WASHINGTON -- It snowed Jan. 21, 2015. Nationals Park was blanketed in white and dotted with gray. The scoreboard was bright in the middle of the storm. Beneath it, a lit display said, “Welcome to D.C., Max and Erica”. The main board was filled with video of Max Scherzer’s coiled arm firing across his body to the plate. Strikeout, strikeout, sneer, the footage a microcosm of why he was sitting inside with a light blue button-down shirt, purple tie, and boyish parting of his usually unruly hair.
From that poor-weather point forward, everything Scherzer did would be measured against the contract he signed earlier in the day. Seven years, $210 million, a staggering sum and the most expensive free agent contract in organization history. A simple, oft-measured, and difficult-to-determine question would follow him: Did he live up to it?
Five years later, on the day he is going to the mound to start the strangest season of anyone’s career, the clear and emphatic answer to the question is yes. Scherzer lived up to the money, both individually and in regard to team success. He’s thrown two no-hitters, struck out 20 batters in a game, won the Cy Young Award twice, finished in the top five of voting every season and won the World Series.
Gerrit Cole can hope to be so successful in New York.
He will be opposite Scherzer on Thursday night when the Nationals and New York Yankees start the wonky 2020 Major League Baseball season. Cole is working in a most unforgiving town, and doing so while under a nine-year, $324 million contract. Scherzer signed when he was 30 years old. Cole is 29 years old. He turns 30 in September. The paths and process share the same lanes. But will they share the same outcome?
Cole was giddy Thursday. Despite being on a Zoom call, his inner thrill came through. He talked too loud initially, as if he thought reporters would have trouble hearing, before backing into a regular tone. He was most amped at the interview’s start. Thursday appears to be a holiday in his head.
“I’m stoked,” Cole said. “I’m stoked. I’m already having trouble sleeping, I’m so excited.”
Cole stirred the hearts of Yankees fans when introduced last December by delivering a quip which will follow him much like his contract: “Pressure is a privilege.” Everything since then has been theory. The pressure, even without fans, will start Thursday. Back-page tabloid writers are ready to skewer or laud. Fans would boo or scream -- if they could. Longtime listeners, first-time callers will be on their phones Friday morning in the tri-state area no matter the outcome. It’s their lone outlet. Put the earmuffs on the kids.
“When you make that kind of commitment that the organization made, of course it’s about being a great player, but we invested also in who we believe the person is and his potential for the long-term,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “He’s been everything and more than that so far. We’re looking forward to him being able to go out and hopefully go start impacting our team on the field in a huge way starting [Thursday]. I’m excited for him to really start his career now with the Yankees.”
Scherzer is creeping toward the end of his career. He is four days shy of his 36th birthday. When he came to the District, he did not have kids. Now, he has two. He didn’t joke then about being a washed-up dad who no longer goes out for his birthday, which is what he did last year when asked what a celebration of his 35th year would entail. The sixth year of his contract will be over in just more than two months. Only one year will remain, he will have a decision to make and the Nationals will have one, too.
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His place in the game is clear while all those ending steps transpire. Scherzer is going to the Hall of Fame. He doesn’t bother talking or worrying about it. That’s for later. But the reverence follows him. It was apparent in Cole’s glowing answer Wednesday when asked what he sees when he watches Scherzer.
“The first thing that you think about is obviously the mound presence, the mound demeanor and the characteristics that go with that are the durability, the pitch ability and what we all like to call ‘the stuff,’” Cole said. “I think he’s the ultimate competitor. I think he’s been a great ambassador of the game. He’s been really influential in the players’ union. I know he’s been a great leader on their team and represents the Washington Nationals well. And, he’s a true professional in the sense that he toes up the slab every time he gets the opportunity and he gives you whatever he’s got that day as deep and as long as he can give it to you.”
Scherzer’s ability to plug his ears may be the most prominent quality Cole will want to emulate. Cole will be handling a media avalanche, whereas Scherzer has waded more through a wrist-slapping climate in Washington. Plus, his performance limited criticism. Success is the most accessible silencer at any athlete’s disposal.
Which is why Scherzer never concerned himself with “living up to” the terms set forth in his contract. Multiple teams told him to go away in free agency. They worried he would be hurt, underperform, or just not be worth it over the long-term. Often, extended pitching contracts work that way. Not here. And, part of the reason was muting of noise which measured performance against money.
"I can't control any of that,” Scherzer said. “For me, I focus on what I can control, and that's how I go out there, and the other days that I'm not pitching, what I have to do to prepare myself to make every single start so I'm pitching at my best. When I focus on myself and how I handle my starts and what I need to do to be physically prepared to handle the starts, the results take care of themselves.
“The moment you start getting caught up in what the narrative is and how you start thinking about your contract and all the other hoopla that goes into it, from my personal experience, any time you start thinking about outside distractions and outside narratives, that's usually when you don't pitch as well because you're mentally allowing other things to creep into your mind other than pitching. So, for me, when I just focus on what I can do on the mound, what I need to do physically on and off the field, that's when I pitch my best and that's the only way I know how to pitch."
Thursday night, Cole, a California kid, will be rooting out the pressure that comes with his payments from the Yankees. Everyone will be watching on TV, ready to judge, ready to complain about his cash or claim a triumphant investment has arrived in New York. His opposition has already covered that ground. Together, they represent a before and after.
“I saw somewhere a picture of their two headshots next to each other, kind of highlighting that matchup and knowing they’re kicking off our season, a unique season,” Boone said. “One where we know there will be so many eyes on it. I think it will be emotional for fans that are huge fans of each team, but I think it will be emotional for sports fans being able to see baseball return and see that kind of marquee matchup. I absolutely have an appreciation for that. Hopefully, we can go out and put on a good show.”
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