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Sharing a bond through tragedy

They've never met, but former home run king Mark McGwire helped Tigers ace Max Scherzer deal with his brother's suicide

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NEW YORK -- Max Scherzer starts to speak about Mark McGwire, closes his eyes trying to find comfort, but the words won't come out. McGwire talks about Scherzer, but his voice cracks and tears well up in his eyes.

Scherzer, the Detroit Tigers right-hander who started Tuesday's All-Star Game for the American League, has never met McGwire. McGwire, the Los Angeles Dodgers hitting coach, has never spoken to Scherzer.

Yet they have a unique relationship, bonding over an unforgettable summer, a handwritten note and a bat.

"I get emotional talking about it," McGwire tells USA TODAY Sports. "I never met Max, but I have these unbelievable feelings for him.

"When I finally get the opportunity to meet him and see him, I'm going to give him the biggest hug of his life."

The connection began during the summer of 1998, when McGwire marched toward Roger Maris' single-season home run record, captivating the country, including Max and Alex Scherzer of Chesterfield, Mo.

When McGwire hit his 62nd home run to pass Maris on Sept. 8, 1998, Scherzer, then 14, remembers missing the historic blast and never being so angry at his 11-year-old brother. On the morning of June 21, 2012, the day he received that telephone call from his father, Scherzer never felt so much love for Alex.

It was the day his brother was found dead, having committed suicide by strangulation, inside the basement of their parents' home.

Max Scherzer declines to speak publicly about the death. It's too soon. Too painful.

"I don't know if words can describe what we feel. It's so hard," says Erica May, Scherzer's fianc©e after eight years of dating.

"We'll talk about it, but when we do, we both struggle. We're working though it going together. Everyone is."

McGwire, the Cardinals hitting coach at the time of Alex's death, wasn't aware of the tragedy. He didn't know that Max Scherzer pitched two days later against the Pittsburgh Pirates, believing his brother would want that, and sobbing alone afterward in the shower.

"To this day, I don't know how he did that," Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones says. "I couldn't have done it. I don't know anyone else who could have done it either."

Scherzer's parents, Brad and Jan, grew concerned over their son as he kept the sorrow to himself. That is until he sent a letter to McGwire weeks later in which he opened up about his love for Alex.

"Oh, my God, it was unbelievable," McGwire says. "I started reading this letter, and I just started crying. I brought it home, and my wife, she read it and started crying. And I cried again.

"I had never met Max, and for him to take the time to write a letter after the loss of his brother, describing his feelings, I don't know if I ever read such an emotional letter. I'll save the letter forever."


The letter, McGwire says, described the bond that Max and Alex shared through McGwire's exploits in 1998. Max had his sports. Alex, a numbers whiz, had his books. And through McGwire's home runs, they became closer than ever before in their young lives.

"I always looked up to Mark McGwire," Scherzer tells USA TODAY Sports. "I would be at Little League games, and we'd ask our parents, 'Hey, did he hit one tonight?' And you'd always tune into Cardinals games to see if he hit one. I'll never forget it."

Max and Alex excitedly shared this passion each day, watching McGwire close in on Maris' record and desperately hoping McGwire would eclipse the mark ahead of Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa.

Max had football practice after school the day McGwire broke the record. He rushed home, knowing it could be a historic night at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Alex already had the TV on when Max got home. No problem, McGwire hadn't homered yet.

Alex was flipping the channel back and forth between the Cardinals game and a movie when he switched back to the game and Fernando Tatis was at the plate. They'd have to wait a few more innings before McGwire would bat again, Alex said, since Tatis always bats cleanup behind McGwire.

"Tatis always batted fourth and McGwire batted third. It was that way all summer," Scherzer says. "So when Tatis comes up, we're watching Under Siege 2. Then they interrupt the movie right in the middle of Steven Seagal's fight scene. They go, 'Ladies and gentlemen, Mark McGwire has done it. He has hit 62.'

"I was so mad at my brother, I hit him. He should have known that Tatis was hitting in the No. 2 hole and not the 4-hole. If he had just watched the first inning he would have known that.

"I held that over his head forever."

Scherzer shared the story in his letter to McGwire.

He also asked McGwire for an autographed bat. It would mean everything to him, symbolizing that magical summer when two brothers came together, often laughing and reminiscing over the historical moment they missed.

"It was the bonding Max had with his brother, watching games together that summer," McGwire says. "It brings back unbelievable feelings for me, and unbelievable feelings for Max and his brother. I didn't hesitate sending him a bat, and I think I'm pretty sure I sent a note. I was so honoured."

The bat is in the Scherzer home in Chesterfield, but once remodeling is complete in Max and Erica's condo in Scottsdale, Ariz., it will be prominently featured.

"I follow Max's starts closely now," McGwire says. "I'm a huge fan. I've been watching his magnificent season from afar. Some days, he's pretty much unhittable. He's that good.

"I'm so happy for him that he's an all-star."

If Alex were still alive, he'd have enjoyed the all-star festivities more than anyone in the family. He'd have worn his Scherzer jersey, breaking down the numbers on all of the National League hitters and telling everyone at Citi Field that his brother might be the first 25-game winner since Bob Welch won 27 in 1990.

"I'm sure when Max goes out to the mound and pitches, Alex will be in the back of his mind," Erica says. "We're going to focus on the happy part, knowing how special this is."


Scherzer, 28, has been special on the mound for the past year, becoming one of the game's elite pitchers.

He is 23-3 with a 2.94 ERA, striking out 276 in 233 innings, spanning 36 starts since June 28, 2012. He's 13-1 this season, losing for the first time last Saturday, two victories shy of the longest winning streak to start a season.

And you can blame the loss on Scherzer's car.

For the first time in four starts, Scherzer didn't have a flat tire on his way to the ballpark on the day he pitched. For a guy the Tigers call the smartest player in baseball, Scherzer happens to be wildly superstitious, believing that an unfulfilled ritual can be worse than a hanging breaking pitch.

"I've got so many superstitions, but I don't like it when people know my superstitions, so I don't talk about it," he says, only revealing that he must eat a massive roast beef sandwich hours before each start. "If you feel like you're doing them all, it feels like you're unstoppable.

"But the moment you don't do one, I feel like I'm naked on the mound."

Scherzer also keeps himself busy running the clubhouse pools. There are golf tournaments, NASCAR races, March Madness, the NBA playoffs, World Cup, Olympic events and the NFL draft.

"We wanted to do a Little League World Series," Scherzer says, "but that's betting on baseball, so I don't do it. If it were legal, I'd do it."

The only thing bordering on illegal these days is the nastiness of Scherzer's pitches, incorporating a curveball into his repertoire this season.

He'd be a delight to catch, battery-mates Alex Avila and Brayan Pena say, if only they didn't have to constantly decipher Scherzer's complicated sign system, designed to thwart baserunners from flashing signs.

"You have to have a Harvard degree to make sure you understand them," Pena says.

Scherzer insists the signs are not as complicated as his teammates insist but boasts that Jeremy Kelch, the Tigers' video operations co-ordinator, gave up after an hour trying to decode them.

"That guy is smart," right-fielder Torii Hunter says. "If anybody could be a GM in this clubhouse, I'd definitely say him. I could see him being a GM and putting his own team out there."

Scherzer says he's intrigued by the idea of being a general manager. He certainly has opinions about the game.

He loves the current playoff system with the extra wild card but says it might be time for the National League to adopt the DH. He'd like to see replay expanded to every element of the game, except for balls and strikes. He wants stricter penalties for drug offenders. And being a pitcher, he'd sure like to see that third-to-first balk rule be retracted.

His pet peeve is that players constantly are finding out they're traded on the Internet before their clubs get a chance to tell them.

"It's crazy how that works," says Scherzer, traded by the Arizona Diamondbacks in December 2009 in a three-way trade with the New York Yankees and Tigers involving All-Stars Curtis Granderson, Ian Kennedy and Edwin Jackson, along with center fielder Austin Jackson. "You're traded out of the blue, and the only way you find out is by MLB Trade Rumors. All of the media and all of your friends know, but you don't hear it from the people doing it.

"Once that happened, I started becoming a pretty fanatical fan of ( and read it just about every day."

Perhaps a year from now, Scherzer will find himself the hot topic of the trade rumor site. He will be a free agent after the 2014 season, and considering his talent and youth, might become the highest-paid pitcher in history.

"It's funny, everybody wants to speculate on teams, and X amount of dollars," Scherzer says, "but if I go out there and pitch well, everything will take care of itself. I'm going to enjoy my time playing baseball. I've learned to cherish every minute."

The man who was his best friend in life, Alex, and the man who forever will have a special place in his heart, McGwire, certainly taught him that.

-- USA Today

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 21, 2013 A1

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