No one’s been at the center of more dramatic moments in baseball the last three seasons than Max Scherzer.
Pitching with a black eye and broken nose while winning the game that jumpstarted one of the unlikeliest championship runs in history. Starting Game 7 of that World Series three days after he was scratched for his Game 5 start because of a stiff neck so severe he could barely lift his arm or move his head. Earning a curtain call after striking out 10 and winning his debut for the Dodgers against the Astros — the team he and the Nationals beat in the 2019 World Series, two years after the Astros stole signs on their way to a seven-game World Series win over the Dodgers — in front of the largest crowd to see a Major League Baseball game in the pandemic era.
“It’s weird,” Scherzer said with a laugh in the visitor’s dugout at Citi Field Friday afternoon. “I really don’t do the social media. I’m not a drama guy. But that’s just sometimes the way it happens.”
Of course, a pitcher skilled enough to turn every start into a must-see affair — Scherzer has thrown two no-hitters and is one of three pitchers to strike out 20 batters in a game — and start Game 7 of a World Series tends to get a lot of attention.
Especially when, a mere 21 months later, he becomes the most decorated trade deadline acquisition of all-time.
Scherzer, the rare superstar who is engaged and expansive in an interview setting, was equally parts modestly dismissive and curious upon hearing his blockbuster arrival described in such terms.
“I don’t know about ever, I can’t say ever,” Scherzer said.
At the least, Scherzer is the first Hall of Fame-caliber player dealt at midseason by the team he’s likely to represent in Cooperstown since Rickey Henderson, already the all-time stolen base king, was dealt by the Athletics to the defending champion Blue Jays in 1993. But that trade brought an end to the second stint in Oakland for Henderson, who was drafted and developed by the Athletics.
“What about Randy Johnson?” Scherzer asked of “The Big Unit,” who was a Cy Young Award winner with 133 wins and 2,213 strikeouts on his resume when he was dealt by the Mariners to the Astros at the 1998 trade deadline.
Johnson subsequently collected 173 wins and 2,662 strikeouts — including 118 wins and 2,077 strikeouts plus four Cy Young Awards over two stints with the Diamondbacks, the first of which began as a big-ticket free agent signing following the 1998 season and the second of which ended with Johnson and Scherzer as teammates in 2008.
In other words, as accomplished as Johnson was prior to landing in Houston, he wasn’t yet the Randy Johnson who’d become the Diamondbacks’ first Hall of Fame representative after cruising into Cooperstown on the first ballot in 2015.
At some point within the next 15 years, Scherzer is likely to become the first player to wear a Nationals hat on his Hall of Fame plaque. Among players who signed a free agent deal worth at least $100 million, Scherzer — who is in the final season of a seven-year deal worth $210 million — is the only one to win an individual award (he earned back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2016-17) and one of just eight to win at least one World Series.
Per Baseball-Reference.com, Scherzer’s WAR with the Nationals was 38.9, also the highest of free agent who inked a nine-figure deal. The only other $100 million free agent with more than 30.0 WAR is Manny Ramirez, who won a pair of World Series, finished in the top 10 in the AL MVP balloting five times and racked up 33.2 WAR for the Red Sox from 2001-08.
Ramirez was also traded to the Dodgers in the final season of his $160 million contract, though that blockbuster deal was fueled by Ramirez going scorched earth on the Red Sox. Scherzer, on the other hand, pitched for the Nationals on July 29, the day before he was dealt to the Dodgers.
Two weeks later, he gazed downward, sweat dripping off him after a series of foul pole to foul pole laps followed by shorter sprints in the Citi Field outfield, and tried to explain the range of emotions involved with beginning a new chapter while the ink has yet to dry on the old one.
“Can’t even say…” Scherzer said before pausing for 14 seconds. “Hard to put into words.”
Another eight-second pause followed.
“The thing I can say is we won a World Series there,” Scherzer said. “That’s what we play the game for, is to win the World Series. And to accomplish that goal, which is just so incredibly difficult to do, and (given) the number of good teams we had over the years plus the teams that were there before me.
“To actually be a part of the team that won the World Series, that absolutely means the most to me. My highest career achievement is to win the World Series. So it’s impossible for me to have a negative (feeling for) the Washington Nationals.”
Scherzer said Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who was the Diamondbacks’ scouting director when Scherzer was drafted by Arizona in 2006, told him in mid-June the Nationals — who have spent four days over .500 since their World Series win — might need to trade veterans in order to begin rebuilding.
The Nationals’ gradual decline in July — they actually entered the month 40-38 and two games out of first place before going 7-17 prior to the trade deadline — gave Scherzer time to prepare for an outcome that served as satisfactory for all involved. In exchange for Scherzer and star shortstop Trea Turner, the Nationals received four prospects — pitchers Josiah Gray and Gerardo Carrillo, catcher Keibert Ruiz and outfielder Donovan Casey.
“Looking at my Dodgers opportunities as a positive doesn’t mean that it’s a negative in D.C.,” Scherzer said. “I can still have positive thoughts about D.C. and extreme positive thoughts about L.A.
“It’s weird to say that,” Scherzer said with another laugh. “Because we’re in such a binary game. You win or you lose. And so it’s hard to have a conceptual thing of ‘I like this team and I like that team.’ The baseball fan in me says you’re crazy.”
As fondly as Scherzer speaks of his time and departure from Washington, there’s also a no-frills, bottom-line element to the trade for a player who is no stranger to the harder-edged side of the game. Negotiations with the Diamondbacks lasted most of a year following the 2006 draft, a stretch in which Scherzer pitched for an independent league team before agreeing to a $4.3 million deal at the last moment.
Despite winning a Cy Young Award in his penultimate season with the Tigers in 2013, Scherzer, a client of Scott Boras, remained unsigned as a free agent until January 2015, when he signed a deal heavy on deferred money (more than $100 million between 2022-28). He became a 10/5 player (10 years of service time, five with the same club) in Washington, which meant he could not be traded without his consent and gave him a modicum of control as the Nationals sifted through offers.
“I can officially say now I’ve seen every crazy facet to the business side of the game, and every single time, the business side is ugly,” Scherzer said. “Doesn’t matter whether you’re coming through the draft, you’re going through pre-arb(itration), you go through arbitration, free agency, getting traded in the off-season, getting traded in season.”
Yet the complicated side of the game had to be shoved aside immediately in order for Scherzer to not only begin focusing on trying to return to the World Series with the Dodgers but to start fitting in with his new teammates.
“As a baseball player, you have to have a thick skin and kind of be a chameleon,” Scherzer said. “Understand you could put on a new uniform and that it’s not the uniform that changes (or) defines you. It’s the goals, the human experience, of everybody here is playing for a World Series.”
And for baseball players in 2021, there’s few better ways to appeal to most of their fellow humans than by beating the Astros.
“Everybody in the baseball world knows the history between the Dodgers and the Astros,” Scherzer said as he chuckled again. “I tip my hat to them, they’re a great offensive team, I’m not here to talk trash on the Astros. But to go out and pitch well against those guys, I think that makes the Dodgers pretty happy. And so that’s how it gets pretty comfortable pretty quickly, right there.”
Scherzer’s scheduled to make his third start for the Dodgers tonight against the Mets. If everything goes as he and the Dodgers hope, there will be another nine or so regular season starts followed by several more in October as the Dodgers try to become baseball’s first repeat champions in two decades. (This seems like a good time to point out Henderson helped the Blue Jays repeat in 1993)
Then Scherzer will hit free agency again, this time as the most interesting pitcher on the market — a 37-year-old future Hall of Famer who has thrived in October, is unfazed by big markets and is willing to spend much of the winter in the spotlight as long as it results in landing with a team that will provide him the opportunities to craft more centerstage moments on the mound.
“I play this game to win the World Series and I will make all my decisions based off that,” Scherzer said. “That always points north. It always points north. I don’t let the emotions get in the way of my thinking, in terms of where the winning’s at.
“That will always guide you in the correct direction.”