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WHEN SCHERZER REPEATEDLY CHEATS, HE’S NO DIFFERENT THAN BONDS AND A-ROD
Given two chances by umps to clean up his illegal mess, the famed pitcher was ejected with sticky stuff on his hand — “far more than we've ever seen” — and should be villainized like juiced sluggers
Cheating is cheating, whether a man is pitching a baseball or swinging at it. In such a context, Max Scherzer is no less a scoundrel today than Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez or other sluggers shamed by steroids use. He should be viewed as a con artist, acting dishonestly to gain an advantage, and when voters eventually decide if he belongs in the Hall of Fame, the same rationale should apply to Scherzer and illegal substances on his pitching hand.
That makes him the Roger Clemens of his day, a precipitous comedown for one of the sport’s dominant aces. His arrogance caught up to him Wednesday in Los Angeles, where Mad Max thought he could outsmart umpires who’ve been warned by Major League Baseball leadership to crack down on sticky stuff. As if believing he was too clever to be caught, Scherzer played another cat-and-mouse game with the men in blue. He has been toying with them since 2021, when he responded to an official check by throwing his cap, unbuckling his belt and threatening to remove his pants while taunting the opposing dugout.
Actually, recalling a Sports Illustrated story, his scam spins back to at least 2017, when Scherzer asked a Washington Nationals staff member to text a notorious visiting clubhouse worker in Anaheim for an emergency stash delivery. “Bubba, Max needs 2 batches please,” read the request to the since-fired goo peddler, Bubba Harkins, followed by, “Bubba, Max needs the stuff ASAP. He will pay for overnight shipping please.”
How is such a desperate order any different than Bonds hitting up Victor Conte, he of BALCO infamy, for the “cream” and the “clear” en route to the all-time career and single-season home run records?
This time, Scherzer couldn’t buy his way to fraud. The umpires finally nailed him, ejecting him in the fourth inning at Dodger Stadium, against the team that still believes he bamboozled them in backing out of a crucial postseason start two years ago. Like feds armed with a Most Wanted list, umpires Phil Cuzzi and Dan Bellino stalked their prey. They checked him in the second inning, when he was ordered by Cuzzi to wash off a substance — Scherzer said it was a combination of rosin and sweat — on his fielder’s glove. Next inning, the umps checked him again, though Scherzer said he had complied and removed all the residue with alcohol as an MLB official watched. Nope. They found more stickiness in the pocket of his glove and, with an abundance of fairness, asked him to use a new glove.
He wouldn’t possibly continue this gambit, would he? Scherzer knows too much rosin is the pitching equivalent of a performance-enhancing drug, as stated in the MLB rulebook: “(P)layer use of rosin always must be consistent with the requirements and expectations of the Official Baseball Rules. When used excessively or otherwise misapplied (i.e., to gloves or other parts of the uniform), rosin may be determined by the umpires to be a prohibited foreign substance, the use of which may subject a player to ejection and discipline. ... Moreover, players may not intentionally combine rosin with other substances (e.g., sunscreen) to create additional tackiness.”
But just as an international spy or art thief never thinks he’ll be caught, Scherzer showed up in the fourth — like Leo DiCaprio playing Frank Abagnale in “Catch Me If You Can” — with rosin in the new glove. We know this because he shouted, among verbal unmentionables, “It’s rosin! Just rosin!” as they checked him once more, after he’d pitched three scoreless innings of one-hit ball. His cries fell on deaf ears, and in the post-game pool report, Bellino described the sticky texture on Scherzer’s hand in the fourth as “much worse than it was even in the initial inspection.”
So ended the legend of Max Scherzer, first-ballot Hall of Famer. Now, he’s another baseball hoodwinker in a long line, looking at an automatic 10-game suspension that shouldn’t be forgotten by the Cooperstown electorate. Now he is saddled with the profile of an aging veteran, soon to be 39, who needs illicit help to justify his three-year, $110 million contract with the New York Mets. That’s an annual average of $43.3 million, which might make even Steve Cohen blush as the hedge-fund billionaire tries to buy a World Series championship. From this point on, Scherzer will be targeted by umpires, opponents, media and fans. Add this to the pressure faced by 66-year-old Buck Showalter, who had no idea what he was getting into when he signed on as manager.
Not that Scherzer ever will admit he’s wrong, preferring to remain a vocal critic of legislation against foreign substances. Does he not realize he just lost the marathon poker game? That the goo cops have been onto him for years and finally cuffed him?
“I knew I was going to get checked in the fourth. So I have to be an absolute idiot to try to do anything when I'm coming back out," Scherzer protested after the game. “Phil Cuzzi said my hand is too sticky, and I said, ‘I swear on my kids' life that I'm not using anything else. This is sweat and rosin, sweat and rosin.’ ... I don't get how I get ejected when I'm in front of MLB officials doing exactly — exactly — what you want. And being deemed my hand is too sticky when I'm using a legal substance. I do not understand that.”
Read the rulebook, Max. Rosin isn’t legal when you’re applying it like gobs of mustard on a hot dog, not to mention what it might be mixed with. “As far as stickiness, this was the stickiest it had been since I've been inspecting hands, which goes back three seasons," said Bellino, the crew chief. “Compared to the first inning, it was so sticky that when we touched his hand, our fingers were sticking to his hand. Whatever was on there remained on our fingers afterwards for a couple innings. It was far more than we've ever seen before on a pitcher during live action.”
Said Cuzzi: “I said this to Buck and Max, it really didn't matter to us what (the substance) is. All we know is that it was far stickier than anything that we've felt this year, and so in that case, we felt as though he had two chances to clean it up, and he didn’t.”
Three strikes and you’re out, as Scherzer should know.
As the winner of 203 big-league games and three Cy Young Awards, author of a 20-strikeout game and a World Series title celebrant in 2019, why must he resort to breaking rules at this stage? Has he lost his once-unhittable stuff? Or, as suggested by the texts to Harkins in far-flung Anaheim, has Scherzer been a rogue for longer than we’ve thought? His supporters will argue that pitchers have been cheating forever, going back to when Gaylord Perry was celebrated for making a mockery of the practice. But this season, as the sport tries to streamline its product with a pitch clock and more procedural flaw-buttoning, MLB let it be known in the offseason that a crackdown was coming. The memo, to all 30 teams, said players are subjected to “randomized checks of fingers (including removal of rings worn on either hand of pitchers), hands, hats, gloves, belts/waistlines, and pants. Pitchers may be subject to checks before or after innings in which they pitch, and managers may make inspection requests of a pitcher or position player either before or after an at-bat.”
Most pitchers accepted the severe measures as the law. Not Scherzer. He was sharp when healthy last season — a career-low 2.29 ERA, 173 strikeouts in 145.1 innings over 23 starts — but once again, he crashed in the playoffs. He was booed off the mound in the fifth inning at Citi Field, where he allowed four homers and seven runs to the San Diego Padres. Only one other MLB pitcher, Cincinnati’s Gene Thompson in 1939, has fared that poorly in the postseason. Scherzer’s career record in October and November: 7-7, 3.58 ERA. “The wheels fell off,” he said, “and I don’t know why.”
Was he not well physically, after missing seven weeks in the first half with a left oblique strain and irritating the same injury in September? Is deteriorating health why he needs the rosin and whatever else he uses? As it is, the Mets are dealing with Justin Verlander’s arm issues at 40 after Jacob deGrom’s departure in free agency. If Scherzer is less than his commanding self this season, Cohen’s mind-blowing payroll — with luxury taxes, expected to approach $500 million — might become an all-time sports joke.
And Mad Max will take the blame.
I think we realized the entirety of his character when he showed up for labor talks last year, as a Players Association leader, in his black Porsche. “It’s not about me,” he said that day in Jupiter, Fla., not far from his waterfront mansion. “It’s about everyone else.”
Only months before, the Dodgers were convinced Max was only about Max, when he begged out of a scheduled start in Game 6 of the National League championship series. His arm was “fried” and “gassed,” he said, after three earlier appearances that postseason. One was in relief, when he pitched the ninth to eliminate the San Francisco Giants. The Dodgers expected him to give everything he had. He suggested they use Walker Buehler, who lost that night to the Atlanta Braves, the eventual World Series champs. Scherzer, protecting his arm for impending free agency, fled L.A. and signed with the Mets.
“That was one of the best teams I’ve ever been on,” he said earlier this week, reflecting on the championship that wasn’t. “Unfortunately, just given how the rest of that season ended, how it unfolded is how it unfolded. It left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. I get it.”
Maybe he also will get this: We’ll never look at Max Scherzer the same way. He cheated, again and again, inning after inning, and in a sport where juicing sluggers have been demonized, there shall be no double standard.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.