First off, an apology for my long absence from this site. The past few weeks were a mind-numbing blitz of final schoolwork and graduation events, which left me without the time I need to write substantial pieces for the sites I contribute to (I only managed a quick article at Last Token Gaming). Luckily, in that time I landed my dream job, as I was commissioned by the Sacramento Historical Society to write a book about the history of baseball in the city (and my efforts here at Brushback were crucial to me getting it, as I sent my Clayton Kershaw contract extension article as one of three writing samples).
And, let’s be honest, I probably wouldn’t have had much enthusiasm to pump out an Artful Dodgers column during this recent juncture. Their mediocrity was so repetitious and unchanging it would have made for equally listless commentary. And while I’m new to enjoying hockey, I’ve gotta say watching the L.A. Kings grab their second Stanley Cup in three years in a white-knuckle 2 OT finale was a treat. Maybe when the winning goal was broadcast on the Dodger Stadium jumbotron it gave Dem Bums a modicum of inspiration to win a championship before we reach the 30th anniversary of the 1988 title. After Kershaw’s no-hitter, it seems it may have done just that…
Anyway, this piece isn’t about the Dodgers, but rather a single player I deeply admire, Max Scherzer of the Detroit Tigers. I’m glad to be writing this all the more after his first ever complete game recently against the Chicago White Sox, but that’s honestly irrelevant to the fact that even if I had had the time to write for Brushback in the past few weeks, I wouldn’t have been able to write this particular piece until only after I had graduated from UC Davis. That’s because, to put it simply, Mad Max helped inspire me to get to that point during my two years at university at a critical moment. But how does a Detroit Tigers pitcher inspire a lifelong Californian to finish his history degree, especially when I’m not a Tigers fan and the specific instance of inspiration came against my beloved Oakland Athletics? It sounds convoluted, but work with me here!
The story begins with the 2013 ALDS between the Tigers and A’s. For those who don’t remember, especially due to Justin Verlander’s masterful game five performance, Scherzer was called upon in relief in the 7th inning of game four. The Tigers took the lead 5-4 in the bottom half of the inning, and Scherzer came back in the 8th try to preserve it. He proceeded to surrender a walk and a double before issuing an intentional walk to load the bases, albeit with no outs, to face the heart of Oakland’s order. From there, he worked his way out of the jam pitch for pitch, but it never came easy. First up was Josh Reddick, who went ahead 3-0 in the count before Scherzer fought back to K him swinging on a daring changeup that otherwise would have been ball four.
Stephen Vogt, who had notched a walk-off hit in game two, also went down swinging. Last was formidable pinch-hitter Alberto Callaspo, who battled to a full count before lofting what looked like a single into center. But centerfielder Austin Jackson ran it down in time to end the inning, sending Comerica Park into a cathartic frenzy, Scherzer back to the dugout in fiery jubilation, and the Tigers to a season-saving 8-6 win. In a year that saw him win more than 20 games and eventually the Cy Young, this one inning defined Scherzer as an ace more than any other. (And my words don’t do it justice. If you didn’t see it live, as I wasn’t able to, you can watch the whole stand here.)
As December of 2013 approached, with baseball season comfortably tucked away and my finals at UC Davis drawing ever closer, my mind was just as crowded with thoughts of my favorite sport as it was with the content of my four classes. However, I wasn’t merely dialed into hot-stove mode. Oh sure, I was jonesing for next season to start both due to my excitement about how close the Dodgers came, and to wash the taste of a Red Sox-Cardinals World Series out of my mouth as quickly as possible. But it goes beyond just that, for you see, baseball is basically omnipresent in my mind. I constantly think of the game as a source of inspiration, often synchronizing the visuals of a well-placed hit or clutch strikeout with a current challenge to make overcoming it a more focused and enjoyable task. I’m not trying to be schmaltzy here, but rather just explain how my mind works on a daily basis. In a more concise sense, I am endlessly consumed by baseball.
Indeed, at this time in college, I needed all the inspiration I could get. It was in a hectic quarter filled to the brim with four classes, the heaviest work load of my academic career. Two in particular were highly stressful, exacerbated by the reality that I needed all 16 units in order to graduate on time in June of 2014. With the highlights of the exciting recent postseason still fresh in my mind, I suddenly seized upon Scherzer’s do-or-die stand in the ALDS as my go-to baseball motivation.
At first, it seemed like any other instance of me visualizing baseball action as a way of keeping the innards of my mind greased for mundane tests and essays. But as I re-watched the inning and replayed it constantly in my head, I realized how thoroughly and poignantly it mirrored my situation. Just as Max had to prevail with his back to the wall during every pitch, I had to summon my intellect and writing skills to their fullest to ace four finals. While he had to notch the win to extend Detroit’s playoff life, I had to excel in all of my finals in order to graduate on time. I’m no stranger to contrived or forced sports metaphors, but the more I thought about it, the more it fit my current challenge to a tee.
When I arrived at studying for my finals, my stress had hardly alleviated. My 18th Century England course required two essays as the final exam, while my instructor for Women in Africa allowed me to redo an essay in addition to studying for the heavily weighted final. Sure enough, with the preparation and studying as packed as could be, Mad Max’s clutch performance was put in endless rotation as I wrote and memorized all weekend long. Even in my most tired and depressed moments, the images of him dancing on the razor’s edge and surviving with every pitch became less a highlight reel and more like a guiding force. Sometimes, it almost felt like the only thing that kept me going. I would sit and fear the worst about one test or another, only to interrupt it by envisioning one of Max’s payoff pitches or Jackson catching the final out. I thought to myself, “He had to get three outs in a tight spot, and I’ve got four finals in my toughest quarter.” I remembered that even with the bases loaded and no outs at first, each out brought him closer and built momentum. Likewise, I would roll from one final to the next, and escape the most stressful quarter ever just as he escaped the tightest spot a pitcher can face.
Surely enough, I proceeded to do just that, blazing through a crowded week of finals with relative ease and ever-growing confidence. My meticulous studying and persistence paid off completely, and by the last final I felt in command of everything I was doing. I would go on to get straight B’s in all classes, quickly accompanied by an ecstatic Facebook update and a link to the baseball moment that had fueled it every step of the way (and by then I knew that inning as well as a favorite Bruce Springsteen song). Two much more manageable quarters later, I graduated and acquired my degree in history in June of 2014, just as I had hoped.
Unfortunately, as we all know, Scherzer’s relief escape wouldn’t end up on a World Series highlight DVD. While the Tigers would triumph in game five in Oakland, they lost an agonizing six-game ALCS to the Red Sox, with his own incredible start in game two forever overshadowed by David Ortiz’s version of 8th-inning magic (aka a grand slam over my childhood hero Torii Hunter that I’ve now been forced to see more than I’d ever care to). Thus, despite his legendary effort and additionally stellar work against Boston, he didn’t get a ring that year. Hell, if he does get one, it may very well be in another team’s uniform considering how his contract negotiations with Detroit went (no doubt Dombrowski and co. turned him down for Cabrera’s historic deal, a wise move). He could get it this year of course, but the Tigers are so porous and inconsistent thus far it’s reinforcing my belief that of their recent stretch of postseason visits, last year was *the* year for them to win it all.
But all this doesn’t change the fact that Scherzer’s ballsy stand in the ALDS is by far one of the most white-knuckle, heart-stopping, and intense efforts in MLB playoff history. It’s an effort that captures a key element of what I deeply love about the game of baseball: The fact that you have to realize your victory moment for moment, no exceptions. In almost every other major sport, you have the luxury of a time limit and various strategies tethered to it: timeouts, taking a knee, intentional fouls, waiting out the shot clock, etc.
Baseball is completely untethered from time, forcing players and teams to earn their triumph pitch for pitch, run for run, until the final out or run is tallied. While it didn’t end up launching a World Series title, Scherzer’s 8th-inning escape will (or at least should) live on as a pinnacle example of this kind of pure resilience. At a time when I found myself with my back to the wall in school, and needing to harness everything I had to progress to the next level, it inspired me to seize every moment I needed to grow as a student and a person. As I sit here writing out this article, my Sacramento book, selling Presidents Baseball cards, and basically enjoying the freedom to live my dream life as a history and baseball writer, I can definitely thank Maxwell M. Scherzer for helping make it all possible.