ST. LOUIS -- Marty Maier still remembers driving to that suburban high school field 15 years ago, mainly because Maier was looking for someone else. That's the way scouting works sometimes. You arrive targeting one player and another catches your eye, a player with a tool or two. A player you can dream on.
For Maier, that player was Max Scherzer. It sounds silly now, since Schezer owns three Cy Young Awards and could be pitching toward his fourth. But Maier believes he was the first pro scout, and the Cardinals the only pro team, to show interest in the future superstar, then a senior at Parkway Central High School just west of St. Louis. Maier wasn't an area scout or a cross-checker covering territory. He was the Cardinals' scouting director. And he only went to the game because he lived down the street.
"Its easy now for people to say they liked him a lot, but I didn't get anybody that I knew who saw this guy and thought he was a big league prospect," said Maier, who now scouts for the Reds. "He was long and lean. You could project him to get bigger, get stronger. … I said, 'I'm going to draft him and see what happens.' Hindsight is 20/20 now."
:: 2018 Draft coverage ::
All across MLB.com prior to this year's Draft, we're revisiting the stories of players who were originally selected by one club but didn't sign before blossoming with another. The league is littered with examples, and the Cardinals' is Scherzer, a hometown kid who grew into his body, willed his mechanics into place and overcame sizable odds to become one of the best pitchers of his generation. Under Maier's recommendation, St. Louis drafted Scherzer in the 43rd round in 2003.
Like so many St. Louis kids, Scherzer grew up a Cardinals fan. He dreamed of pitching in red and white. But still, Scherzer didn't consider going pro a realistic option at the time.
"I really wanted to go to college," Scherzer said. "Any team was going to have to buy me out of my commitment. I needed to feel like I was a valued member of your organization, so that put me in the top few rounds, in my opinion. Nobody could put that number on me, and rightfully so, I was very raw. Looking back on it, God, that was the smartest decision I ever made."
Scherzer maintained his commitment to the University of Missouri, where he developed into one of the top pitching prospects in the country. The legs, the arm angle, the tenacity -- Scherzer credits his three years in Columbia, Mo., for allowing him to mold them all, to refine him from a wiry project into a potential Hall of Famer. He won All-American honors, a Big 12 Pitcher of the Year award, watched his heater creep toward triple-digits and trained his frame to handle high workloads.
Missouri is considered the college pitching factory it is today in large part because Scherzer became Scherzer there. Three years after the Cardinals took a flier on him with the 1,291st overall pick, Scherzer was selected No. 11 overall by the D-backs. He became the school's first ever first-round pick.
"I got to see him a couple times at Mizzou and thought, 'I'd like to have that one back,'" Maier said. "But drafting is one thing, signing is another. You got to do both to hit the jackpot on a guy like him."
The Cardinals offered above-slot money to try to sway him, much like they did with another local arm, Kyle McClellan, a year earlier. McClellan, a 25th rounder who went on to pitch in parts of five seasons with the Cardinals, was eager to jump from high school to pro ball. Looking back, Scherzer laughs at the amount of money that would've convinced him to decommit from his college plan.
"God, it needed to be over a million dollars," said Scherzer, who is now signed to a $210 million deal with the Nationals. "It wasn't then, but it should have been."
"We liked him a lot but understood he's likely attend college," said Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, who oversaw both scouting and player development at the time. "He was still developing as a pitcher, still growing, still physically maturing, and college was a smart choice."
If you're looking for a reason why the Cardinals (and so much of the rest of baseball) missed at first on Scherzer, consider several factors. High-school arms were considered much riskier investments than they are now, as younger players are leapfrogging to the Majors quicker than ever before. Only three high-school pitchers were selected in the first round in 2003. That number had tripled by '16.
And Scherzer actually proved that older way of thinking correct. It took him until his age-28 season to develop into a star, by which point the D-backs had already traded him to the Tigers.
"I beat the odds, and I beat the odds so many times," Scherzer said. "If I got hurt or anything, I was going to need a college degree. Nothing was going to stop me from getting that."
And sometimes, the entire industry is simply looking in the wrong direction. The player Maier originally went to see was Lucas May, a shortstop at Parkway West High, the rival to Scherzer's Parkway Central. The Cardinals were one of several teams courting May, projected as one of Missouri's best high-school products in some time. The Dodgers took him in the eighth round that year -- 1,050 picks ahead of Scherzer. His MLB resume totals seven hits in 37 career at-bats.