Chris Sale and Max Scherzer Have More in Common Than Starting the All-Star Game

By Barry Svrluga July 11 at 12:50 PM

Barry Svrluga is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Follow @barrysvrluga 

Chris Sale, now a major league all-star, trained for life as a ballplayer during a summer stint with the La Crosse Loggers in 2008. (Photo courtesy of the La Crosse Loggers)

MIAMI – The four televisions in the little sports bar under the main concession pavilion at Copeland Park will be tuned to the same program on Tuesday night, regardless of the situation the home-standing La Crosse Loggers face in their game against the Willmar Stingers on the field outside. The baseball fans in La Crosse, Wis. – and there are many – will watch Max Scherzer throw the first pitch of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game to Jose Altuve, and they will wait to watch Chris Sale face Charlie Blackmon in the bottom of the inning, and like no other enclave in the country they’ll be able to say of the fire-balling starters, “We knew them when.”

“There’s a little bit of buzz in the city around here,” said Chris Goodell, the Loggers’ general manager.
There is buzz in Miami, particularly after Monday night’s Home Run Derby and Aaron Judge’s performance in winning it. But Miami is home to a middling – and often wayward – National League franchise, about which there is often nothing more than apathy. There’s lots of other areas in which to focus your attention.

But 1,667 miles away in La Crosse, the all-star buzz is real because Scherzer (Loggers ’04) and Sale (Loggers ’08) will face each other, two Northwoods League alumni on baseball’s biggest stage. This would have been known in La Crosse, of course, when Scherzer and Sale were named the starters on Monday afternoon. But the world might have missed it had Sale not dropped a Loggers reference.

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Red Sox starter Chris Sale, left, and the Nationals’ Max Scherzer  — Tuesday night’s All-Star Game starters — go way back. (Ron Blum/Associated Press)

“He and I both played on the same summer league team up in La Crosse, so that’s pretty interesting, too,” the Boston Red Sox lefty said. “We’ve had some ties for a while, and played against each other for a while, too.”

“Representing La Crosse Loggers pretty well,” Scherzer said.

About that time, Goodell was shooting messages to Brad Scherzer and Allen Sale, the two pitchers’ fathers, congratulating them on their sons’ achievements. And wouldn’t you know the two families were standing and chatting in the hotel lobby in Miami – and were able to fire back messages immediately.

“We’ve kept in touch over the years,” Goodell said.

The Northwoods League is a wooden-bat summer league for college players, not unlike the Cape Cod League in Massachusetts. The Loggers play 72 games in 77 days, complete with the late-night bus trips and lousy motels in the low levels of pro ball.

“We bill ourselves as an internship for minor-league baseball,” Goodell said.

That’s what Scherzer got when he arrived in the summer of 2004 coming off a shaky freshman season at the University of Missouri in which he walked 16 men in his 20 innings of work as a reliever, posting a 5.85 ERA. But man, he could throw.

“His first fastball in our park registered 96 or 97 on our radar gun,” Goodell said. “I can still remember our crowd back then going, ‘Whoa.’ ”

Scherzer played in the Northwoods League, a collegiate summer league in the Upper Midwest, in 2004. (Photo courtesy of the Northwoods League and La Crosse Loggers)

Scherzer became a closer for the Loggers, and in the summer he turned 20, he struggled with some command – who doesn’t? – but struck out 50 men in just 33 innings, posting a 1.91 ERA and getting a couple of starts late in the year.

“He really started to figure some things out that summer,” Goodell said, and the following season at Missouri, he went 9-4 with a 1.86 ERA and 131 strikeouts in 106 1/3 innings.

Sale arrived four years later, following his freshman year at Florida Gulf Coast. The lean lefty hadn’t yet grown into his body, but he could hurl it, and midway through the year he was leading the league in strikeouts.

“And then he ran into some challenges in July,” Goodell said.

The Loggers’ coaching staff came up with a little tweak, dropping Sale’s arm slot down to three-quarters. He worked through the issues, and over 15 appearances, six of them starts, he had a 3.23 ERA with 74 strikeouts in 53 innings.

So Tuesday night, baseball fans across the country will watch the All-Star Game, enthralled with Judge of the Yankees or the Nationals’ Bryce Harper – or whoever. And the fans at the little sports bar at Copeland Park will be locked in on Max Scherzer and Chris Sale, a National and a Red Sox now, both Loggers forever.

“Could we sit here and say we knew were watching a future two-time Cy Young award winner and a five-time all-star?” Goodell said. “No. No one says that. But could we sit back and say, ‘That’s an electric arm?’ Sure. And this will be fun.”

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