Life After Death: How Did Max Scherzer Pitch Yesterday?

By John Gorman

I don’t want to know how Max Scherzer pitched in the sense of “was he any good?” He gave up three hits, one of which was a hanging fastball belted into the seats for a three-run homer. For that, and because the Detroit Tigers could make a pitching machine look like Greg Maddux lately, Max got saddled with the loss in a 4-1 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Scherzer tossed out this: 6.0 IP, 3 R, 3 H, 7 K, 1 BB. Quality start, just not enough.

But numbers would never be enough. Not yesterday. Not for Max Scherzer. Not after his younger brother, Alex, commit suicide at 24 … just three days ago.

I don’t know Max Scherzer. I didn’t know his brother. I don’t know the details of their relationship and can’t fathom what level of hurt his family’s feeling. But I have two younger siblings about Alex’s age, and if either of them made the decision to end their own life, I’d be catatonic for months. Max Scherzer spent a couple days grieving with his family, then took the mound and the game-ball on his scheduled start date, same as always, and started dealing. He went to work.

My goodness, he went to work. Something his brother will never do again. Alex will never again settle into his desk at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney after earning an M.B.A. from Missouri.

So how did Max Scherzer work up the guts and composure to trot out to the rubber?

In his groundbreaking research book, “The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After a Loss,” Grief Psychologist George Bonanno describes in great detail components of what’s called “Psychological Resilience.” You hear the word “resilience” tossed around a lot in sports, and so the word sounds fairly loaded and loses much of it’s impact, but in the clinical sense it describes the mind and body’s innate ability to cope with trauma, loss or adversity.

Bonanno explains that, as our default setting, humans are hard-wired to be resilient and bounce back from loss; that it is in our nature to maintain the status quo in the face of anything but.

It’s a simple, obvious conclusion that sounds like it shouldn’t require years of methodical observation, but in the fields of grief and trauma, where much of what we think about what we know is far from scientific and thus we can only guess how someone should or shouldn’t respond to loss, the clarity is refreshing.

Truly resilient people show no signs of grief, and thus don’t pass through the so-called “Five Stages.” This runs counter to what was assumed by Freudian-schooled psychologists before and even the Humanist and Cognitive-Behavioral subdisciplines that have emerged since, therapists who frequently theorized (in nebulously anecdotal fashion) that the absence of grief was pathological.

Bonanno’s research introduced the “Four Trajectories,” the most common of the four being “Resilience”, defined as:

“The ability of adults in otherwise normal circumstances who are exposed to an isolated and potentially highly disruptive event, such as the death of a close relation or a violent or life-threatening situation, to maintain relatively stable, healthy levels of psychological and physical functioning” as well as “the capacity for generative experiences and positive emotions.”

Resilience can’t be taught, counseled, willed or paid off. What Max Scherzer did by taking the mound yesterday, as spectacularly brave as it was, is as natural as tragedy itself.

We deal with loss by keeping our routines, duties and habits as closely aligned with our baseline as possible. This is not the same as showing no emotion. In grief’s case, our emotional response acts as a reservoir to protect us from slipping into prolonged post-traumatic pathology.

You’ll find a higher degree of resilience in pro athletes, as they’re better equipped than most to handle trauma. They’re typically in great physical health. They deal with criticism, physical punishment and professional failure (losses, slumps, demotions and cuts) regularly. These correlate well and contribute mightily to building up a healthy resilient response. As an example, perhaps you remember Brett Favre’s MNF game against the Raiders just days after his father died.

Resilience is not a sexy explanation. It doesn’t carry the weight or romance of “It’s What His Brother Would Have Wanted.” or “He did it as tribute to Alex” or the old standby “The Mound is his Asylum/Sanctuary.”

In life and death, sometimes you just do what you gotta do because it’s what you do. Max Scherzer is a good pitcher, and when he was called upon to take the mound after life threw him the hardest curve-ball one can hit, his fastball hit the mitt the way it usually does.

You wish you never have to watch a performance like that under circumstances like these, but when you do, you can’t help but tip your cap and feel a relative peace about it.

And right after that, you call your brother and your sister, and you tell them you love them.

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