Max Scherzer: A brother's passage
Best friends, confidants, alter egos Max and Alex were all that. And much more.
At night, in moments of anxiousness or hopefulness, Max Scherzer still reaches for his cell phone, wanting to talk to Alex. He'll find himself in a hotel room, tired after another stunning start for the Detroit Tigers, and wonder what Alex thought of the outing. Or he'll be at his condominium in Arizona, watching cable news, and think of a question only Alex could answer. All these months later, he can still see his little brother. Tall, handsome, with that goofy smile.
Alex, too, would reach for the phone whenever he had something to tell Max. He'd peck out a message, if only to let his brother know he was thinking about him. Back in September 2011, Max had struggled through a few starts. After one outing, in which he gave up several bloop hits, Max wondered what he'd done to deserve such bad luck. Alex typed a brief message: "If there's anything I've taught you, it's that #1 [s---] happens, #2 the non-scientific meaning is that you've now banked your juju for the playoffs."
Max hasn't deleted that text or the hundreds of others from Alex. He'll never remove his brother's number from his call list. In that phone are their lives together, moments precious now because they can never be recaptured. Publicly Max rarely discusses Alex. The 28-year-old says so little about his brother that his parents, Brad and Jan, worry about him, and how he's coping. Max simply tells them that he wants to focus on his starts, knowing that a solid outing will give his parents a brief reprieve from their grief.
But at night he doesn't stay so mentally vigilant, and if only for a second, when he needs the comfort, he tricks himself into thinking Alex is there, has a phone in his hands, is ready to talk one more time.
As kids growing up in Chesterfield, Mo., you didn't see one Scherzer boy without the other. Max and Alex played whiffle ball in the back yard, basketball on the driveway, pingpong in the basement. In the summers, they'd visit the family's lake house 45 miles outside St. Louis. They'd track frogs and crawdads in a creek bed, splashing together among the rocks. "They were classic, all-American kids," Brad Scherzer says. "Our boys."
Max was three years older than Alex, born in 1984 with heterochromia, a condition that left Max's eyes miscolored. One was brown and pensive, the other blue and piercing. Max was the athlete of the pair, the kid who knew in third grade he'd become a professional baseball player. Few things pleased him more than blowing those whiffle balls past his brother; Alex would hack away and hear Max laughing in the distance. Alex was the cautious one, the articulate one, the kid caught up in numbers and their meanings -- always balancing risks and rewards. Consider all factors, he'd often say, preternaturally mature.
One night, Jan Scherzer heard her sons jumping on one of the upstairs beds. There was a crash, followed by immediate silence. Jan rushed upstairs and found a vase, broken to bits, on the floor. "Who did it?" she asked. Slowly, Max raised a finger. So did Alex. They were pointing at the dog. Jan had to admire their solidarity. Her vase was smashed, but her boys wouldn't crack.
Max became a star pitcher and outfielder at Parkway Central High School, 20 miles outside St. Louis. The hometown Cardinals selected him as a pitcher in the 43rd round of the 2003 draft, but Max instead went to the University of Missouri, his parents' alma mater. There, he developed quickly into one of the nation's best college starters; by his junior year, in 2006, his fastball hit 99 mph.
Alex, then a high school senior, often made the 100-mile trip to Columbia with his parents, and the three of them would beam as the strikeouts mounted. "You'd see him on the mound, and you'd remember all those practices, the bus trips, throwing in the yard, all that work he put into getting to that point," Brad says. "We couldn't have been prouder of him." Alex, meanwhile, studied his brother's pitches: After games, he wanted to talk about every situation Max faced, why he had made the decisions he made.
The Arizona Diamondbacks took Max 11th overall in the 2006 draft. The next summer, shortly after being promoted to Double-A Mobile in what was his first professional season, Max's velocity dropped a bit. Alex found some video of his brother, broke it down, and called him. The top of Max's leg kick to his release point took 31 frames of film, Alex told his brother, while many of the power pitchers at the time -- Randy Johnson, Roy Oswalt, John Smoltz -- were at 25 frames or fewer. The point was simple physics: More leg momentum meant greater force. Max incorporated Alex's suggestion immediately. Soon, his velocity returned.
Less than a year later, on April 29, 2008, Max made his debut as a D-backs reliever against Houston, with Brad and Jan in the stands. Max was brilliant: 4 1/3 innings, seven strikeouts, no runs. Alex went to Chicago two weeks later to see his brother pitch six innings of six-strikeout ball against the Cubs, and later flew to Arizona with his mom. Alex and Max took pictures at Chase Field together. Neither of the boys could stop smiling.
By 2009, Alex himself was enrolled at Missouri and majoring in economics. In his free time, he flung at his brother the baseball metrics he'd been studying: BABIP, FIP, WAR. To Max, they sounded like another language. "Pitching runs the game," he would say. "Not numbers." But Alex wouldn't let it go. Max was on the cusp of something big, Alex said: Sure, Max gave up his share of home runs, but he had the velocity to overwhelm hitters, he was striking out roughly a hitter per inning and was walking about three batters every nine innings. The advanced stats showed Max could be a star.
But by the end of 2009, the conventional stats did not. Max was 9-15, and he was, if anything, known among baseball fans for those blue and brown eyes. That offseason, the D-Backs traded him to the Tigers and Max was put in the middle of Detroit's rotation. He pitched unevenly and was quickly demoted to Triple-A Toledo. "It was a really difficult time," he says. His throwing motion was out of whack and he wasn't hitting his spots. He and Alex traded texts. Just wait, Alex told his brother. You'll push through this.
Alex and Max's relationship had begun to transcend their brotherly bond. In many ways, Alex had invested part of himself in his brother. He felt Max's successes and failures as if they were his own, and even joked about wanting to be Max's agent. In truth, he was already playing the role of his brother's professor and psychologist -- the reasonable voice amid the noise.
In December 2009, Alex spent the winter break with his family at their home in Chesterfield. He was five months from earning his economics degree, and he had told his parents he planned to be a lawyer, that he had already taken the LSATs and scored in the 92nd percentile, and that he had contacted law schools and had even begun writing application essays.
But something didn't seem right during that vacation. Jan noticed it first. Alex went to bed early and slept late. Jan thought her son might be anemic and felt fortunate that his annual physical was coming up. A few days later, Alex returned home from his appointment. He walked into the kitchen and saw his mother.
"Is everything OK?" Jan asked.
"Well, I'm fine -- physically," Alex said.
"What do you mean by that?"
Alex looked at his mother. His face softened. "I need to tell you something," he said. Jan could see tears building in his eyes. Her stomach sank.
"The doctor wanted me to tell you that I'm not going to law school," Alex began. He spoke slowly. He'd had some bad thoughts these past couple years and he couldn't shake them. "I'm depressed," he told his mother. "I've thought about suicide."
Looking back, Jan says, "You think you have a pulse on these things, but this was totally out of nowhere." Jan waited for Brad to return from work at the software-consulting company he co-owns and said they needed to talk to Alex.
Alex told his parents he felt empty, like a fog was pressing down on him. Nothing made him happy. He told them he'd lied about applying to law schools. He hadn't even completed an essay. He worried how to tell his parents he wasn't following through on his plans, agonized that they would be upset.
"We could never be disappointed in you," his father told him. "You do what you want to do. It's your choice, Alex."
Brad got his son an appointment with a psychologist the next day, and Alex went at least 10 times in the next three weeks. He didn't say much about his sessions, but he assured his parents he was feeling better. Brad and Jan knew he'd been prescribed an anti-depressant, and Alex's psychologist said their son was making tremendous progress. "Physically, you could see him improving, day after day," Jan remembers.
As the winter break wound down, Alex talked excitedly about finishing his degree and about possibly enrolling in an MBA program the next summer. "You could see the light come on," Brad says. "You could see it in his eyes."
Alex returned to college in late January, but before he left, he talked to his parents about who should know about his depression. Alex's decision seemed to be an easy one for him. "He thought this was something between, him, us and his doctor," Brad says. They would tell no one else -- not even Max.
Alex stopped taking his anti-depressants a few weeks after returning to school. He didn't give a reason, but he told his parents he'd never felt better. His mind was clear. He finished his undergraduate degree in the spring of 2010 and, with an uncertain job market, decided to stay in school in Columbia to earn an MBA.
Jan constantly worried. She often wondered if her son's "bad feelings," as she called them, might return, so she regularly asked Alex how he was doing, often with a bluntness only a mother could get away with. "Do you still want to live?" she'd ask.
"Please, knock it off," Alex would respond. He kept telling her he was fine. Alex had stopped seeing his psychologist, but he promised his parents he'd get help if he thought he needed it.
By August of 2011, he lived in an apartment with some buddies, went on dates and tailgated before Mizzou football games. "Everything turned so positive with him," Brad says. Outside school, Alex befriended Bill Caudill, a former major league pitcher who works for Max's agent, Scott Boras. In phone calls or texts or emails, the pair talked often about baseball and finance. To Alex, it was like getting a degree in baseball.
In the spring of 2012, he was offered a position as an assistant financial analyst at Morgan Stanley's St. Louis office. Now 24, Alex moved into the basement at his parents' house and threw himself into the firm's trainee program. He studied finance and took the required company exams months earlier than his peers. He earned high scores, and would call his brother and laugh about how he was flying through the tests. "He couldn't believe how easy it was," Max says.
Max bought his brother a charcoal-colored suit, a gray suit, and a black suit and advised Alex on styles and other colors he needed. He taught Alex how to properly size a shirt. "He was wearing one of his new suits every day," Max says. At night, he'd text with Max or call him after a game. They often talked politics and business -- the pending Greek elections, say, and which political party offered more economic stability in the Mediterranean. Then they'd talk baseball.
Max, though, was struggling on the mound. He'd slogged through his first five starts of the season and posted a 7.77 ERA. After he gave up seven walks and a home run in a start against the Yankees, he threw chairs in the clubhouse. By mid-June, he had five wins, but his ERA was north of 5.00 and he was averaging a home run per game. But deep in Max's stats were hints of a turnaround, Alex told him. Max was leading all AL starters with more than 11 strikeouts per nine innings, and batters who put the ball in play against him were reaching base at a rate far greater than the league average -- meaning their luck, and Max's, would likely change.
On June 17, Father's Day, against the Rockies, everything finally came together. Max's slider was sharp, his fastball untouchable. He had pitched nearly four innings of shutout baseball when the sky opened and rain poured down on Detroit's Comerica Park. The delay lasted nearly an hour, but as he waited in the clubhouse, Max felt like he would explode if he wasn't put back on the mound. When the fourth inning resumed, so did his precision. He pitched four more frames: no runs, 12 strikeouts, no walks. For the first time all year, hitters didn't have a chance.
The day after Max's win against Colorado, Jan noticed a change in Alex. He seemed disconnected, quiet. She'd tried to talk to him about an upcoming move to his own apartment, but Alex hardly noticed her. He just escaped to his basement bedroom and went to sleep. Jan hoped that her son might have a summer cold, but the signs were too familiar. She cornered him later, when he came upstairs.
"You're not going to do something to yourself, are you?" she asked.
"Mom, I don't have those feelings anymore."
Two days later, on the evening of June 20, Brad and Jan settled in the family room to watch the Tigers play the Cardinals. Alex told them he wanted to take a nap. "It seemed strange because the Cardinals are his favorite team, and they were playing Max's team," Brad says. Jan pulled Alex aside and had another conversation.
"What's going on with you?" she asked.
"I'm just really, really tired," Alex told her.
After the game ended, Alex returned to the family room. His mother asked if he was feeling better. The two joked about the family's German Shepherd. Jan studied her son's face, looked into his eyes. Her boy seemed a little tired, but he looked relaxed -- normal.
The next morning, Brad left home at 6:10. Jan drove off five minutes later for her swim class at the YMCA. When she returned home around 8 a.m., she saw that Alex's blue Honda Civic was still parked at the house. She went inside, then upstairs to change clothes. The dog was sleeping and the house was quiet. She came back downstairs, and noticed Alex's wallet and keys weren't in their usual spot on the kitchen table. She thought maybe Alex had overslept; maybe he did have a cold. Jan made her way to the basement, found Alex's keys and wallet on a table, but his bed was empty. "Alex?" she called. Jan searched the rest of the house. Nothing. She thought he might have gone for a morning run. Maybe he'd lost track of time.
She called for her son again. Nothing. Her concern grew. She went back to the basement. A beeping sound was coming from Alex's bed. His phone alarm was going off. She noticed one of her son's suit jackets was rumpled on a chair. She picked it up to smooth it out.
As she held the jacket, Jan suddenly noticed Alex in a corner of the basement, partially sitting, partially lying on the floor. A yellow rope was wrapped around his neck, connected to weights on gym equipment. It looked fake, like a joke. "That's not funny, Alex," Jan said. She walked closer. Alex wasn't moving. He wasn't breathing. "No, Alex, no!" she said. Jan stood over her son. "What do I do, Alex? What do I do?" she cried. Jan pulled out her cell phone and called Brad at work. She could only make out two sentences: "Get home now! Alex is dead!"
Brad rushed out the door and was in his neighborhood in nine minutes. By then the street was flooded with paramedics and police. Brad stopped his car in the middle of the road and ran to his front door. When he got inside, he demanded to go to the basement. Police officers blocked his way. Brad tried to fight past them, tears streaming down his face. This can't be real, he kept thinking. Jan stood there in shock, hoping this was some terrible accident. Alex couldn't have meant to do this to himself.
A lieutenant from the police department came upstairs a while later and confirmed their fears. Alex had written a note on a laptop computer and left it on a workout bench. "He said he was feeling empty," Brad remembers. "He hadn't gotten over it and carefully hid his feelings. The depression still haunted him."
Brad had to get away. He escaped to the back yard where his sons played whiffle ball all those years ago. He dialed Max's number. It seemed like forever before his son answered. When Max picked up, Brad said the first thing to come to his mind: "Alex is dead."
There was a long silence. Brad thought his son might have dropped the phone -- he worried Max had collapsed. He then heard Max on the other end, screaming, crying. "Max! Max!" Brad told his son. "You need to get home. We need you."
His brother, for once, hadn't considered all factors. It seemed so selfish. "The conversations we had to have because of this, that's where it's just unfair," Max says. "That's where the anger stems from. I mean, why?"
At first, Max worried he'd missed something -- a sign, some chance to help his brother. Maybe he'd been too caught up in himself, his ballpark-to-ballpark existence, that he hadn't taken a true inventory of Alex's life. Why didn't he see something? If his brother was suffering, why wouldn't Alex come to him?
The day after Alex's suicide, Max slouched on a sofa at his parents' home and scanned the empty faces in the room. His parents, an aunt, a cousin. He couldn't take the silence. Finally, someone asked a question: Did Max want to make his next start tomorrow, an interleague game in Pittsburgh? Max said he didn't want to miss the start but he would never leave his family. There was a memorial to schedule, an obituary to write, friends to tell. The Tigers expected him to scrap the game anyway and return to the team when he could. But then he looked at his parents. "Baseball's the one thing I can do for you guys," he told them. The idea seemed crazy. "But he knew we needed something else in our life," Jan says now.
Less than three hours later, Max was on a flight to Pittsburgh. Brad, Jan and Jan's sister flew in later that evening. By midnight, they were at a hotel, in bed, wishing the morning on.
On Saturday, Max, his parents and his aunt ate an early lunch at a tavern across the street from PNC Park. There was small-talk about what to order and the lineup Max would be facing that afternoon. Alex didn't come up in the conversation; no one wanted to broach it. "It was nice to be normal for a little while," Max says. But when he arrived at the stadium, he knew it wouldn't be another start. Tigers' manager Jim Leyland hugged him, and after Max cried in Leyland's office, he gathered scouting reports on Pittsburgh's hitters. He couldn't concentrate. "I thought I could put things out of my mind for a while," Max says. "I had no idea how impossible that would be." Max went outside to stretch and he thought about Alex. He warmed up and he thought about Alex. He walked back to the dugout and he thought about Alex.
By then, word had filtered among the crowd about Alex's death. Brad and Jan saw the few Tigers fans at the game stand and applaud their son. "We had tears in our eyes," Brad says. Max worked three shutout innings against the Pirates, then gave up a three-run homer to Andrew McCutchen. He battled back with a scoreless fifth. After the inning, Max sat alone in the dugout. His hair was soaked with sweat; he had never been this tired during a game. Physically, emotionally exhausted. One more inning, he told himself. That's all I can give.
Brad watched Max walk out to the mound in the bottom of the sixth and marveled at his son. "Every pitch, I looked at Max and thought of his unbelievable courage," Brad says. "During his worst time, the only thing he wanted to do was help us."
With two outs and nobody on, Max stared down McCutchen again. The first pitch was a 94-mph fastball over the plate. Strike one.
Max wanted to finish the outing emphatically, to leave no doubt about his resolve and give his parents one last burst of light, before everything went black again. He got a sign for a slider, low, and nodded his head. McCutchen swung at the pitch and missed.
McCutchen might chase something now, Max thought. He waited on the sign for another slider. The pitch broke inward then cut back and dropped sharply. McCutchen swung through it. Strike three.
Max took a breath and walked off the mound, his head down and his glove arched high on his left hip. From their seats, his parents held back tears. Max saw his teammates waiting for him at the edge of the dugout. They engulfed him. Hugs. Pats on the back. Handshakes.
Max nodded his appreciation, but had to get past the crowd. He walked through the dugout and into the field crew's room near the clubhouse. Here, no one could see him. In the quiet shadows, he began to sob.
The Tigers had made it their mission that summer to track down the White Sox for first place in the AL Central. Max had worked all offseason to be ready for a pennant run, and with Pittsburgh out of the way, he decided from then on, when he was at the ballpark, there would be nothing but the game. So he made a rule: no distractions. "I couldn't be destroyed when I took the mound," Max says.
Mentally, each of his starts got easier. "Instead of looking at the past," he says, "I was looking forward to what was in my future." A happy amnesia flowed over him when he was on the mound. Game after game, life got a little simpler. Ball, hitter, catcher's mitt.
On July 8, he gave up one run and struck out seven batters in seven innings against Kansas City, then posted a 3.62 ERA over his next four starts as Detroit moved from third to second place in the AL Central, 2 1/2 games behind Chicago. His parents were relieved their son had found an outlet, somewhere positive to divert his attention. In many ways, the games were saving them too, reminders of the joy life still held.
But Brad and Jan also worried Max had taken things too far. On the phone, he stopped talking about his brother, changing the subject whenever Alex was brought up. As the summer wore on and his parents replayed Alex's last days hundreds of times in their minds, Max seemed to push his brother away. "That's not how I want to remember my brother," Max says. "I don't want to remember those days." He didn't even ask what his parents had done with Alex's ashes.
Concerned, Jan checked in often with Max's soon-to-be fiancée, who said Max seemed to have his good days and bad. Nights for Max were the worst. That's when a thought would flash through his mind and he'd reach for his phone to shoot Alex a text. Then he'd remember -- and he'd put the phone down.
His grief, though, never seemed to touch him on the field. In August, Max ripped off four consecutive wins, recorded a 2.25 ERA and struck out 44 batters in 32 innings. He followed that with a 2.17 ERA and 33 strikeouts in September. Alex had always said that his brother's numbers would even out, and he was being proven right. Max's fastball velocity averaged 94.2 mph, 1.1 mph faster than the previous season. On Sept. 26, the Tigers moved into sole possession of first place in the Central. On Oct. 1, Detroit clinched the division title.
These were conflicting days for Jan and Brad: happy that Max had enjoyed so much success; worried that it had come at the expense of some portion of him. "I was completely focused," Max says now. "I'd compartmentalized what I'd been through. There was no grief in the postseason."
Max started Game 4 against Oakland in the divisional series, giving up one unearned run and striking out eight in 5.1 innings. Max pitched again eight days later -- this time in the championship series-clinching Game 4 against the Yankees -- and gave up a run while striking out 10 in 5.2 innings.
On Oct. 28, Max started Game 4 of the World Series, with the Tigers down 3-0 to the Giants. Comerica Park was packed, 42,000-plus, a sea of Tigers jerseys and hats. Brad took a seat next to his wife and the rest of his family in the area behind home plate. As he settled in, he noticed an empty seat directly to his left. Jan noticed it too.
In the clubhouse, and during warmups, Max wasn't nervous. "I'd gone through my routine and I wanted the ball," he says. "It was about getting outs." He wanted to get through the first inning quickly, keep leadoff hitter Angel Pagan off the bases and get past the Giants' No. 3 hitter, Pablo Sandoval. Both struck out on four pitches. He misplaced a fastball on an RBI-triple to Brandon Belt in the second inning, but Detroit took a 2-1 lead in the third. Max cruised through the fourth and the fifth, and had racked up six strikeouts on 67 pitches.
But then he gave up a leadoff single in the sixth, and followed that two batters later with a 1-0 changeup that Buster Posey pelted over the left-field wall to put the Giants up 3-2. The Tigers tied the game in the bottom of the inning, and Max made one more out in the seventh before being pulled. "I'd given everyone what I had," he says. Three innings later, in the 10th, San Francisco took the lead and closed out the series.
In the weeks that followed, Brad and Jan often found themselves talking about their son's start. Max had been so even-keeled, they thought, so resilient. How many parents get to see their kid play in the World Series? They used words like "lucky" and "proud."
They also talked about those seats -- especially that empty one next to Brad. He hadn't thought much about it until the third inning, when no one had come to claim it. Then the fourth inning came and went, and then the fifth. It was still empty when the Giants recorded the game's final out. Of all the places, Brad and Jan thought: an empty seat at the World Series.
Max went to St. Louis for Christmas and spent several days with his parents, just the three of them. A day into the visit, with photographs of the boys all over the house and Alex's room untouched since the day he died, Jan noticed Max still hadn't mentioned his brother.
It was his first family holiday at home without him, and Jan tried to ease Max into a conversation about Alex, but he wouldn't go there.
"I didn't want to dwell," Max says. "My parents had gone over every detail. I wasn't going to anguish over something that wasn't there. I didn't want to be a part of that." By the second day, Jan had had enough. "We've got to talk about this," she told Max. "It needs to be discussed."
Maybe he needed someone to confront him. Maybe he needed someone else to take charge. Whatever the case, over the next couple days, Max began to open up. He talked about missing his brother, about how he reached for his phone at night, how Alex could make Max -- and his parents -- feel better with just a few words. They all missed his laugh too, and the way he could be so sarcastic and so loving at the same time. "That's sooo Alex," they'd say.
But, of course, there were nagging questions. The whys and the what-ifs that will never go away. They talked about their anger, wondered why Alex chose to leave them. Max was still wounded, but he knew Alex wasn't selfish: His depression wouldn't loosen its grip. It had taken him six months to admit it, to himself and to his family, but "Max still needed Alex," Jan says. "We all needed him."
On a brisk December afternoon, Scherzer climbs Camelback Mountain, a trek he makes once a week in the offseason. It's great conditioning, but Scherzer is after something more than that, more than the warm desert air and the spreading expanse of Phoenix beneath him. Up there, where Camelback's brush thickens and its trails tighten, Scherzer's world narrows and he can no longer plan anything more than his next step on unsettled gravel. He loses himself in the challenge of it. And for a while, at least, he's unburdened -- of his memories, of the pain of last season. For a while, he allows himself to forget about Alex.
One hour after his descent, Scherzer sits in the courtyard of his condominium complex in Scottsdale. Sweat soaks through the back of his shirt. A water bottle rests on the table, right next to his cell phone.
After his Christmas conversation with his parents, Max says they all promised to let each know when they were feeling down. Someone would always be there to listen, they told each other. Still, a lot of times there are things only a brother -- and only a brother like Alex -- could understand.
Max is projected to be a commanding presence for the Tigers this season, second only to Justin Verlander. Max is pitching well, and it's not just the hard-core statheads who know it. But the flip side of peak performance is the pressure that it will continue indefinitely, and so sometimes at night Max still reaches for his phone, poring over the messages from Alex, seeking amid the banality of so many texts something that will guide him -- how to pitch well, how to maintain his confidence, how to be a good man -- through this year and beyond.
"I have to try and answer questions how he would have answered them," Max says, looking around him. "Hopefully, I'm right."
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