On Max Scherzer and Falling in Love

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Sometimes it’s instantaneous. Like the first time I saw Porcello’s two-seam fastball break across the plate or the intial glimpse of Doug Fister jumping off the mound to field his position with such enthusiasm and grace. Seeing Inge gun down a baserunner at old Ned Skeldon Stadium on Key Street.

Other times it’s slower. Quieter. It builds over time. Such is the case with Max Scherzer. It was never that I didn’t like him, but rather that he came to us in such a painful way. He cost the Tigers Curtis Granderson in what looked a lot like a salary dump, but proved to be much shrewder. At the time it was hard to totally accept him. He was talented, but it was also maddening to watch someone which such amazing stuff fall just short of putting it all together so frequently. He was always one little mechanical adjustment from being a star and he teased us over and over.

But things changed, as they often do. I started to think about it 383 days ago, before this website even existed, when I was checking my phone for the last time before going to bed, only to come across a rumor that Max’s brother had taken his own life. That little part of me that couldn’t fully get my arms around Scherzer seemed so small when a member of the team I love faced such an awful personal tragedy.

I almost wrote this post 261 days ago. Scherzer had just won the series clincher against the Yankees and propelled the Tigers into the World Series. I’m serious when I tell you I haven’t cried since my dog passed away 8 years ago, but I almost did that night. Not because the Tigers won, but because of what Dave Dombrowski said when he was accepting the AL pennant:

“As I look to my right, today’s winning pitcher, with his family which had an extremely difficult time, I can’t think of a better feeling for their family and his parents.”

Four months after one of the worst things any of us will probably ever experience, Scherzer and his family were celebrating a 10 strikeout, pennant-clinching performance. Not only had he finally mastered his command, but he had done so with such a heavy heart. At this point, I couldn’t imagine caring about who we traded to get him.

I almost wrote this post 92 days ago, when ESPN published a heartbreaking feature on the Scherzer family and Max’s relationship with his brother. Seriously, if you haven’t read it, stop reading this and go read that instead. I won’t even try to tell you how sad and sweet and meaningful it is.

I almost wrote this post 81 days ago, in the wee hours of April 18th, after Scherzer had twirled a gem against the Mariners on my birthday in a four and a half hour, 14 inning affair that ended with Brayan Pena getting clobbered by Justin Smoak and managing to hold onto the ball. I actually started to write this post that day, but I couldn’t put the pieces together. Not quite yet.

Any early coolness I felt toward Max had long since vanished and he was becoming one of my favorite players to watch and to cheer for. Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m one of the most loyal people you’ll meet. If you endear yourself to me, you’ll have my undying support, pretty much forever. I’ll stand by Inge, Raburn, and Kelly despite their flaws until they put me in the ground, and Scherzer had made the leap to that level. He was one of ours. Through everything. Always a Tiger.

But I’m glad I didn’t write it then, not because Max had anything left to prove to me but because he was about to prove so much to everyone else. As the first half of 2013 winds down, Scherzer currently leads qualifying American League starters in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), is 3rd in xFIP, 9th in ERA, 2nd in K/9, 14th in BB/9, and 9th in innings pitched despite being a start behind because of where he pitches in the rotation. He is also, as you may have seen in publications that care about such things, 13-0.

He’s going to his first All-Star Game, and he’s likely to start given how much stock most people still place in wins and losses for pitchers. Scherzer deserves it, but it’s not as obvious as some people think. Others are having great seasons too.

He is finally putting it all together on the field, and so I’m glad I waited until now to finally write this. It’s nice to know that I probably would have fallen in love just as much had he not been touched by tragedy. He’s achieving his potential as a starter after overcoming so much as a person. It’s hard not to love Max Scherzer.

But it’s more than that because you learn things along the way. I’ve always known that Scherzer has heterochromia (or two different colored eyes), but now I know that so do Jack Bauer and Mila Kunis. That’s a good list to be on. Max is also something of genius. He’s always presented himself as an intelligent guy, but I learned this year he got a 35 on the ACT and that he discussed complex world politics with his brother.

Of course, too, there’s his interest in sabermetrics. His brother, an econ major, actually got him into it a couple of years ago and he’s run with it ever since. He’s used advanced stats to understand the game and his approach better and it’s certainly working, even if Verlander sometimes mocks him for it on national television.

Scherzer isn’t just a great starter with a compelling personal story that makes you want to root for him, he’s also a really smart guy who takes a very intellectual approach to the game of baseball. The only thing missing is a strong connection to charity work or maybe bringing a Golden Retriever to the mound. He’s got the first one covered. 

Max was all of these things, likely, before he came to the Tigers. He’s always been this guy, but his growth as a pitcher has been remarkable and fun to watch while the tragedy in his life has made me relate to him on a personal level. Not only is he a great Tiger, he’s a person I’m really pulling for.

His brother lost a fight with mental illness, and that’s something that’s pretty close to home for me. I don’t know if it’s because I feel like I understand how much he must be hurting or because I just feel so terrible that the Scherzer’s had to watch someone they love suffer, look like he was getting better, and then suddenly slip away. That has to be harder than almost anything.

It’s really important to me that the athletes I love earn admiration for what they do outside the lines. Becoming an elite athlete takes hard work, but it’s also a lot of genetic luck. The real measure of a man is who they are everywhere else and Scherzer is one of the good guys. He’s a force on the mound, but he also puts the “thinking man” in the thinking man’s game.

There’s an ineffable depth to Scherzer that’s pretty uncommon in the world of sports. Few seem to understand their craft and their world as well as he does. It’s impossible to know how much of who I think Scherzer is reflects reality, but I think it does.

Sports are about a lot of things. Competition, teamwork, hustle. But they’re also, for my money, about the fans. To be a fan is to be a member of a community. A family. People who share a common purpose, a common goal, and common interests. Sports are fun and they’re a place where really different people can come together.

The relationship I have with the Tigers is a more meaningful and rewarding relationship than almost any one I have with another person. They’re my team. My family. I don’t know if that makes me pathetic or awesome, but I don’t really care. It makes me feel good and it’s something I love.

My connection is to the Tigers as a team, as an idea even, but through that connection I bond with the players. Sometimes it happens quickly, sometimes it takes longer, but I always come around. They’re my team, no matter what. That sounds like family to me, even if the relationship is a tad asymmetric.

So I don’t get angry when the team struggles or underperforms like many bangwagon fans do because they’re my team in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, in good times and in bad. They don’t have to win for me to love them, they just have to keep showing up and giving it their best and in return, they have my everlasting affection.

That’s one of the reasons that what happened to the Scherzer family touched me so much. They were hurting, so I hurt too. Solidarity among friends. One of the Tigers went through a terrible time and I was there, every fifth day on my couch, supporting him.

I have a story like this, although not quite so deep, for every player. Baseball is important to me and it’s a big part of who I am. The team is like my wife and the players are like my family. That’s how I experience sports, on an emotional level. This is an analytically focused site, but sabermetricians are people too.

We fall in love and experience joy and heartbreak like everyone else. Max Scherzer is one of us. He’s a Tiger and smart dude, and he knows about the quiet suffering of a loved one with mental illness. I can’t imagine someone I rather root for than him, even if it took me a while to see it.

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4 responses

  1. I absolutely loved your article!!! It’s so personal and so so good XD
    I also read the article on ESPN and it was definitely touching. I recently wrote an article about Max Scherzer, and I’m not too sure people outside of Tiger fans really knew that his brother had committed suicide. I’d love it if you read my article and gave some feedback!

    Again, this is by far my favorite article I’ve read here so far.

    http://fabianestrada.wordpress.com/2013/07/10/max-scherzers-pitching-with-a-purpose/

  2. […] him to make the leap from solid starter into superstar. I’ve also written about how much I enjoy cheering for the heterochromatic and cerebral ace. Scherzer is great, you heard it here […]

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