Washington Times Article on Former Logger Max Scherzer

Two tone: Max Scherzer’s playfulness, intensity may be final piece for Nationals

By Todd Dybas – The Washington Times – Sunday, April 5, 2015

Abandoning the playful side begins in full when his headphones pour pregame music into his ears the day he pitches. Gone is the zany part of Max Scherzer’s personality, the side that creates fake wedding invitations, counts a teammate’s “meows” in television interviews or ambitiously runs a fantasy football league. He may be that person in the training room early in the afternoon, willing to have an intellectual conversation about percentages and pitching only to quickly shift into something humorous, but soon, the stern face will arrive.

“I asked him, ‘When do you turn the switch?’” new teammate Matt Thornton said. “He just said, ‘You’ll know.’”

A man who is still irritated by being benched his freshman year at Missouri 11 years ago, a self-chastising 96-mph presence on the mound who yells at himself with ferocity, that’s who shows up when it is time to pitch. He will pitch in front of a sellout crowd Monday in his first Opening Day start when the Washington Nationals begin their most weighted season since coming to D.C. Making the World Series is the demand, and no one on the roster will be demanding more of himself than Scherzer.

The curled corners of Scherzer’s mouth, hooked upward producing a perpetual smirk, make what’s brewing inside apparent. There is also a dance of light in his different colored eyes. Prefacing a conversation by saying you are asking about Scherzer has a universal response in step with that whimsical facade and flicker: There are laughs. From the more stern college coach, it’s a small laugh. An ex-teammate from Scherzer’s time with the Detroit Tigers laughs a little longer. A college friend has to let the laughter run its course before he starts yet again with, “I’ll never forget this …”

Beyond the giggles, they will all talk about how Scherzer works. He can seize a slight and turn it into success. Bench me? I’ll show you. Don’t want to pay me what I’m worth in the draft? I’ll show you. Think I’m gambling my future? I’ll show you. Scherzer is the Nationals’ $210 million walking dichotomy, bound by levity and ferocity. A person their general manager has kept an eye on since the right-hander was throwing fastballs past high school kids in northeast Missouri. He could be their most dominant piece. Considering the length and back-loading of his contract, he is also their biggest gamble.

“What separates those good from the great guys are often the intangibles,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. “He’s got the intangibles. He’s got the ‘It’ factor. He’s got an intensity and competitiveness on the mound that exudes when he is pitching. He enjoys pitching and enjoys being around his teammates. And he has an attitude of a winner. I think that’s what really — beyond the evaluatory process where you have to grade out the stuff — was the thing that jumped out to me the most. He’s a winning personality, he’s a winning player and a winning person. A guy who is going to do everything he can to win.”

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Hunter Mense first saw Scherzer during the 2003 Missouri state basketball tournament. Scherzer was scrapping away — a rebounding, gangly type with minimal skill as Mense recalls it — against Poplar Bluff High School which was powered by future North Carolina star Tyler Hansbrough. Mense watched the state tournament in Columbia, the place that would shape so much of Scherzer, and thought his future teammate had decent athleticism.

As Mense, now a coach at Missouri, remembers it, he arrived on campus first. Other baseball players began to trickle onto the more than 1,200 acres of the main campus. He finally had his first in-person encounter with Scherzer.

“He walks up, got a pair of shoes in his hand,” Mense said. “Before he introduced himself or asked who I was, he goes, ‘Can you believe this?! We already got pairs of shoes! This is awesome!’ I thought, ‘My god, this guy, what a goof.’”

That persona endured. Flights home from road trips would land in St. Louis or Kansas City. A two-hour bus trip back to Columbia would follow. After playing a weekend road series, the bus would rattle through the dark well past midnight. One trip, Scherzer was in the back playing cards. He, of course, was the house, and it was not going well. “He was getting his ass kicked by everybody,” Mense said. This turned Scherzer from his campy side to the intense sort who takes the mound. It also prompted others to share their emotions.

“At one point, he slammed his hand into the window or something, and he said some profanities and was just yelling at the top of his lungs,” Mense said. “Keep in mind, it was 1:30 in the morning and everybody’s trying to sleep. I’ll never forget it because I think we were like sophomores or juniors and one of the coaches, who is still with us now, got up and started yelling at the top of his lungs at Max. Max just didn’t have a filter. He didn’t realize at that point other people were trying to sleep.”

When Scherzer began throwing in the mid-90s, he would punctuate bullpens by yelling, “Juice!” before he threw a final pitch as hard as possible. Half-mocking him, teammates would use it as a nickname. He once convinced a friend to tackle a street sign. “He’s really good at trying to talk you into stupid stuff,” Mense said.

The astute side of Scherzer sent him to Missouri. He had the option of turning pro instead of attending college. The St. Louis Cardinals drafted him in the 43rd round out of Parkway Central High School. At the time, Scherzer said, he was not convinced baseball was his only future path. He saw value in pursuing a degree. He also saw value in the Missouri program. His parents went there, and his hometown of Chesterfield was less than a two-hour drive. However, Scherzer contends he would have played baseball on either coast, for any powerful program. But, he chose Columbia where, in short time, he was benched.

Sitting at his spring training locker in Viera, Florida, with one shoe in hand and one on foot, Scherzer independently brings up his freshman-year extraction from the mound. Though it is two all-star appearances, a Cy Young and 11 years later, the decision continues to chafe.

“I still resent that to this day,” Scherzer said. “I still thought I should have been pitching over some of the pitchers that were there. But, I also took it with the right mind frame.”

His coach, Tim Jamieson, had tried him out of the bullpen and as a midweek starter. It didn’t work.

“The bottom line was he didn’t throw strikes,” Jamieson said. “He wasn’t able to be consistent. A lot of his game needed work to give him a better chance to be successful on a conference weekend. Typical freshman. Talented, but very green and raw in what he was doing. His effectiveness wasn’t there.”

Scherzer took the mounting anger from not pitching — using the I’ll-show-you approach — and put it to work. He spent the downtime lifting weights and long-tossing. The disgruntled toiling would become a boon for him and residents of La Crosse, Wisconsin.

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In the fall of Scherzer’s freshman year, La Crosse Loggers general manager Chris Goodell and owner Dan Kapanke closed the doors of a white Caravan and left Wisconsin. The two were in pursuit of players for the following summer’s roster. They looped south, stopping at Creighton, Wichita State and Oklahoma. The duo was hoping for the Shockers’ Mike Pelfrey or the Sooners’ Ryan Rohlinger, both future major league players, but each shirked the collegiate Northwoods League for the well-known Cape Cod League. Toward the end of the trip, they stopped in Columbia.

They chatted with Scherzer on the field, watched him warmup in the outfield and throw a brief bullpen session. That was enough. The paperwork was settled soon after. Scherzer would head to La Crosse the following summer.

Scherzer was used out of the bullpen in La Crosse’s Copeland Park, the “Lumber Yard” to the locals, a quaint baseball home just off the Black River in Wisconsin. The radar gun announced the work he had done that spring in Missouri after being told he was not good enough. Out he came, the ornery mound presence spurred by a college coach who didn’t allow him to pitch, and zing: 96 mph. The extra work at Missouri had added 3 mph to his fastball.

“There was a collective ‘Whoa’ in the crowd,’” Goodell said. “It was a little different.”

The good people of La Crosse saw Scherzer on the cusp, a vociferous all-star closer who spent the summer corralling his fastball and piling up strikeouts.

“He would be out there almost swearing at himself at times when things would get intense,” Goodell said. “It was him within his personal self. It wasn’t directed at anybody. It was just his intense competitiveness.”

Even then, Scherzer was able to flip back to his jovial being after the game. He would have “quality conversations” with team management. Goodell felt Scherzer handled his fan interactions with skill. “He was able to separate,” Goodell said.

The summer in Wisconsin translated to college. By the end of his sophomore year at Missouri, Scherzer had broken through. He started 16 games after just two his freshman season. His ERA was yanked down to 1.86. He struck out 131 in 106 1/3 innings. Included in that run was a May 6, 2005 game against No. 5 Nebraska in Lincoln. Future Kansas City Royals all-star Alex Gordon was hitting third in the Cornhuskers’ lineup. Joba Chamberlain was on the mound opposite Scherzer.

“After seven innings, we had a 2-1 lead and Max had come to me in the dugout after the seventh and basically said, ‘I’m done,’” Jamieson said. “I said, ‘Well, I need one more inning out of you Max, the middle of the lineup is coming up.’ He went out there and got a couple strikeouts and a jam pop-up pretty quickly and basically stormed off the mound after the eighth and said, ‘I’m finishing this game.’ I said, ‘You go right ahead.’ In the ninth inning, he struck out the first two batters, then they pinch-hit a guy with slider bat speed. He wasn’t going to catch up to Max’s fastball but if Max would make a mistake in college, it was with his breaking stuff.

“So, I went out to the mound to tell him stick with the fastball, this guy can turn around a slider but can’t touch a fastball. He thought I was taking him out of the game. So, he meets me with his chest out on the grass and says, ‘I’m finishing this game.’ I explained why I was there. Three 97-mph fastballs later, the game was over.”

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To Scherzer, free agency following the 2014 season was not his learning period about the unrelenting business side of baseball. It was when he was drafted 11th overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2006. A signing tussle ensued and Scherzer felt the most crucial thing to him at the time — baseball — was being threatened.

“I told teams I was a top college pitcher and then Arizona drafted me and said, ‘No, you’re not,’” Scherzer said. “‘We still think you’re hurt.’ They started using all these lines against me. Really, kind of at that point in time, ticked me off because I had come back from just some tendinitis and proved that I’m still one of the top college pitchers at the time.

“I think it’s fair to ask to be compensated as a top college pitcher and they thought they didn’t have to. … My only card was to say, ‘No, I’m going back into the draft.’ So, essentially, they were taking baseball away from me. That was the only thing they had to try to prove their point was to take baseball away from me and try and see if I would fold. That part of the business was way harder than anything I’ve done since.”

Joe Robinson was the regional scout for the Diamondbacks who had tracked Scherzer all the way back to high school. Kris Kline, who is now the Nationals’ assistant general manager and heads up their scouting department, was the Diamondbacks’ western supervisor of scouting. Most important, a man Scherzer did not meet until last winter was siding with him. Rizzo, now the Nationals’ general manager, was in charge of scouting for Arizona. He wanted his pick signed.

“I thought he would be a special talent,” Rizzo said. “You try to get the best deal you can, but [this was] a guy you had to sign and you couldn’t pass on just because of a few dollars early in his career.”

“[Me and my agent, Scott Boras] knew Rizzo was always the guy in Arizona that was fighting and trying,” Scherzer said.

The battle with the Diamondbacks would continue. He made only 46 starts for Arizona, bouncing between the minor and major leagues. They traded Scherzer to the Detroit Tigers for starters Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy in the 2009 offseason.

“Obviously, you’re initial human aspect of it, your response is, ‘Arizona didn’t want me,’” Scherzer said. “You have to realize, ‘No, Detroit wanted me.’”

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Often after switching teams, players first meet during offseason events pulled together by the club. Detroit is one of several teams that uses the caravan approach to engage fans during the down months. Upon meeting Scherzer at the Tigers‘ soiree, fellow starter Rick Porcello asked him if he had lost a contact lens. Scherzer rolled both eyes — his brown and blue one. Scherzer has heterochromia iridis. His right eye is blue, his left brown. Keeping in character, this is a source of pride and nonsense for Scherzer. When something goes wrong, he will blame one eye. When carousing, one is focused on libations. There is even a reference to the color deviations in his email address. “If there was ever a guy that would have two different color eyes and it would fit their personality, it would be him,” Mense said.

Porcello, now a starter for the Boston Red Sox, laughed off his error then developed a bond with Scherzer over pitching analytics and mischief. He turned to Scherzer for further discussion of scouting reports. They looked at counts and curveballs in the eternal pursuit of creating outs. Porcello was also present when fake wedding invitations populated seats in the clubhouse, a gag Scherzer beams about when mentioning as his favorite. He would not name a teammate, only that the invitation, replete with photos, was created as a result of “a certain mess up.” Like Scherzer, Porcello laughs, then clams up when pressed for further explanation.

“The best part about his personality is how fun and interesting he can be, but at the same time how intelligent he is,” Porcello said. “I think that’s what makes him special.”

His changeup helps. When he was working in Triple-A Tucson, Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero was on a rehabilitation assignment. Scherzer thought the grip and action on his changeup — which now drops like an airborne sack cut free from a parachute — were present in college. He just did not know how to use it. He says the time with Montero taught him big league strategical lessons, turning his changeup from another pitch into the terror it is now.

“I saw immediate results of swings and misses,” Scherzer said.

Each season during his blossoming with the Tigers, his changeup usage rate hovered around 20 percent, taking over from his slider as his preferred secondary pitch. That approach resulted in consecutive all-star seasons in 2013 and ‘14, the Cy Young Award and mind-boggling financial numbers for his services.

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Up the right field line in Kissimmee, Florida, Scherzer loosened for a late spring start. He had moved into spitfire mode, waving his arm at no one in particular when a warmup pitch did not act how he wants, the fact it was March in central Florida be damned. His start went well. Afterward, Scherzer also announced what anyone who knows him expects when the opening of the season is mentioned.

“I’ll know everything there is to know about the Mets.”

Through the spring, he bounced to different sides of the clubhouse. He pronounced himself in charge of all forms of pools, NCAA tournament brackets (he filled out three) and fantasy football. There will be no games of chance.

“We have to see where you think things are actually going to happen,” Scherzer said. “Who’s going to win. You actually have to make that type of judgment.”

A word to the uninitiated: He will be seeking a large buy-in for fantasy football. If you do not take it seriously, he will get worked up. Also, he will not accept a proposal that the buy-in be a flat percentage of one’s salary, though some recently tried to have him agree to that concept. Such a thought will cause him to swear.

Everything — pitching, pools and pranks — is still a competition to the 30-year-old Scherzer, who comes to D.C. with variances of personality as different as his eyes. Monday, he will stand on the mound at Nationals Park as the Opening Day starter, fueled yet again by a chance to show his worth.

“This is what you dreamed of doing,” Scherzer said. “When you’re 12, 13 years old, that’s when I kind of took baseball a little more seriously and said, ‘This is my dream to be in the major leagues and have a sustained career.’ My dream wasn’t just to get here. My dream was to make it.”

 

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