WASHINGTON -- In the thick of Major League Baseball's awards season, Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander spent his Wednesday night at the U.S. Navy Memorial, where he received a different sort of honor.
The former American League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner became one of three recipients of the inaugural Bob Feller Act of Valor Award, along with U.S. Navy Chief Hospital Corpsman Garth Sinclair and Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who could not attend. More than 70 years after Feller interrupted his promising career with the Indians to fight in World War II, the award has been established to recognize those who honor the late Hall of Famer's legacy with their service.
"It's totally different from on-field accolades. This means a lot in a totally different sense," said Verlander, who has done extensive work to support veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as their families. "You look at somebody like Bob Feller, who in the middle of his playing career left and went to fight for his country when it needed him. As a fellow baseball player, I respect that, because I know how much I love this game and how much I love playing it and how it would be difficult to do that. But he did."
The award is the brainchild of Peter Fertig, who struck up a relationship with Feller after seeking his input about a baseball-related children's book Fertig was writing. When Feller died in 2010 at age 92, Fertig thought about how he could honor him and came up with the idea for an annual award recognizing someone from each of three aspects of Feller's life: an active MLB player, a Hall of Famer and a Navy service member. With the blessing of Feller's widow, Anne, and the cooperation of the Indians, the Hall of Fame, the Navy, and more, Fertig put together Wednesday's gala in less than a year.
The result was a star-studded event that featured, among others, Anne Feller, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and retired U.S. Navy Admiral Hank Chiles. While Berra was honored via a video presentation, Sinclair and Verlander were on hand to receive their awards, which feature busts of Feller in his Navy uniform.
Verlander was selected out of a group of five finalists that also included Ross Detwiler, Cole Hamels, Justin Morneau and Nick Swisher. The 30-year-old pitcher stood out for what Brown called his "unyielding support of servicemen and women."
As Fertig put it: "He's got a warrior's heart. His heart is in the right place when it comes to our veterans."
Verlander started his Victory for Veterans program in 2011, giving injured veterans a chance to watch Tigers games from his Comerica Park luxury suite when he pitches. He also used the program to host veterans at a pair of 2013 road games, in partnership with the White Sox and Indians.
In August, Verlander committed $1 million to help launch the Wins for Warriors initiative, which is devoted to supporting the mental and emotional health of veterans and their families in Detroit, as well as Richmond and Norfolk, Va. Verlander grew up near Richmond and played his college ball in Norfolk at Old Dominion, exposing him to two of the country's largest military populations.
"What I do, I'm not trying to get recognition," Verlander said. "It's what I feel is right.
"The impact is growing. I feel like it's made a splash and it's helping bring awareness for something that needs awareness. Our veterans, especially with [post-traumatic stress disorder], it's something that needs attention brought to it, because it's overlooked way too often, so hopefully this helps to do that -- what I'm doing -- and hopefully this [award] does as well."
Sinclair has spent 27 years in the Navy and currently works as a U.S. military diving instructor. In addition to earning the Master Training Specialist qualification, he has devoted thousands of off-duty hours to community service, including 21 years as a coach of various youth sports.
Berra was represented at the event by David Kaplan, the executive director of the Yogi Berra Museum in New Jersey, where members of the awards committee visited last month to recognize him personally.
Berra, 88, enlisted in the Navy in 1943, before he began a 19-year Major League career that included three AL MVP Awards with the Yankees. Along the way, he volunteered for what turned out to be a highly perilous assignment, manning machine guns on one of the rocket boats that served as the first wave of the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Though Berra was one of many pro baseball players to serve, Feller was the first -- what Fertig referred to as "the tip of the sword." Feller was 23 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and he immediately enlisted in the Navy. He did so despite the fact that he was coming off his fourth consecutive All-Star season, a 25-win campaign, and possessed a deferment that exempted him from service.
Feller did not enlist with the intention of taking any assignments as a morale booster. He served on combat missions in both the Pacific and North Atlantic aboard the USS Alabama, became a Navy Chief Petty Officer and earned six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars.
"He never hesitated," Fertig said. "Never wavered."
Feller returned to the Indians late in the '45 season, then pitched another 11 years, finishing with 266 victories, a number that would have climbed well above 300 if not for his sacrifice for his country.
"To have my name linked with his is such an honor," Verlander said.