This article was written by Jeffrey Shand-Lubbers
Always appreciative of being able to play baseball for a living, late in his career Bill Scherrer admitted, “There’s nothing like being in the ballpark. I’ve seen the real world and you can keep it. I’d rather stay in the bubble.”
Scherrer’s bubble eventually included countless minor-league stops and appearances in a variety of countries. Born William Joseph Scherrer in Tonawanda, New York, on January 20, 1958, Scherrer graduated from Cardinal O’Hara High School in 1976, earning a Parade magazine All-American selection in baseball. In June of that year, he was drafted in the sixth round of the amateur draft by the Cleveland Indians, but did not sign. Because he did not sign, he became eligible for the secondary phase of the amateur draft, held in January 1977. He was taken by the Cincinnati Reds with the first overall pick and spent the entire season with the Shelby Reds in the Class A Western Carolinas League, where he won nine games and lost nine. He was stingy with hits (132 in 158 innings), but was wild (105 walks).
From 1978 to 1981, Scherrer bounced around between four minor-league teams from low-A to Double-A. His minor-league high point was in 1979, when, pitching for the Tampa Tarpons in the Class A Florida State League, he went 12-3 with a 1.81 earned-run average in 25 games and tossed 10 complete games, four of them shutouts. He struck out 140 while walking only 65 and didn’t give up a home run all season. Still, in 1982, he found himself back in Tampa, a minor leaguer for the fifth straight year. He was later promoted to the Double-A Waterbury Reds of the Eastern League. His third minor-league team that season, the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians, won the American Association championship.
Called up to the Reds after the American Association Season, Scherrer made his major-league debut on September 7, 1982, pitching two perfect innings in Cincinnati against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He pitched in five games with the Reds that September (and got in a sixth game as a pinch-runner). His final two appearances were as a starter. Those two starts turned out to be the only nonrelief appearances of Scherrer’s major-league career. In his first three games he threw two scoreless innings of relief each time, allowing one hit and no walks and striking out two. In all after his call-up, he pitched 17⅓ innings, allowing 17 hits and no walks, and fanning seven while posting a 2.60 ERA.
Scherrer spent the entire 1983 campaign with Cincinnati, one of two seasons he spent entirely in the major leagues, and set a Reds rookie record by appearing in 73 games. He notched a 2-3 record with 10 saves and a 2.74 ERA. His first major-league win came on May 20 at Wrigley Field when he retired the only two Cubs batters he faced in the seventh inning. The Reds scored five runs in the eighth and went on to win 9-5. Scherrer’s first major-league save came in his next appearance, three days later, when he threw three hitless innings in Cincinnati against the St. Louis Cardinals after entering the game as a pinch-runner for Dan Driessen. And on September 17, Scherrer was on the mound for an inning with Johnny Bench behind the plate; Scherrer was thus the last pitcher Bench caught in his career.
Scherrer again started the 1984 season with the Reds. After two straight seasons finishing in the basement of the six-team National League West, the Reds started the season with a promising record of 19-14, but they stumbled over the next two months and arrived at the All-Star break with a 39-48 record. Scherrer did not quite match the effectiveness he showed in the 1983 season.
On July 11, Cincinnati demoted Scherrer to the Triple-A Wichita Aeros as part of a 10-player shakeup in response to what was viewed as disappointing play by a promising team. Scherrer was one of multiple Reds players who did not hesitate to express his displeasure for the moves, saying, “I won’t put on a Reds uniform again. I told them I want to be traded. I will never play in this city again.” At the time of his demotion Scherrer had an ERA of 4.99 with 35 strikeouts in 52⅓ innings pitched.
On August 27, the Detroit Tigers, who were leading their division by 12 games, acquired Scherrer from the Reds for a player to be named. Five days later, right-handed pitcher Carl Willis, who had appeared in 10 games for the Tigers that season, was Cincy-bound.
Speaking of the turnaround in his 1984 season, Scherrer said, “I was finished in baseball. But I got a break, and when you get one break, you’ve got to take advantage of it, because that might be all you get.” Of his luck to be traded to a contending team, he said: “I could have gone to any other team and I go to the Detroit Tigers.”
Scherrer made his first appearance with the Tigers the day after he was traded. Detroit was down 4-1 in Seattle, and Scherrer replaced starter Juan Berenguer in the bottom of the seventh inning with two outs and runners on second and third. Scherrer got left-handed Alvin Davis, the eventual American League Rookie of the Year, to ground out to first. Detroit scored three runs to tie; then Willie Hernandez relieved Scherrer in the bottom of the eighth inning and got the win as the Tigers scored another run in the top of the ninth to win 5-4.
Perhaps the more memorable story from the game is the one Scherrer told in the book ’84: Last of the Great Tigers. Before the game, manager Sparky Anderson asked Dave Bergman to stand at the plate as a left-handed batting frame of reference as Scherrer threw warm-up pitches. Scherrer threw a pitch that tailed straight into Bergman’s back, and the first baseman pulled a muscle trying to get out of the way. He played that night but missed the team’s next eight games.
Scherrer earned his only 1984 win with the Tigers on September 8 during an important series with Toronto. Earlier in the week, the Tigers’ lead over the Blue Jays had dwindled to 7½ games. Scherrer relieved Jack Morris, who was suffering from stiffness in his shoulder, in the fifth inning of a tie game and retired five of the six batters he faced, three of them on strikeouts. Detroit went on to win the game 10-4, giving them a double-digit lead in the standings that they did not relinquish the rest of the season. Scherrer pitched in all three games of that series, throwing three scoreless innings and giving up only one walk, no runs, and no hits. In the book Bless You Boys, a diary of the 1984 season, Sparky Anderson said after the series, “The Blue Jays have a great team. The only difference between them and us is our bullpen.”
Despite the Tigers never being seriously challenged for the division title after their remarkable 35-5 start, the series in Toronto was probably the most important one for the team all season long. In his book Inside Pitch, Tigers pitching coach Roger Craig said, “Our championship, in my opinion, had been a foregone conclusion since we swept the Blue Jays in Toronto earlier this month.”
Craig also said after Scherrer’s only win, “As much as I liked Carl Willis, Scherrer is the one we need now – he’s more advanced as a pitcher and there is a shortage of left-handers in our system.” Alluding to Scherrer’s luck in going from Triple-A to the Tigers, Craig remarked, “He must be a collector of rabbit’s feet and four-leaf clovers; he toiled for six years in the minor-league system of the Cincinnati Reds and couldn’t find a spot on a team going nowhere. Now he’s on the best team Baseball ’84 has to offer.”
On September 23, Scherrer pitched a hitless inning at home against the New York Yankees in Detroit’s 100th win of the season. In that game, he bridged the gap between starter Jack Morris, who earned his 19th and final win of the season, and MVP and Cy Young Award winner Willie Hernandez, who earned his 32nd and final save of the campaign. With the win, Sparky Anderson became the first manager to win 100 games in both the American League and National League.
Scherrer did not pitch in the American League Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals, which the Tigers won in a three-game sweep under the best-of-five format then in effect. He made three appearances in the World Series. His first was in Game Two, the Tigers’ only loss in the World Series, when he faced five batters, allowing two hits and no runs. The first batter he faced was the left-handed future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who pushed a bunt toward first baseman Darrell Evans. Evans fielded the ball cleanly but was unable to make the out at first base as Scherrer did not cover the bag in time. Scherrer made up for his mental miscue by picking off Gwynn, who was then called out trying to steal second (pitcher to first baseman to shortstop).
His second appearance came in Game Three, in relief of starter Milt Wilcox to start the seventh inning. Scherrer gave up two hits and an earned run in two-thirds of an inning as the Tigers won the game, 5-2.
Scherrer’s final career postseason appearance came in the deciding Game Five. By the fourth inning, Tigers starter Dan Petry had already given up six hits and two walks. After Petry surrendered a double, a sacrifice fly, and a single to successive batters, Anderson called on Scherrer to face Gwynn with runners on second and third. (Petry’s outing of 3⅔ innings was the shortest outing by the starting pitcher of the winning team in a World Series clincher since the Yankees’ Ralph Terry hurled a paltry 2⅓ innings against the Reds in 1961.) Against Gwynn, Scherrer induced a fly ball that preserved a 3-3 tie. He retired two of the three batters he faced in the fifth inning before being replaced by Aurelio Lopez. The Tigers took the lead in the bottom of the fifth inning and went on to win the game, 8-4, clinching the club’s first World Series title in 16 years.
Despite his solid pitching performance in the World Series, Scherrer may be best remembered for his World Series ring. The next season, Scherrer was at dinner with teammates Kirk Gibson and Milt Wilcox in Anaheim, California. A woman at the restaurant was raving over the beauty of the World Series rings of Gibson and Wilcox before asking Scherrer why his was different, which he had not noticed before. During the team’s next series, in Seattle, writer Vern Plagenhoef of the Grand Rapids Press volunteered to pay for an appraisal of Scherrer’s ring. Scherrer was told that the stone in his ring was actually made of glass and that the true value was somewhere between $90 and $250, compared with the highest quality rings, valued at about $3,000.
Upon realizing this, Kirk Gibson mailed his ring back to the Tigers in protest of Scherrer’s receiving one of lesser value. Tigers president Jim Campbell defended Scherrer’s ring, saying that it merely reflected the value of the postseason bonus the team had voted to give to Scherrer, who was with the club for only one month of the regular season. He had been allotted a one-third share of the bonus and the least expensive of the three different types of rings that had been given. Said Campbell, “If the players wanted him to get a full share, they should have voted him a full share.”
Of the one-third share he did receive, Scherrer said, “To have my teammates vote me a one-third share was very generous. They could have given me a fifth share and I would have been happy.”
Similar to the dropoff in production he experienced with the Reds in 1984, Scherrer was not quite able to match his brief but effective 1984 performance with Detroit in 1985. He finished with a 4.36 ERA in 66 innings with a 3-2 record in 48 games pitched for a Tigers team that many thought going into the season was as good as if not better than the 1984 World Series team but finished a middling third, 15 games behind Toronto.
Scherrer began the 1986 season with the Nashville Sounds, the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate. A bit more than a month later, he was back with the Tigers but lasted only a month and a half before being sent back to Nashville. In his final game as a Tiger, on June 29, he pitched an inning and a third against the Milwaukee Brewers. He finished the season with a 7.29 ERA in 21 innings and 13 games pitched with Detroit. He became a free agent after the season.
Despite his proclamation that he would never return to Cincinnati after being demoted by the Reds in 1984, Scherrer accepted the Reds’ invitation to spring training in 1987. He did not make the team out of spring training but was recalled from Nashville (which in 1987 went from the Tigers’ affiliate to the Reds’ affiliate) in June. Of his first appearance with Cincinnati in three years, he said, “It felt a little weird. But I’m happy to be back.” In his first six games, from June 10 to July 1, Scherrer gave up eight earned runs in seven innings for an ERA of 10.29. He reduced his ERA fairly steadily until the end of July, but August was a nightmare. After a stretch in which he posted a 6.14 ERA in five appearances (five earned runs in 7⅓ innings) between August 1 and August 14, Scherrer was sent back to Nashville. He was recalled again on September 5 but threw only 1⅓ innings in three appearances the rest of the season and was given his release on October 27. For the season he finished with a 1-1 record and a 4.36 ERA in 33 innings pitched in 23 games. He was 4-1 with Nashville.
In January he signed a contract with the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings, the Baltimore Orioles’ top farm club. He started the 1988 season with Rochester but was recalled in late April by the Orioles, who at the time were in the midst of their record-setting season-opening 21-game losing streak. In his brief time with the club, Scherrer was saddled with loss No. 20. With the Orioles tied with the Minnesota Twins, 4-4, on April 27, Scherrer, making his second appearance for the Orioles, entered the game in the bottom of the eighth inning and gave up consecutive home runs to Kent Hrbek and Tim Laudner, a walk to John Moses, and a balk, sending Moses to second, before being replaced by Doug Sisk, whose error sent Moses home. The Orioles scored two runs in the top of the ninth but lost by 7-6. Leaving the southpaw Scherrer in to face the right-handed Laudner prompted manager Frank Robinson to apologize after the game to what at that point had become a national media following of the league’s worst team. Scherrer’s outing also prompted this remark from Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post: “What do you do after you give up a homer, a homer, a walk, and a balk? Take a cold Scherrer.” Scherrer made two more appearances with the team but was released a week after being recalled from Rochester.
He signed with the Philadelphia Phillies on June 25 and made eight appearances with the team before being released on August 1. For the following few months he continued to bounce around and signed minor-league contracts with the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Texas Rangers without making appearances with any of the parent clubs. Besides the Orioles and Phillies, he pitched that season for four Triple-A teams.
In early 1990, Scherrer won the Caribbean championship with Escogido of the Dominican Republic, a team that featured current and future major-league players including Nelson Liriano, Jose Vizcaino, Luis de los Santos, Marquis Grissom, and Junior Felix. Scherrer said of his time with the team: “It’s even wilder, more vocal down there. They get real crazy.” He then reported to spring training with the New York Mets, although he did not break camp with the team. Scherrer then signed with an Italian team but stayed for only of two weeks. Of that experience, he said: “I didn’t know what I was thinking of – other than, get money and play ball.”
In late July 1990, Scherrer, who at this point had an infant son at home, signed with the Kitchener (Ontario) Panthers of the semipro Intercounty Baseball League. Once or twice a week he made the 100-mile drive from his home in Tonawanda, near the Canadian border, to Ontario, where he would proudly say, “I’ll brag about winning here as I would winning in Indianapolis or winning the World Series.” Regarding the money he was making, Scherrer acknowledged, “I’m not getting rich doing this – I can’t even say it’s a living.”
But Scherrer’s passion for the game was still evident. He was envious of Canadian baseball’s teaching of fundamentals. Regarding his teammates, some of whom were at least ten years younger than he, and their passion, Scherrer said, “I am impressed with our players. Canadians go full-bore, they work on things.”
Once his playing career finally ended, Scherrer became a scout, first with the Florida Marlins, for whom he covered western Pennsylvania, Ontario, Quebec, and New York, looking at both college and high-school players. He became part of another World Series-winning franchise as a scout with the Marlins in 1997.
In 1994, the Toronto Sun awarded Scherrer its annual Scout of the Year award for going above and beyond the call of duty. As he pitched batting practice to a prospect in Cortland, New York, in the rain while wearing white dress shoes, the batter lined a pitch back at Scherrer that knocked him to the muddy ground. Walking off the field to a standing ovation from the other scouts in attendance Scherrer remarked, “Reminded me of the old days. I’d come in the game, guys in the other dugout would stand and cheer.”
After scouting for the Marlins, Scherrer again returned to the Reds, this time as a scout in 1998, and worked for the team until 2002. He won his third World Series title in 2005, as a scout with the Chicago White Sox, for whom in 2009 he was a special assistant to general manager Ken Williams.
Twenty years after discovering the value of his 1984 World Series ring, Scherrer raved about the ring he got from the White Sox. It was valued at about $20,000. Scherrer praised White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who presented 432 identical rings made of 14-karat gold with the White Sox logo in diamonds. Perhaps alluding to the tiered system of awards the Tigers implemented after their 1984 Series victory, Scherrer said of the 2005 White Sox ring, “It shows you what a class guy Jerry Reinsdorf is. He had the same style of ring for everyone.”
Scherrer always stayed true to his New York roots, both during and after his professional playing days. While waiting out the riots that surrounded Tiger Stadium after Detroit’s 1984 World Series victory over San Diego, Scherrer approached journalist Erik Brady, who had covered him in high school, and beamed, “Didja hear? The Bills beat Seattle.” Brady looked at him and said, “Billy, you just won the World Series.” Scherrer laughed and responded, “I know, but I’ve only been a Tiger since August. And I’ve been a Bills fan all my life.” In addition to his scouting duties, Scherrer in 1993 began working as an instructor at the Rick Lancelloti Buffalo School of Baseball. And in 2006 he was elected to the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.
Scherrer finished his major-league playing career with a record of 8-10 and an ERA of 4.08 in 228 appearances. Through 2009, only two other retired players who pitched in 200 or more games, Kelly Wunsch and Scott Stewart, had fewer career decisions than Scherrer. He proved to be an effective left-handed specialist. Over the course of his career, left-handed batters hit .210 in 404 at-bats against him, with only six home runs, and a minuscule .292 slugging percentage.
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