LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jose Valverde’s locker is now nowhere to be found at Joker Marchant Stadium this spring -- or any other stadium, come to think of it.
So as the Tigers prepare to spend spring training trying to figure out whether to give Valverde’s old closer’s job to Bruce Rondon, Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel or some fire-breathing relief monster to be determined later, they’ve noticed something strange:
Their former closer is still a member of the All-Unemployed Team.
And to his former manager, a gentleman named Jim Leyland, that makes about as much sense as Lady Gaga.
Asked Thursday morning if he was surprised that Valverde is still hunting for work, Leyland jolted to attention. And once he began talking about Valverde, the manager couldn’t seem to stop.
“I’m shocked,” Leyland said. “Totally shocked. Broken-hearted. Can’t believe it. This guy was absolutely fantastic, absolutely fantastic for us. One of the best teammates I’ve ever managed. He did as good a job for three years in a row, he had the most saves and the best percentage. I can’t believe it.
“Granted, he wasn’t as good maybe last year. But in a two-week period [last October], it seems like everything that this guy did got forgotten about. I just can’t even imagine that.
“I’ve talked to a couple of people and recommended him very highly,” Leyland went on. “I won’t say who they were, but I’ve recommended him very highly. I don’t know the ins and outs. It’s none of my business. I don’t know what the agent’s talking about. So I don’t want to stick my nose into anything, because I don’t have any idea. But it just breaks my heart, and I’m totally shocked.”
Then, for just a second, Leyland paused for a quick gulp of air -- whereupon he kept on going, without a follow-up question being asked, showering praise for an out-of-work relief pitcher all over his clubhouse.
“Like I said, what this guy did for the Detroit Tigers cannot be forgotten, in my opinion. I think that would be a shame. This guy was absolutely tremendous. And a tremendous teammate. One of the best I’ve ever managed.”
And then, one last time, he uttered the three words that started all this: “Shocked. Totally shocked.”
In Valverde’s three seasons as Leyland’s closer in Detroit, he saved 110 games in 118 tries -- the most total saves and the best save percentage (93.2) in the sport. He also led all AL closers in appearances (206), games finished (192) and pitches thrown (3,384) in that span.
When someone asked Leyland how much influence Valverde also had in the clubhouse, by mentoring many of his team’s young Latino pitchers, the manager couldn’t help but chuckle.
“He had a lot of influence on the manager when he saved those games -- 49 straight,” Leyland said. “I don’t know what he was talking in Spanish to some of the other kids. But I understood it pretty good when that third out was made 49 straight times. Including Yankee Stadium in the bleeping fifth game of the playoffs, when he goes through [Curtis] Granderson, [Robinson] Cano and [Alex Rodriguez] 1-2-3, with a one-run lead in Yankee Stadium. I mean, that’s pretty bleeping good.”
But in Valverde’s line of work, memories are short. So in Detroit, so many memory banks were so irreparably scarred by a 2012 postseason in which Valverde allowed 12 of the final 17 hitters he faced to reach base and lost his job to Phil Coke in the middle of a World Series run, the Tigers decided to move on this season -- even though it’s not 100 percent clear yet what, or whom, they’re moving on to.
“I think the Tigers just felt that it was time,” Leyland said. “It was pretty rough on him that last period here in Detroit. It got a little rough on the kid. I understood the magnitude of what was going on and everything. But if you noticed, I was one who supported him through thick and thin, through all of that. I had to do what I had to do. I wasn’t very comfortable doing it, but I did what I had to do.”
And on Thursday morning, the manager did what he had to do to get his old closer’s name off the unemployment rolls. And after that glowing review, he’d be even more shocked if Valverde was still out of work a week from now.