World Series won, what's motivating Max Scherzer now?

Max Scherzer won’t tell me what he would be doing if he wasn’t heading into his 13th major league baseball season as the presumptive Opening Day starter for the reigning world champion Washington Nationals. That’s not even what I asked him, to be fair. I had asked if he has any goals outside of baseball, and he had volunteered how much fun it can be to think about what life would look like if he wasn’t a three-time Cy Young Award winner and one of the most recognizable faces (the eyes help) in the game.

OK, I said, then give me just one example. And that’s where Mad Max clammed up. He’s accessible to the media and takes his role as a spokesman for his teammates, both unofficially and as a high-ranking member of the players association, very seriously. But he is also incredibly savvy and self-aware about what he says in the presence of reporters. He admits that some answers will be different on and off the record. At one point he says “sh--” and immediately asks to expunge it, as if we haven’t all seen videos of him muttering far worse under his breath on the mound.

So no, he won’t play along with picturing his life as a mailman or an architect or even a happily retired former ace — he didn’t say any of those things, in the absence of specifics I’m forced to improvise, Max. But later in the conversation he recounts, in gleeful detail, the time he almost died.

A defending champion for the first time in his esteemed career, Washington Nationals star Max Scherzer will turn 36 this year with his legacy as a generational ace already secure. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

‘Terrified. Absolutely terrified.’

It was Costa Rica, 2012, and after zip-lining and waterfall rappelling, Max and his wife, Erica, went whitewater rafting. At the first rapid, their boat flips and everyone is thrown into the water. They’re wearing helmets and life jackets but the current is so strong that Max finds he’s unable to navigate the raging river. Carried along by the current, he’s smacked up against rocks and repeatedly pulled under, struggling to get his head back above the water long enough to even breathe. The rescue kayak can’t fight the current either and eventually, fatigue starts setting in and he starts hyperventilating. Pulled under again, Max finds himself thinking this is it. They’re gonna have to find me down river and resuscitate me. 

Ultimately, he was able to grab onto a rock, catch his breath, and get to safety. Even still, he was worried Erica hadn’t survived until learning she had been picked up almost immediately by the raft. 

“Terrified. Absolutely terrified,” Scherzer says of the experience — the closest he’s ever come to death. “That is one thing I have not done again. That is so dangerous. I will jump out of an airplane before I go whitewater rafting again.”

Have you jumped out of an airplane? I ask him. 

“I have not, but I will. Jumping out of an airplane sounds so fun. Can you imagine? That would be so much fun, jumping out of an airplane.” 

We decide that jumping out of an airplane isn’t actually that dangerous — it can’t be, right? It’s too much of a binary. If it didn’t always work out just fine, skydivers would be dying all over the place, and who would pay to do that?

But if you’ll excuse me a tortured metaphor, the real reason I was in the Nationals’ West Palm Beach spring training complex was to talk to Scherzer about the most dangerous venture of all: getting older.

Scherzer will turn 36 in the middle of this season. It’s a perfectly fine age for a person but practically ancient by baseball standards. Last year, back issues snapped his six-season streak of throwing at least 200 innings. It wouldn’t be fair to Scherzer’s incredible conditioning to say his age was starting to show but some effects are inevitable, and I wondered if that was existentially scary.

“What do you mean?” Scherzer asked. 

Well, you’re closer to death. Do you think about that?

“Everybody does.”

You seemingly don’t. You seem to think you can beat aging. 

“I wouldn’t phrase it in those terms.”

How would you phrase it?

“That I can still pitch at a high level in 2020. Keep it that simple.”

World Series pain and perseverance

Erica Scherzer says the only time she’s seen Max as distraught as he was in Costa Rica was the day of World Series Game 5 in October, when her husband was scratched from the biggest stage with neck spasms.

“Awful. It was awful. Oh god, I haven’t seen him like that ever,” she says. “One of the worst days of my life, ’cause I knew what he was feeling and there was nothing I could do.”

Max Scherzer, seen here during Game 1 of the World Series in Houston, was scratched from a planned Game 5 start with neck spasms and eventually started the decisive Game 7. (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“In that moment, you know there’s literally nothing ...” Scherzer starts to say and then he abandons the introspective for the physical. “I couldn’t raise my elbow above my shoulder. I couldn’t move.”

That morning, he allowed himself a few moments of manifest frustration, lamenting his situation and how unfair it felt, thinking to himself, God this place is cursed! Why? Why? Why?

“Of course, you’re human. Of course you have those thoughts,” Scherzer reflects, although the former is not always as self-evident as he makes it sound. “It’s how you process it and flip it.”

Process and flip it: This is Max’s motto for getting out of difficult innings, overcoming disappointment, and avoiding any regrettable answers to probing questions from reporters. 

“Whenever you let doubt creep in about whatever it is, you have to be really good about flipping it,” he says. “Come up with a new narrative.” 

Fortunately, in the 2019 World Series, the hero narrative wrote itself. Without Scherzer on the mound, the Nationals lost Game 5 to fall behind for the first time in the series. They evened it up again behind Stephen Strasburg’s 8 ⅓ innings back in Houston to force a Game 7. And just three days removed from being unable to dress himself, the 35-year-old Scherzer made the most important start of his career.

It wasn’t pretty. Through five, Scherzer had given up two runs on seven hits.

“I can go back out but this is your call,” he said to manager Dave Martinez in between innings. “You’re steering the ship here.”

“Max, you did exactly what you needed to do. Thank you,” Martinez replied.

There was no need to ice his arm — whatever happened next, the season was over, so Scherzer stayed on the bench, talking to the hitting coaches, careful to not distract his teammates trying to bring the trophy to D.C. for the first time in Nats history. 

“He finally came up to me and said, ‘You did the right thing, I’m pretty gassed,’” Martinez recalls. “I said, ‘I know, Max.’”

Max Scherzer's other obsession

And then it was a blur — the Nationals winning the World Series, celebrating on the field, taking pictures with friends and family. Each member of the team gets his own moment with the trophy in the dugout, confetti sprayed all over them for the photo op. It’s the sort of thing Scherzer didn’t even know to dream about until it was a reality.

Winning the 2019 World Series added one more accomplishment to a resume that will almost certainly land Max Scherzer in Cooperstown after he eventually retires. (Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

November was a chance to celebrate the culmination of a career spent running sprints around the warning track when the rest of the warmup was done. Scherzer went to the Bahamas to party — and, more importantly, to scuba dive.

“Cage shark diving,” he specifies. “I don’t like the cage.”

Max Scherzer really likes sharks. I’m not entirely sure how to introduce that fact subtly. Here’s Bryan Holaday, a catcher for the Baltimore Orioles who has been close friends with Scherzer since they overlapped in Detroit:

“He’s definitely very obsessed with sharks. Anything that involves sharks.”

It’s not clear which came first: the obsession with sharks or the love of scuba diving. Scherzer has been diving for about a decade. The first time was off the coast of Australia to see the Great Barrier Reef. 

“I thought it was going to be cool that I got to go scuba diving, but to actually experience it blew my mind even more,” Scherzer says. “One, it’s a flying sensation. And two, you’re in a whole other world. To see how that ecosystem works, until you see it and until you really experience it, it’s really hard to describe.” 

He talks about his different dives in detail. Where he was, what he saw, how close he could get to a shark, and how he wished he could be closer, wished he could just sit on the floor of the ocean and watch the underwater world happen around him. He lights up, he laughs. He gets flustered by my admission that it sounds scary. Lions? Lions are scary. But a shark is not scary. That’s the problem with “Shark Week,” they overdo it on the sense of danger.

Scherzer would know, he’s kind of a nerd about the ocean. Which for him means allowing himself to go down YouTube rabbit holes, watching video after video on his latest fascinations. It’s not just sharks, either. Recently it’s been cutting-edge energy technology: Tesla or nuclear power plants.

“Molten salt something or other is his big thing lately,” Erica says. She’s tried to get him to switch to reading, and for the right article he will, but mostly it’s YouTube videos. 

“He sent me some video about these monster snakes,” Holaday says. “Hopefully he doesn’t get into that because I’m not about snakes.”

What's the next mountain for Max?

All of which is to say, November was a lot of fun. But at home, in the wake of winning his first World Series, Scherzer started to worry — just a little — that his famous, career-defining drive would be tempered by having achieved such a lifelong goal.

“That definitely is a real thought, a real emotion,” Scherzer says. “Something I thought about in the offseason, where you almost lose that fire because you feel like you kind of reached the top of the mountain.”

This is at the crux of what I want to know. With three Cy Young Awards, a World Series ring, and his place in Cooperstown all but assured: What’s motivating Max now?

“You start reflecting upon your career. You do reflect on it a little,” says Scherzer, who largely refuses to talk about his legacy publicly. He’s uninterested in historical comparisons or contemporary competition, preferring to stay focused on personal growth. 

Max Scherzer gets back to the grind at Nationals spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida, earlier in February. (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“Do you have the motivation to keep fighting for it? You question that. But the moment you get back with the baseball in your hand, you realize it’s not gone.”

It’s a little tidy, a little convenient. A pitcher cured of his ennui just by getting back on the mound. But I think I know what he means.

Like a solution in search of a problem, Scherzer is hard work in search of a goal. His wife says he’s not results-oriented, which may sound strange for someone so successful, but it makes sense if you consider that Scherzer just loves the grind. Not in some abstract, sports drink-sponsored gym poster way. What motivates Max is the enjoyment of pushing himself past reasonable limits to find self-improvement. And the self-improvement part is just a welcome side effect.

The difficulty of being a starting pitcher isn’t an obstacle; it’s the entire appeal.

“If this was easy, everyone would do it,” Scherzer says. “The process of everything that has to go into being a durable starter is not easy, and I enjoy the process of every little thing — especially in the National League where we have to hit and run bases and bunt and do all the little things.”

Maybe it’s the same adrenaline addiction that makes him want to swim with sharks and jump out of an airplane that made Scherzer start throwing five or six days a week in early January despite pitching — famously on short rest to the point where his arm felt like it was going to fall off — into October and all the way to the last day of the 2019 baseball season. Maybe it’s the same obsessive curiosity that leads him to lose hours to YouTube that has him quiz position players on their base-running techniques.

“He wants to steal bases, more than one base,” Holaday says. “And he doesn’t understand that he’s not that fast. Even if you run hard, you’re not that fast. But he’s always trying to push himself.”

You might think that this ever-better, eminently inquisitive attitude would make Scherzer a prime candidate to buy into the Driveline-driven tech revolution that’s overtaking pitching. But although he’s careful to not denigrate anyone else’s philosophy — “I don’t want to sound like I’m throwing any shade” — he hasn’t integrated any of the advanced cameras into his routines. 

“With all the different pitches, I gotta have feel,” he says. “When you’re in a game you don’t have a camera. In a game you have feel and you have to be able to make adjustments on the fly. So I never want to lose that.”

Ultimately, the veteran is old school.

Nothing but a number

“What about getting older is so fascinating to you?” Scherzer asks eventually. 

I explain that I’m staring down the barrel of turning 30 and, like a total cliché, I’m terrified. 

And to that, Max Scherzer says the most surprising thing I’ve heard all day. The borderline mythological version of the man who sports a black eye (sometimes) and a frightening intensity (always) on the mound seems, if not ageless, “unaware that he’s getting older,” as Martinez, his manager, put it. 

And yet, when I say that I just don’t want to be 30, Scherzer replies, “I was the exact same way.” 

“Oh yeah, you’re like, ‘Oh no, 30, I’m dying,’” he laughs the knowing laugh of someone speaking from the other side of the abyss. It wasn’t just the baseball, either, and the way it condenses your career down to your physical prime. Erica says he’s never been big on birthdays, lamenting annually that it’s all downhill from here ever since he turned 21. But 30 was particularly bad. 

He was with the Tigers at the time and his teammate, Joe Nathan, pushing 40, took him out for a beer and reassured him. No, your 30s are great, don’t worry about it.

Not the most quotable advice, but it proved to be true. In his five full seasons since turning 30, Scherzer has never finished outside the top five in Cy Young voting. Now he’s a postseason hero, too. And a dad to two daughters. When he chases them around the house hunched over, he can feel some of the effects of age. The fact that he works harder than ever is no accident. 

Erica says he’s embraced being a “crusty old veteran who out-trains the rest of them.” Max says he wears his age as “a badge of honor.”

He knows everyone expects him to drop off in ability at some point soon and that’s why he’s so focused on improving still. He doesn’t think we’ve seen the best of Max Scherzer yet. 

“I feel like there is a better version of myself out there,” Scherzer says. “I gotta work to achieve it.”

Regardless of the results, he will — because it’s better than all the alternatives. And because being a major league ace at 35 or 36 is dauntingly difficult. That’s the appeal.

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