Eight All-Star selections, three Cy Young awards, two no-hitters, and one World Series championship ring later, Max Scherzer is once again representing Tarrant County in professional baseball.
The future Hall of Famer made his Texas Rangers pitching debut on Thursday afternoon at Arlington’s Globe Life Field. The first-place Rangers, headed for their first winning finish since 2016 and hoping to play in the postseason for the first time since then, acquired the 39-year-old right-hander from the New York Mets on Sunday.
You might not be aware that Scherzer played his first-ever pro baseball game just a few miles from Arlington in May 2007. He pitched briefly for the Fort Worth Cats in an independent minor league whose teams had no players under contract to MLB franchises. It was a league for players who were either released from big league organizations or never made it that far.
“Hit the way-back machine,” Scherzer said of his initial tour through Tarrant County when introduced to the local media earlier this week. “I remember my time fondly here.”
It was an unlikely venue for someone considered a budding star, the eleventh overall pick in the 2006 MLB draft. Scherzer signed with the Cats with the blessing of his agent, Scott Boras, almost a year after being drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Because Scherzer had pitched through injuries during his final season at the University of Missouri—he still managed to post the Big 12’s lowest earned run average that year—Boras thought his client deserved a more generous rookie contract than what Arizona had offered, and he was willing to let Scherzer pitch in Fort Worth to prove the point.
Hello, Cowtown, with a $750 monthly salary—plus meal money.
None of the other 24 players on the Cats opening roster in 2007 ever played in the majors. Nine played only independent-league ball. Of those who spent time in big league organizations, only three reached Triple-A, the highest level of the minor leagues.
The Fort Worth Cats of the aughts were a replica of the beloved Texas League team that served as a farm club of the Brooklyn Dodgers into the 1950s. They wore the same style of uniforms in the same colors. They built their ballpark on the site of the original Cats’ former LaGrave Field, north of downtown near the banks of the Trinity River, and copied the old grandstand’s name.
Boras’s unusual signing strategy with Scherzer was a repeat of his approach a year earlier with University of Tennessee pitcher Luke Hochevar, a first-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Hochevar held out and pitched briefly for the Cats the following spring. When no deal was reached with the Dodgers, Hochevar went back into the 2006 draft and was picked first overall by Kansas City.
Scherzer, the youngest player on the Cats at 22, dutifully reported to Fort Worth, with Boras having mandated a 75-pitch limit any time he took the mound. Scherzer might have been best known then for having heterochromia in his eyes—the left iris is brown, the right one blue.
One of the Cats’ other pitchers was Lee Gwaltney, a right-hander from Aledo, just west of Fort Worth. Gwaltney, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2002 and reached Double-A, said the new kid never behaved like he was too good to be there. “He was a pretty good teammate,” said Gwaltney, who still lives in Aledo. “His stuff was electric. You could tell he had a bright future.”
“Never came across as arrogant—he was just confident,” said Kelley Gulledge, a Cats catcher who grew up in Tarrant County and made it to Triple-A. “Everything in the world going for the guy, and right down to earth with the rest of the soldiers.”
Scherzer debuted at LaGrave Field on May 12, only a few days into the season. Throwing 68 pitches—49 for strikes—he shut out the Shreveport Sports over five innings and allowed only one hit, with eight strikeouts and zero walks. His fastball topped out at 98 miles per hour.
Six days later, back at LaGrave with an estimated thirty MLB scouts aiming their radar guns at the mound, Scherzer wasn’t as sharp against the Lincoln Saltdogs. In five innings, he gave up one earned run and two overall on six hits with two walks. He fanned nine and walked two.
Scherzer’s next start was his first on the road, at Sioux Falls on the night of May 23. During the previous game there, teammate John Allen (who now also lives in Aledo) was stunned to see Scherzer abiding by a starting pitcher’s custom of the day—charting his teammate’s start to scout the opponents’ batters. “You know you’re going to dominate these guys tomorrow,” a flummoxed Allen told Scherzer. “What’s the point?” Scherzer said he couldn’t be sure and needed to be prepared.
Prepared he was. No runs, two hits, and eight strikeouts in six innings. That earned Scherzer his first pro victory. “The confidence, the movement on the fastball, the ability to hit location,” recalled Gulledge, who played for the University of Alabama and now lives in Birmingham. “At that point in Scherzer’s career, he was ready to go [to the majors].”
Gulledge was activated just before Scherzer’s next scheduled start and finally enjoyed the, uh, pleasure of catching one of the 22-year-old’s bullpen sessions. Gulledge failed to get his glove turned adequately on one of the sinkers Scherzer threw and received a badly bruised thumb for the mistake. “In baseball, there’s never a day off,” Gulledge said. “This guy almost broke my thumb, and I suffered for two months.”
Scherzer was scheduled for one more start, on May 29 in Fort Worth, one day before the deadline at which he would either have to sign with the Diamondbacks or go back into the pool of prospects for the 2007 draft. But Mother Nature intervened—twice, raining out the Cats that day and the next.
A three-act audition would have to suffice. With the Cats, Scherzer had pitched sixteen innings, allowed one earned run and nine hits, struck out 25 batters, and walked 4. That glimpse of his talent would either convince Arizona that Scherzer was worth what Boras was demanding or he’d return to the draft with the assumption that another organization would agree to the agent’s price.
With about an hour left before the deadline, the Diamondbacks called with an acceptable offer. Scherzer signed for $4.3 million over four years, with performance incentives that could increase the deal’s value to $6 million.
So long, Cowtown.
Scherzer may have gone, but he made sure he wasn’t forgotten. Soon after the pitcher left Fort Worth, his former Cats teammates clattered into the clubhouse at LaGrave Field after a game and found a sumptuous meal waiting in each of their lockers—courtesy of Scherzer. “That was cool, man,” Gulledge said.
In response to Boras’s tactic of sending prospects like Scherzer to independent league teams to gain leverage in negotiations with the MLB clubs that drafted them, Major League Baseball went on to drastically reduce the amount of time draftees had to sign a deal, from nearly a full year to a matter of weeks.
Sixteen years later, the Rangers are Scherzer’s sixth major league team. He’s now known less for his rare eye trait and more for a competitive intensity that led to the nickname “Mad Max.” He’s in the middle season of a three-year contract paying $43.3 million annually, tied for the highest current annual deal in the majors.
Yesterday, Scherzer’s Rangers debut against the Chicago White Sox got off to a rough start. He allowed three first-inning runs on three singles (two on soft contact and another that snuck through the infield) through 37 pitches. At that pace, he’d likely be out of the game in three or four innings. But Scherzer followed with five shutout innings on 68 more pitches. All seven White Sox hits against him were singles, and he retired thirteen of the last fourteen batters he faced. His nine strikeouts increased his career total, the most among active pitchers and twelfth all-time, to 3,323.
The Rangers countered with four runs in the first four innings, added another in the eighth, and the bullpen limited Chicago to two additional singles. The final score was 5–3.
Scherzer afterward said he had a little chat with himself after the top of the first inning: “Don’t panic. You’re OK. They’re not blasting you. Not hitting home runs. . . . Let’s just pitch and compete.”
He added: “Sometimes these are almost my favorite starts, when you’re kind of getting beat around in the early part of the game but you settle in and you catch your rhythm and you’re able to pitch deep into a ballgame.”
That he did. Scherzer earned his first victory for the Texas Rangers—equaling his win total with the Fort Worth Cats.