Because the baseball world was on the verge of shutting down when it happened, we didn’t really get a lot of time to process Max Scherzer’s decision to sign with the Mets and wonder what kind of reaction he’ll get when he returns to Nationals Park to face his former team.
But since we’ve now got nothing but time on our hands, let’s return to the subject and contemplate the scene that ultimately awaits the three-time Cy Young Award winner when he emerges from the visitors’ dugout next April (or, god forbid, later in the season if the lockout delays opening day).
It’s quite possible Scherzer is the most popular player in Nationals history. At minimum, he stands right alongside Ryan Zimmerman for that honor, with Juan Soto potentially joining them, depending on how things proceed from here.
Really, at what point during his 6 2/3 seasons in D.C. were fans disappointed in or upset with Scherzer? Maybe there were a handful of rocky starts, a poor October performance or two, that left you frustrated. But in the end, Scherzer received nothing but full-throated support and adoration from the local fan base.
And for good reason. He more than lived up to his then-record-setting contract, authoring historic individual performances like no-hitters and 20-strikeout games, winning major awards as the league’s best pitcher and then coming up big in the biggest games the franchise had ever played.
So at the time of his departure July 30, there was no reason for anyone to be dissatisfied or disgruntled with Scherzer. Maybe with the organization for having traded him. But not with the pitcher himself, who gave everything he had to the Nationals and now was moving on as the organization hit the reset button.
It always stood to reason Scherzer would be given a hero’s welcome home whenever he next pitched in D.C. Maybe because the majority just assumed he’d be doing so as a member of the Dodgers. But now that he’s going to do it as a member of the Mets? A hated division rival? Is that going to change the reaction?
It certainly changed the reaction Bryce Harper received when he returned for the first time as a member of the Phillies. We’ll never know for sure, but the sense here has always been that Nationals fans wouldn’t have booed Harper nearly as much if he signed with the Cubs or the Dodgers or any other club that doesn’t have any particular negative history with Washington. The vitriol that was on display in April 2019 and remains to this day has been more about where Harper signed than the fact he didn’t re-sign with the Nats.
So in some respects, shouldn’t the same apply to Scherzer now? He didn’t have to go to New York. He chose to go there, rather than stay out west.
Let’s not kid ourselves, though. This isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison, for multiple reasons:
* Scherzer didn’t go straight from the Nationals to an National League East rival. Harper did.
* Scherzer didn’t turn down a sizeable contract offer from the Nats. Harper did.
* Scherzer was always fully embraced by fans in Washington, from the day he arrived until the day he left. Harper wasn’t.
* Scherzer played a major role in helping the Nats win the World Series. Harper did not.
So it’s not really fair to lump the two together. There are significant differences in their cases, and that means there probably will be different reactions to their return to Nationals Park.
That doesn’t mean, however, it’s not going to be tough to watch Scherzer mowing down a rebuilding Nats lineup multiple times a year while wearing a Mets cap.
“Facing the Nationals, that’s going to be a wild experience for myself,” the right-hander told reporters last week during his introductory Zoom conference. “But it’ll be fun to compete against them. You look forward to those matchups, facing your friends.”
Truth is, professional athletes don’t view these things the same way fans and members of the media do. They’ve become accustomed to teammates coming and going, moving around from team to team themselves. Hardly a series goes by during a long baseball season in which somebody isn’t facing his former club or a former teammate. It’s all part of the game, part of the business.
Unfortunately, we’ll never really be able to take that same mindset. We grow too attached to these guys, and we want to believe they’re just as attached to us. When we see them for the first time in another team’s uniform, especially a division rival, it’s only natural to feel some sense of betrayal, even if none was ever intended.
So buckle up for the first two weeks of April. If the season starts on time and everything else goes according to plan, Scherzer is almost certainly going to make his Mets debut against the Nationals at Citi Field, then make his next start the following week in D.C. as a visitor.
It’s going to be awkward. It’s going to stir up all kinds of emotion. It might even prompt some fans to boo the greatest pitcher in Nationals history.
Or it might prompt more fans to stand and applaud the greatest pitcher in Nationals history one last time and give him the hero’s farewell he never had the chance to get last summer.