Vahe Gregorian

Scherzer family quietly deals with a loss that wins can never offset

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer celebrates with his teammates after striking out 20 batters in game against the Detroit Tigers at Nationals Park, Wednesday, May 11, 2016, in Washington. Scherzer, a Missouri native, tied the major league nine-inning record.
Washington Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer celebrates with his teammates after striking out 20 batters in game against the Detroit Tigers at Nationals Park, Wednesday, May 11, 2016, in Washington. Scherzer, a Missouri native, tied the major league nine-inning record. The Associated Press

As they sat in their living room Tuesday night, Brad and Jan Scherzer were amiable and engaging hosts, which seems to come naturally at least on nights their son Max isn’t pitching for the Detroit Tigers.

Those nights, they don’t want any distractions or interruptions. They don’t want to answer silly questions or be self-conscious about superstitions they might have developed since Max abruptly morphed from a sturdy major-league pitcher into a staggering 13-0 ace who figures to start for the American League in the All-Star Game on Tuesday.

It’s always been this way to a degree, zooming in on their son. But especially now, when it’s just the two of them.

“It’s an escape,” Brad Scherzer says.

“It’s very enjoyable,” adds Jan, “but there’s still a sense of emptiness, too.”

They don’t assume anything, living hour by hour as they mostly do now. But they sure can relish this.

“Believe in The Streak,” Brad Scherzer says, smiling about the silliness of the rituals, such as where he sits on the couch and what shirts he wears.

Explaining the streak, which ended Saturday night in Detroit’s 7-1 loss to Texas, is another matter. Jan Scherzer, who was Jan Shirck growing up in Lee’s Summit, laughs and says, “It’s Miguel Cabrera. It’s having hitters. He’s on a team that has good hitters, and they kind of have gelled as a team over there, and that’s what it takes.”

After Saturday’s game, Max’s ERA hit 3.19, which dropped him out of the top 10 in the American League.

Brad says of his son’s hot start: “It’s just kind of one of those freakish things that happens. No one can put their finger on it.”

Alex, though, Alex would have known, not to mention enjoyed it more than anyone.

Alex, their youngest, always was the analytical one. Little Max would have to fling himself right into water or hoist his way right up a tree, but Alex was content to observe first and assess the risks.

In some ways, he watched his brother with the same discerning eye, particularly when it came to baseball. He would know now, for instance, what nuanced numbers reflect this rapid rise.

Perhaps he’d say it’s all about ground-ball to fly-ball ratio, their father wonders, smiling, or invoke some other term beyond the mainstream statistics the parents understand.

And forget the record, he’d probably still be suggesting insightful tweaks in technique that few could explain.

Alex committed suicide a year ago, June 21, and even knowing he was in the clutches of clinical depression doesn’t really make it any easier to explain or understand as his family strives to handle the confusion and anguish and anger.

“It’s quite a disease, quite a disease,” Brad Scherzer says quietly, looking down. “It doesn’t go away. It hides.”

Alex had revealed to his mother in late 2009 that he had considered suicide. But between his treatment and medication and all outward appearances of normalcy after that, his parents had come to believe he was more or less well as he was beginning a job with Morgan Stanley after getting his MBA at Mizzou.

“Not fine, but that he knew he had the coping skills and that he had promised us that he would seek out help if things bothered him again,” Jan says, noting she had once expressed to her psychologist that she was angry he had lied to her. “She said, ‘No, he didn’t. Those feelings toward the end were completely foreign for him, so he didn’t know what he was dealing with.’”

As for what the parents are dealing with, well, they don’t quite know what they feel, let alone how to express it — only that whatever it is will feel different tomorrow than it did today.

And that, “Rumors to the contrary, life continues on,” says Brad, pointing to Max’s November wedding as an example of things to look forward to.

“I keep telling my friends I never really feel comfortable anymore. Anywhere, anytime,” Jan says. “But I can enjoy things. We’re just trying to keep going, because I do know there is still pleasure. There’s still joy in the world.”

One day, she hopes she’s able to frame this in a place she can handle, to “somehow put this in some kind of something.”

Which leads to Max, who seems to have found a way to compartmentalize it all.

“I think you just hit the nail on the head,” she says. “We can’t do that so much, but he can. That’s all complicated. There’s a lot we don’t know.”

Somehow, he pitched two days after his brother’s death, a valiant loss to Pittsburgh with Alex “on the forefront of every single pitch,” he told in one of the few instances he has spoken of it.

“It was something for us, too,” Brad says. “There were things he did for us throughout the process, as a good son would, and he thought that was another step he could help us with.”

Incredibly, Scherzer is 23-2 since that start, remarkable in any scenario but particularly for a pitcher who had been 42-40 before that and actually was sent down to Class AAA Toledo only three years ago.

“It wasn’t undeserving,” Brad says, laughing.

“I went to see him and had a little talk with him about, ‘Wait a minute, this is not the end of the world, and you will be fine,’” Jan says. “In a real nice, diplomatic way I said, ‘You’re where you belong right now.’ He saw it as demeaning, which was ridiculous.

“And I had cancer in there. I’m fine now, everything’s fine, but I was kind of reminding him that there are things that are serious and you can get through them and you’re OK and you don’t have to complain to the whole world about it. And he changed his tune.”

And a few fundamentals.

And now

“You can argue that he’s been the best pitcher in major-league baseball since the second half of last season,” said Tim Jamieson, Scherzer’s coach at Mizzou.

That makes for a temptation to suggest Scherzer has dedicated himself to honoring his brother’s memory, and it could be that he has.

After all, the two were so attached in so many ways — complementing in some, conflicting in others, but always attached. Like “Mutt and Jeff,” says Jan, and both parents smile as they think about the ways the boys would hash out trades for each other’s things.

“He always knew just what to say to put a smile on my face or just leave me laughing out loud,” Max said in a news release days after Alex died, adding, “Alex made this world a better place. Alex was the best brother I could have asked for, and he will always be missed.”

He seldom has spoken publicly about Alex, though, whose depression had only been known to their parents despite their brotherly bond.

And he hasn’t spoken as much with his parents about it as they would like, even as recently as when they went to see him pitch last month on the weekend of the anniversary of Alex’s death.

Yes, he knew “what this was all about,” Jan remembers him saying, but, after all, he needed to shift gears and get ready to pitch. So he went into his compartment and improved to 11-0 with a 10-3 win over Boston.

“I don’t think he’s, like, dedicated his life to him or anything like that,” Brad says. “I don’t really know. He’s doesn’t talk about that; we don’t ask him about it.”

There is so much they still don’t know, so many more questions than answers for the normal, loving family of the businessman and a former teacher who met at Mizzou in the 1970s.

But they hope by talking about it they can express their gratitude for the infinite outpouring of support they’ve received, from family and current friends and old friends and strangers and fans of Max and friends of Alex and too many other groups to name.

One way or another, they feel comforting arms and spirits all around them, each an integral part of something that soothes them.

And they also hope that by talking about it they may be able to help spare others the same nightmare by helping erase the stigma of clinical depression, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is reported by one in 10 U.S. adults.

And that’s just the reported ones, a point that can’t be made enough.

“We’re all too afraid to talk about this stuff, and we were, too,” Jan says. But as difficult as it is to talk about, it opens it up, and that’s what we want. That’s kind of one of our goals now, I guess.”

And that’s something that helps, among other things. Like watching Max pitching.

There’s still pleasure, after all, even if they sometimes have to escape to find it.