The crazy career of Papa Grande is probably over

In four seasons with the Detroit Tigers, Joe Valverde saved 119 games in 130 save opportunities.

In four seasons with the Detroit Tigers, Joe Valverde saved 119 games in 130 save opportunities.

We’ll never see the likes of Jose Valverde on a pitcher’s mound ever again. We won’t see Valverde at all either, because the career of the former All-Star reliever is almost certainly finished, ended under a dark cloud.

Last August the former Detroit closer was suspended for 80 games for violating the drug policy. Papa Grande was caught red-handed, failing a test while he was with the Syracuse Chiefs, the top farm club for the Washington Nationals. The Nats had already released Valverde when the news broke. The 37-year old had pitched pretty well for the Chiefs in 27 games in 2015, saving 10 and posting a 2.39 ERA in an effort to return to the major leagues.

If Valverde was pursued by an MLB team now, those 80 games would still have to be served, making it very unlikely that any team will take a chance on a pitcher who is approaching 40 and who hasn’t been effective in five years.

The last time that Valverde pitched in the big leagues was when he started the 2014 season as the closer for the New York Mets. But having packed on 20-25 pounds, he looked even more round than he did when he was in his heyday, and Valverde lost his job as closer before April was out. By the end of May he was obviously not going to do well in the setup role either and the Mets released him.

From 2010 to 2013, Valverde was in a Detroit uniform, pitching critical innings out of the bullpen for manager Jim Leyland. No scientific measurements have been taken, but it’s probable that Leyland’s cigarette intake increased by a large amount during those years when “Papa Grande” was his closer. Valverde was flamboyant and demonstrative on the mound after recording a save, but it often came after he’d allowed the tying and winning runs to reach base. Detroit fans did not love Valverde as much as survive him.

The 2011 season was his masterpiece. That year Valverde pitched in a league-high 75 games and saved 49 games, also tops in the American League. He was perfect in converting saves, 49-for-49, helping the Tigers to their first AL Central division title. That season he was an All-Star and he finished fifth in Cy Young voting. He may have been crazy and impossible to watch, but he was ours, and the team was winning. His antics were tolerated.

What sort of antics could you expect from Valverde when he was spinning his fastball on the hill? Well, he liked to pump his fist, point to the sky, and do a dance that seemed a little like a fat kid avoiding a fast one on dodge ball. his nervous mannerisms were fascinating to watch too: he adjusted his cap, dug at the mound, and fidgeted with his glasses. Channeling his inner-Dennis Rodman, Valverde was fond of dying his hair too. One never knew if there would be a purple, yellow, or orange tuft of hair under his Tigers cap. As I wrote once a long time ago, watching Valverde felt sort of like being allowed to observe someone have a nervous breakdown in public.

Still, the 2011 season was magical. In the month of June, Valverde was nearly as perfect as a closer could be: he pitched 11 games, recording six saves, and did not allow a run in 10 1/3 innings. In August the portly righthander saved 12 games and posted a 1.29 ERA as the Tigers widened their lead in the standings. He pitched on no days or one days rest 48 times. His arm was as solid as his donut-shaped stomach.

In Game Two of the 2011 ALDS against the Yankees, Valverde showed how he could wilt under immense pressure. With Detroit protecting a 5-1 lead, Leyland sent his closer in to finish the game in the ninth at Yankee Stadium. Nick Swisher greeted him with a home run, Jorge Posada followed with a triple on a ball to deep center, and Valverde then proceeded to walk Russell Martin. Just like that the tying run was at the plate. Andruw Jones flied out to score a run, but Valverde still managed to walk another batter and only after 34 agonizing pitches did he record the third out to give the Tigers the 5-3 win and even the series.

Then in the ALCS against the Rangers, Valverde was torched in Game Four when he entered in a tie game in extra innings. In the 11th, four of the first five Rangers reached base, punctuated by a three-run homer by Nelson Cruz that silenced the Comerica Park crowd. Silent except for the boos that rained on Valverde. Detroit lost the game 7-3 and fell down 3-1 in the series. The sight of Leyland taking the ball from Valverde in that game and replacing him with Phil Coke was the last time Detroit fans saw their closer in 2011.

Valverde’s 49-game save streak came crashing down as soon as possible the following year. On opening day in Comerica Park, Justin Verlander was tossing a two-hit gen against the Red Sox when he was removed for the ninth inning by Leyland. There came Valverde in from the pen and there went the lead: Papa Grande allowed two runs and the boos really surrounded him. The Tigers rescued themselves with a walkoff-win in the bottom of the inning, but the die was cast: 2012 would be a different season for Valverde and he would never really be trusted again.

In the ’12 ALDS, just three outs from securing the series win over Oakland in Game Four, Valverde blew the game, forcing a Game Five against the A’s. A visibly stunned Dave Dombrowski sat in the seats just a few feet behind the visiting dugout in Oakland. Many Tiger players looked agitated in the dugout, fearing that their closer was a basket case. Fortunately, Verlander was dominant in a Game Five performance for the ages and the Tigers moved on. For a brief moment, Valverde’s transgression was forgotten. But the angst returned in the ALCS against the Yankees. In Game One the Tigers had a 4-0 lead in the ninth inning in Yankee Stadium, thanks in large part to a gutsy outing by starter Doug Fister. Even though it was not a save situation, Leyland summoned Valverde into the game to get the last three outs and an important win on the road to start the series. But that’s not how it happened. Papa Grande allowed a two-run homer to Ichiro Suzuki, and then two batters later, one out from securing the win, he gave up a two-run shot to Raul Ibanez. Game tied. It seemed like even the Yankees were stunned. Detroit won the game in extra innings thanks to the hot bat of Delmon Young, but Valverde was now a pariah as far as Detroit fans were concerned. From that point on, if he Papa Grande was coming in to the game, Tiger fans collectively cringed.

Detroit defeated the Yankees in 2012 and advanced to the World Series, but their closer, the man who had nailed down 35 saves in the regular season, was basically an observer. Valverde pitched in the seventh inning of Game One with the Tigers trailing 6-1. What did he do? He struck out pitcher Tim Lincecum and then gave up a barrage of hits: double, single, single, single. With the hometown fans giving him the raspberries, Valverde was pulled and never pitched in the series again.

The biggest failing of Dave Dombrowski during his tenure as resident Baseball Genius in Detroit was his inability to shore up the backend of the bullpen. While Trader Dave was able to see things in a Yoda-like manner in every other area of the roster, he had a blind spot when it came to the closer role. He was far too loyal to Valverde, giving him chance after chance after chance.

In 2013, fresh off the disaster of the previous postseason, most GMs would have jettisoned Valverde. His stuff was gone, his brain was going haywire, and his teammates had no confidence in him. But by late April of 2013, Valverde was back in the closer role after spending a few weeks with the Toledo Mud Hens. Dombrowski had failed to obtain a suitable replacement in the offseason, so there was The Big Potato on the hill for the Bengals pitching important innings. It went surprisingly well at first: Valverde converted his first three save opportunities. Then he blew a game against the Indians at Comerica Park, saved three more, but blew a game against the Orioles in Baltimore. In that contest, the righty (who seemed to be losing his concentration on the mound and was displaying nervous ticks and mannerisms) allowed four runs in the ninth inning. He saved three more games, but he was walking a tightrope, as every outing was a roller coaster adventure.

Finally on June 19, 2013, in a one-sided game against the O’s in Detroit, Leyland put Valverde in to pitch the ninth with the Tigers trailing 9-3. Single, single, double, home run, and the Orioles had scored four times off the reliever. The boos at this point were incessant. The outing was almost like a sacrifice: Leyland and Dombrowski were flushing Valverde away. The 35-year old pitcher was released the next day. There were few (if any) Detroit fans who protested.

In four seasons in a Detroit uniform, Jose Valverde had saved 119 games and he had 286 to his credit when he was finally released by the Tigers. So, it’s not surprising that offers came. He pitched the aborted season with the Mets and then tried a comeback with the Nationals last spring. Then came the 80 game suspension for using a performance-enhancing drug. Valverde has made more than $40 million pitching in the big leagues, it’s hard to stop drinking from that money faucet.

A three-time All-Star, Valverde is one of the few pitchers to lead both leagues in saves, and he led in that category while pitching for three different teams. He was, for a season, one of the best relievers the Tigers ever had, and he ranks fifth all-time in franchise history in saves, just one behind Willie Hernandez, who also went from cheers to jeers in the Motor City. That’s the life of a closer in baseball: one day he’s up, the next he is down in the dumps. Valverde won’t get a chance to experience the emotion of that again. His time is gone.