I vowed to also partake in his pregame meal and I invited every and all misplaced Tigers fans across the globe to join me at gut-check time.
(Only my neighbor Jak and his son Sam agreed and that was after I promised to pay for the whole thing. And by "pay," yes, I mean expense.)
On the car ride to the Bell we talked about strange pregame meals in the world of sports. Wade Boggs used to eat chicken before every game. Brian Urlacher likes to have chocolate-chip cookies. I read somewhere that Caron Butler used to drink a full two liters of Mountain Dew before every tipoff.
Then you’ve got LSU coach Les Miles, who eats grass before every game; Jerry Tarkanian, who used to munch on hand towels; and my personal fave: Tyler Kennedy, who became a YouTube sensation after he was caught licking his hockey stick on the Pittsburgh Penguins' bench. Anyone who has ever played hockey and smelled the inside of a hockey glove can testify to the fact that it would be cleaner and far more appetizing to lick the floor of a Port-A-John.
So, yeah, while I would have preferred something more near and dear to my hometown, like Faygo red pop, a plate of Coneys or even some hometown Strohs, how bad could a breakfast of tacos be?
Sydney the cashier seemed to know.
Out of pity, as the total climbed toward $40 and people came out from the kitchen to stare at and pray for us, she offered to give us free drinks. When the food arrived, the tray was piled so high and so heavy Jak and I had to each take a side and move it to our seat like we were moving a sofa.
Halfway through the Mexican Pizza -- a double-decker delight with a crust the size of a bike wheel featuring a massive, swirling paint-spill of cheese on top and a mélange of beef and beans underneath -- I have several distinct thoughts:
1) This kind of top-notch nutrition does not help with the "baseball players are true athletes" argument.
2) I’M GETTING PAID RIGHT NOW!
3) Taco Bell needs to sign Verlander up and call this either the #35 combo for Verlander’s number or the "Justin Time Combo," as in, “I made it to the can, Justin Time.”
4) I should point out that Verlander recently donated $45,000 from the sale of his Fastball Flakes cereal to VA hospitals -- wait, what ... I love cereal!
5) Wouldn’t it have been much smarter to write a column relating to the Tigers and their ace by either going on a date with a supermodel or driving a Ferrari?
Exhale. Glurp. Phew.
I stare at the Gordita for a long time knowing that -- I swear to god -- I’m scheduled to do squats and rope climbs at Crossfit this afternoon.
But in the middle of this spongy, spicy concoction, I notice that the Taco Bell TV is on SportsCenter, which is showing highlights of Verlander’s eight-inning shutout against the Yankees.
It’s a sign, I decide.
What if Verlander throws so hard and so often simply because the dude needs to get back to the clubhouse bathroom ASAP between innings?
I slow down considerably, but Sam’s a college kid and a real fan, and after less than 35 minutes he’s already finished, leaning in the corner of our booth, rubbing his LA Kings hat on his head and moaning ever so slightly.
Later he will text me that he was on the can so long in the afternoon that he finished his entire Econ homework in one sitting.
Sam also doused his tacos in hot sauce, just like Verlander does. (By the way, did you know the packets at Taco Bell have little messages on them like, "Boo-yah" and "Text Me!")
I’m pretty sure the one I picked up said: "You Should Have Gone to Law School Like Your Parents Wanted."
I eat the tacos dry. My breath could melt concrete. There is taco shrapnel everywhere -- on my Tigers hat, on my notebook. I even find a tomato cube up my left shirt sleeve.
I’m sweating a bit now and the food is situated high in my gullet, like my body hasn’t fully decided what direction to go with it, up or down. I can’t decide yet which would be worse. I chew on, and finish dead last by taking a deep breath, re-checking my escape route to the bathroom and then stuffing the final half of a taco into mouth.
Almost 53 minutes after sitting down, I’ve made it, I’m done. I’m as close as I will ever be to feeling like an elite pro baseball player. But, mostly, I just feel gassy. And confident.
But, yeah, mostly gassy.
Having done the research, I’ve now got really bad news for Giants fans: Justin Verlander is not human.
If he can eat this meal, process it and convert it to 100 mph gas while wearing white baseball pants in front of millions of fans, what else would he possibly have to fear?
I push back from the table, smiling and burping at the same time, using the sides of my baseball hat like a napkin.
In front of me are three empty taco wrappers, a mound of soiled napkins and hot sauce wrappers, the ghost of a Gordita and the crumpled remains of a Mexican pizza box.
Ah, yes ...
Home plate, Detroit Tigers style.