Unmatched eyes of the Tiger

MUTIGERS.COM Junior Max Scherzer
MUTIGERS.COM
Junior Max Scherzer
MUTIGERS.COM

The following article appeared in the March 4th edition of the Kansas City Star

COLUMBIA -- He's one in 500. That's what the doctors say. Max Scherzer has heterochromia. His eyes are different colors. His right eye, the blue one, gleams with energy, like a hungry wolf's. The brown eye is the watchful one, deep and refined like a walnut finish, the perfect color to unnerve someone with a stare.

Really, he's just a genetic anomaly, but the fact that something is askew physically dovetails with everything in Scherzer's life these days. He pitches for the University of Missouri, where the baseball program is usually as interesting as watching a clock tick. He's from the suburbs of St. Louis, a city in which the baseball talent doesn't nearly match the fan hysteria. Nothing about Scherzer's background indicates he could be the first pick in baseball's 2006 amateur draft -- a choice owned by the Royals.

Yet that's exactly where Scherzer finds himself at the beginning of his junior season. A preseason All-American coming off the best year in the school's history. A target for all 30 of baseball's scouting directors, whose radar guns he lights up at 99 mph. A star in a territory that sparingly breeds them and instead rears Cardinals enthusiasts like Scherzer, who, at age 1, was in his dad's arms for game four of the 1985 World Series.

"It would still be cool to be the No. 1 pick," Scherzer said. "I mean, I don't hate the Royals. Even though my dad reminds me otherwise."

Suffice to say Brad Scherzer would relent if the Royals do zero in on his son. Last year's top pick, high schooler Justin Upton, received a $6.1 million signing bonus. Currently, the Royals are mulling four college pitchers: North Carolina's Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard, Southern California's Ian Kennedy and Scherzer, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound right-hander.

"He's certainly got the ability to be considered," said Deric Ladnier, the Royals' scouting director. "But there are a lot of guys with that. Can they show us the things we need to see to consider for the No. 1 pick in the country? You want a guy as complete as possible."

Which brought us here, inside Taylor Stadium, where Scherzer showed Wisconsin-Milwaukee he's just that by striking out nine and giving up only three runs over five innings Friday in his first home start. Almost a month ago, two days before the Tigers' season opener, Scherzer was leaving his off-campus apartment at night. Thick carpeting makes closing the door difficult, so, Scherzer said, he grabbed the frame with his right hand and pulled the knob with his left. The door slammed on the middle finger of Scherzer's pitching hand, and a doctor drilled a hole in his fingernail to relieve the pressure.

"I need to call the landlord," Scherzer said.

Not exactly the way Scherzer wanted to start the most important year of his life. He made up for two weeks of lost time quickly, returning to form last week against then-No. 1 Florida when he went seven innings, gave up one run and struck out eight. Then again, that he's in this position in the first place is as much of a surprise as anything.

Mom had blue eyes. Dad had blue eyes. Of course Max would.

"He was born with them," said Jan Scherzer, Max's mother. "Then he was 4 months old. I looked down at my baby, and he had a blue and green eye. Very clearly. I have pictures and everything. I took him to the pediatrician shortly after that, and he said, `They may go back and forth. They may change again this year.' As the year went on, the blue eye got bluer, and the green eye changed to brown.

"And it was amazing. That night, on Johnny Carson, the actress Jane Seymour was on. She had different-colored eyes. It was just such a coincidence. She was talking about all the flak she'd taken growing up. She's a beautiful woman. She did OK. We always made a big deal to Max that he was special, that it wasn't something wrong."

In grade school, when Max drew a cat or dog or giraffe, he always chose dissimilar colors for their eyes. On parent-teacher night, Brad and Jan could immediately tell which drawing hanging on the wall was their son's.

Teasing in middle school gave way once Scherzer's reputation as a top athlete grew in high school. As a freshman, he started at quarterback for Parkway Central High near St. Louis. He played varsity basketball, too, but baseball occupied most of his time.

During the summers, when Scherzer wasn't picking corn at his aunt Patty Land's farm in Pleasant Hill, he played baseball. In his senior season at Parkway Central, he struck out 72 in 50 innings. Scherzer signed with Mizzou, the gem of the program's best class in coach Tim Jamieson's time with the Tigers. His fastball clocked in the low 90s. His slider was a potentially dominant pitch. Scherzer would be good. He could be great.

And the Cardinals, sensing something, selected him in the draft's 43rd round.

"A lot of his friends were drafted, and they took contracts," Brad said. "Max was pretty staunch about going to college. He liked Missouri. He liked the coaches there. He never wavered.

"At one point, I said, `Gee, Max, it's a pretty good offer.' And he wasn't listening."

Because, as always, Scherzer let his eyes guide him.

"I knew this was coming," Scherzer said. "Anybody who knew baseball could see it."

No longer was Mizzou going to be a pushover program, a penciled-in win. Scherzer, full of conviction and bluster, assured himself that. The Tigers finished seventh in the Big 12. Scherzer went 0-1 with a 5.85 ERA.

During that offseason, Jamieson challenged Scherzer. Did he want midweek mop-up duty or weekend starts? Did he want to be a Cardinals afterthought or a lasting lament? To get the latter, Scherzer needed to clean up a herky-jerky delivery and cut his pitches per inning.

Over the summer of 2004, Scherzer moved to La Crosse, Wis., to pitch in the Northwoods League. He tightened his motion, and 4 mph showed up on his fastball. Scherzer struck out 41 in 26 innings. He was nearly unhittable.

He hasn't let up since.

Scherzer went 9-4 with a 1.86 ERA last season. He struck out a school-record 131. Most impressive, though, he yielded just nine extra-base hits in 106 1/3 innings, meaning batters had a .211 slugging percentage against Scherzer. Because of Scherzer's hype, the Tigers started the year ranked 10th, though they've since dropped to 20th.

"These are as good hitters as there are in Division I baseball," Jamieson said. "And they couldn't catch up to him. They never hit the ball hard. For him to go weekend after weekend after weekend and do that, I've never seen anything like it."

On May 6, at Nebraska, Scherzer held a 2-1 lead going into the eighth inning. He struck out five of the final six hitters, including national player of the year Alex Gordon -- the Royals' first-round pick last year -- and cinched his first complete game.

"You'd like to see a guy dominate," Ladnier said. "In the real world, you want to see a guy struggle, too, because how he responds then is more important than how he acts when he succeeds. This is baseball. Everyone is going to struggle sometime."

Days after the injury, Scherzer rested in Jamieson's office looking at his finger. Blood dried under the nail. Skin was torn back on the fleshy side. This was all the struggle he needed, thanks very much.

During a normal conversation, Scherzer's eyes flitted about the room, as if he were in search of something.

"He reminds me of a predator," Jamieson said. "He can't sit still. It's almost like the movies where you see the dinosaur on the hunt. His head's never still. He's looking for something all the time."

Jamieson shrugs aside Scherzer's idiosyncrasies. He gets good grades. He stays out of trouble, doorjambs aside. He's a finalist for every major collegiate baseball award in the country. In June, he'll be the first Mizzou baseball player chosen in the first round.

Because of one good season, Scherzer is the Mizzou baseball model, the huge face on the team poster peeking from behind his glove -- blue and brown eyes visible.

"I can look back at last season and say, `I had a great season,' " Scherzer said. "I did a lot of great things. But there are a couple more I can do.

"I don't set goals for myself for that reason. If I say I want to pitch like I did last year, does that mean I don't go out and get better?" OK, so that's not entirely true. Scherzer does have one individual goal for this year. He wants to hit 100 mph with his fastball.

He's come close. Last summer, Scherzer pitched for the USA Baseball national team, made up of top college players. They played in Japan and Taiwan and were host to games against Italy and Nicaragua.

In the second game against Nicaragua, Scherzer had runners on second and third with one out. He struck out the first hitter on a breaking ball. On the second, he threw three straight fastballs: 95 mph, 98 mph and 99 mph, all swinging strikes.

"He became an urban legend in that inning," Jamieson said.

The next day, before the game in North Carolina, a few Nicaraguan players came up to Scherzer. They wanted his autograph.

One in 500? More like one in a million.

To reach Jeff Passan, national baseball reporter for The Star, call (816) 234-4365 or send e-mail to jpassan@kcstar.com

 

 

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