An outside pitch: How a globetrotting baseball career shaped congressional candidate J.D. Scholten

·13-min read
(Albert Corona / Yahoo Sports)
(Albert Corona / Yahoo Sports)

Three times a week, a middle-aged, 6-foot-6 man plays long toss by himself at the Sioux City East High School practice football field, heaving 28 baseballs into a net some 200 feet away. He started with 30 balls, but one got water-logged and the other was lost to, shall we say, control issues. Some days, he moves to the visitors’ bullpen of the baseball field and, again, throws alone, into the net.

The man turned 40 a few months ago and he’s trying to prove something to himself, in the way that turning 40 tends to shift the focus of your competitiveness from others to your own, certain physical decline. The man has challenged himself to get back to throwing a baseball 87 miles an hour. From the ground, not off the mound.

Why 87? Because the man is a big Minnesota Twins fan and he’s honoring their 1987 World Series title. And also because honoring the 1991 championship felt too ambitious.

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We all need a project during the pandemic, and rather than bake bread or brew beer or plant a garden, J.D. Scholten is trying to get his fastball back, reliving a semi-pro pitching career that took him to five countries. But the Democrat only flips baseballs when he’s taking a break from his other pursuit: flipping Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, a seat held by Republicans for 25 consecutive years.

A ‘rabbit hole’ of baseball videos

Speaking to Yahoo Sports on Zoom from the home office arranged just for such occasions, Scholten, who pitched for Nebraska and then played semi-pro ball stateside and in Canada, Belgium, France and Germany, wears a three-quarters baseball undershirt. He didn’t do it on purpose, that’s just what he wears around the house.

When the conversation turns to his throwing regimen, he pulls a weighted baseball into the shot without even shifting in his seat – it had evidently been sitting within his reach in case of emergency. After a decade working in law, Scholten is making his second run at the seat held by 10-term Rep. Steve King, who Republican candidate Randy Feenstra already defeated in this cycle’s primary. The only accommodation made to his new career is that his copy of Jim Bouton’s classic baseball book “Ball Four” has been moved off the shelf over his shoulder in favor of more respectable, politics-y literature.

Like everyone else, Scholten found himself homebound when the pandemic spread, his campaign RV marooned in the driveway. “I was traveling non-stop, and so when the pandemic hit I was home and I had time a little bit more,” he says. “I got caught in this rabbit hole of watching [instructional baseball] videos.”

Back when he pitched, throwing motions would be recorded on VHS and replayed in slow-motion to pick apart mechanics. But it was a rudimentary exercise in fuzzy, paused frames. Now, Scholten was agog at the technology available to pitchers, breaking things down into minute detail.

“Looking back on my career, my mechanics were nowhere near what they should have been,” he says. “And looking back on my minor-league days, I can see that my ups and downs were, for a huge part, about my mechanics. If I had better mechanics where I could stay consistent, I feel things would have been different.”

Before he was a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, J.D. Scholten pitched in a variety of semi-pro baseball leagues, spending time in Europe. (Photo courtesy J.D. Scholten)
Before he was a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, J.D. Scholten pitched in a variety of semi-pro baseball leagues, spending time in Europe. (Photo courtesy J.D. Scholten)

Other than in a commercial his campaign shot in the last election cycle, when he stunned many by only losing to King by three percentage points, Scholten hadn’t touched a ball in a couple of years. Then he found himself at the Iowa State Fair at a radar gun stand. If you could throw a baseball 80 mph, you got the biggest prize. “I was like, ‘I gotta do it,’” Scholten remembers. He just about hit 80 and won a giant Minion.

“I thought, ‘If I did that without any practice, I wonder if I could hit 87 if I started training,’” Scholten says. So he bought some balls and a net.

“The first couple of months were pretty rough with how sore I was. It would take so long just to get loose. But now I’m to the point where I can go 200 feet pretty effortlessly. I feel I’m on pace.” The modern pitching tech has allowed Scholten to use his legs properly for the first time in his life, he says. At 40, his mechanics are finally coming around.

The European baseball experience

When Scholten was working at a bookstore in Minneapolis in the winter of 2005, he couldn’t have known that the website he stumbled on, placing American players with European baseball teams, would also shape and enable a political career he had not yet imagined.

But on a snowy night with few customers, he did find that site. Two weeks later, he was on a flight to join the Antwerp Eagles. Scholten went 9-2 with a 2.44 ERA on one of the Belgian league’s best teams — he also hit .321 in 106 at-bats.

To call Americans who spend a summer — usually right after their college careers end — playing baseball in Europe “semi-pros” is to flatter their circumstances. As it happens, I grew up in Europe and played baseball in Belgium and England. The American imports we brought over, usually capped at two or three per team, live a spartan existence. Room and board were provided, but salaries tended not to exceed a few hundred dollars a month.

Games took place on diamonds often cut out of soccer fields, with short right-field porches and gargantuan left fields. Teammates worked full-time jobs or went to college all day. Practice was perhaps twice a week. There’s little glory or glamour in it. But Scholten took to it, glad to finally live in a country where he didn’t have to spell his Dutch name — courtesy of his great-grandparents, who immigrated from their farm Netherlands to start over in Iowa.

By then, his professional prospects had been extinguished anyway.

In college, Scholten’s fastball topped out at 93 mph and consistently sat in the low 90s. With his three-quarters delivery, he was a sinker-slider guy, living off the natural movement on his pitches. He’d been recruited primarily as a basketball player out of high school, owing to his height, but he believed he had a higher ceiling in baseball. He had Division I offers, but his dad was the head baseball coach at Morningside College, right at home in Sioux City. Even though it was a Division II program, Scholten committed. “It’s hard to say no to your dad,” he says.

After his junior year, when he’d finally begun specializing in pitching, Scholten was invited to several pre-draft camps. A few Major League Baseball teams were interested in drafting him. On the second day of the draft, the Anaheim Angels — whose interest Scholten had been unaware of — called him ahead of their 33rd-round pick. Would he sign for $1,000? They gave him three minutes to decide.

“At the time, coming from a small school, I didn’t know that what you should do is say ‘Yes’ and then negotiate [later],” Scholten says. He turned it down and decided to play another season in college. He transferred to the University of Nebraska to become its closer. “Even though I grew up just despising the Huskers.”

On a team that made the College World Series, he wound up only pitching 13 innings, albeit with a team-leading 2.08 ERA. Scholten wasn’t drafted again, joined the Canadian Baseball League and when it shut down, went to play independent ball. From there, he went to Europe.

Sven Hendrickx, manager of the Eagles at the time, was impressed by Scholten and his modest demeanor right away.

“From the beginning, unlike other players that were with our team, J.D. asked about all sort of things he could do away from the field,” he says. “He was thinking about life besides baseball here in Europe and not only going to bars and stuff like that, because that’s what most Americans do when they come here for a year of baseball. He asked about a job and places to visit. That’s when you know you’ve got a good guy who is not only here for lots of party and a little bit of baseball. He was always in for a good talk. He could talk to you in an [intellectual] way, which isn’t always something that baseball players do here.”

Most everybody speaks English in northern Europe, courtesy of ubiquitous American television. But Scholten slowly learned that sarcasm was sometimes lost in translation. “I assumed everyone must have thought I was the biggest jerk because I was so sarcastic early on,” he says. “I realized, ‘Oh, these people aren’t getting it.’”

In college, Scholten had been a history major. By pure coincidence, he’d taken a class on comparative politics in Europe and picked Belgium for an assignment on how a bill becomes a law there. Unbeknownst to him, Belgium has a famously convoluted government structure. Scholten never figured it out and it wound up hurting his final grade in the class. When he got to Belgium, he set out to find the answer. It turned out the Belgians couldn’t really tell him either. He emailed his old professor and told him as much.

After a season in France with a team just outside Nice, and another stint playing independent ball stateside, Scholten became a paralegal. But he burned out on his job and got an offer to return to Belgium to play in Ghent in the 2009 season. Scholten’s law firm thought he was bargaining and offered him a paid leave, making him perhaps the best-paid baseball player in European history. In 2011, he returned to Europe a final time to play for the Solingen Alligators in Germany. He had another good season and led the team to the national semifinals and victory in a European tournament where he was named the best pitcher.

Lutz Traebert, then-president of the Alligators, has a positive recollection of Scholten as well. “He fit very well into the team,” he says. “He made a lot of friends here and has stayed in contact with them. He left an impression not only because he was very tall, but he was a very nice person. His advantage was that he was really interested in Europe. He wasn’t just narrowed down to baseball but also interested in other things.”

Neither Hendrickx nor Traebert would have predicted a political career for Scholten, but both of them think it makes sense, in retrospect. The Alligators even tried to help Scholten’s political cause through their Facebook page.

In the last act of his baseball career, Scholten hooked on with a team in the National Baseball Congress, a high-level amateur circuit. He wound up making an all-star team that went on an exhibition tour to Cuba in 2014, playing teams like the storied Industriales, when Scholten faced future big-leaguer Yasmany Tomas before he defected.

‘We have so much more in common than we don’t’

“I miss baseball every single day,” Scholten says. “For me, it’s mental. I need that competitiveness. I need that release. Whatever it is, I’ll compete for something the rest of my life — and that goes into politics too.”

His new pitching regimen has offered a welcome distraction from the tension of the House race. “It gives me something outside the campaign that I can focus on,” he says. “Something that’s healthy.”

JD Scholten, running for congress in Iowa's 4th Congressional District against Steve King, waves to supporters outside the Wing Ding Dinner on August 9, 2019 in Clear Lake, Iowa. - The dinner has become a must attend for Democratic presidential hopefuls ahead of the of Iowa Caucus. (Photo by ALEX EDELMAN / AFP)        (Photo credit should read ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
J.D. Scholten is running for a congressional seat in a highly conservative area, using baseball as a way in with voters who may disagree with him on policies. (Photo by ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

But baseball and Scholten’s politics are also inextricable. His European tour changed his worldview. “You see things that are far beyond the world you grew up in and that is something that has forever shaped me,” he says.

“I always say that I don’t care where my shortstop came from or who my left fielder voted for in the last election, we worked together for a common goal. In this world, we have so much more in common than we don’t,” Scholten says. “Being able to go and see other cultures and realize what the world out there [is like], even though I didn’t make a dime, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Today, his playing resume gives him something to talk about to voters who might not otherwise give him a hearing. “As a Democrat in a very conservative area, it’s gotten my foot in the door with so many people,” he says. “When we can take away kind of the nationalism of the political parties, and I can just say, ‘I’m a baseball guy,’ people appreciate that. We lean into that quite a bit in the campaign, especially when you’re from Iowa and you have Field of Dreams and all that.”

The minor-league life gave Scholten the stamina to crisscross a thinly populated state. “The best thing that helped me prepare for [campaigning for Congress] is baseball,” he says. “The season being so long, especially playing indie ball, having to travel 10 hours, your arm can barely lift above your shoulder but you know you have to pitch that night. It’s a grind. This is a huge district. I’ve been to all 39 counties. That wears you out. The travel and having to get out and perform.”

As for his velocity, Scholten figures he’s closing in on 87 when he takes a crow hop. He hasn’t thrown off a mound yet. Nor has his fastball been properly clocked. He’s looking into that. And just as soon as he reaches his objective, he’s got another goal lined up.

“There’s a congressional baseball game,” Scholten says. “I would absolutely love to play in that.”

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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