It’s no fun celebrating cautionary tales or being a cynic. No one with any semblance of tact or class wants to be the “told-you-so” guy or the jackass always pointing out the mistakes of others. There’s too much of that as it is.
It would have been fun to witness greatness for a change. No, not the drug-fueled superhuman feats of strength that defined baseball just a short time ago, but instead we long for pure, unbridled skill and talent. A right arm touched by the gods, for lack of better hyperbole.
So with the news that Stephen Strasburg, the once-in-a-lifetime pitching phenom for the Washington Nationals, would likely have to undergo Tommy John surgery to fix that right arm, well, the cynicism rang hollow.
No one wanted the kid to get hurt. Not the players on the Phillies, manager Charlie Manuel or any real fans of the game. Yeah, the Phillies have six games remaining against the Nationals and will likely be fighting for a playoff spot in those games, so not having to face a pitcher like Strasburg is key. In his lone appearance against the Phillies, which was also the game where the “significant tear” of the ligament holding his elbow together was too much to bear, the pitcher dominated. He allowed two hits in 4 1/3 innings without a walk to go with six strikeouts. Noting that he had three mediocre outings in a row leading up to the game against the Phillies, the first four innings of the game were promising.
Manuel, who said he was looking forward to seeing the kid pitch against his team in the days leading up to the game, was pleased to report that the hype matched the skill. Even Ryan Howard, who got one of the hits against Strasburg, walked away impressed.
“He has an easy 98-mph fastball and a great hammer. He’s really good, though it’s like some of us said — the media took it and ran with it,” Howard said. “To his credit, he’s handled it all pretty well.”
Easy. That was the word a lot of players used when talking about Strasburg’s pitching motion. It seemed as if he wasted very little energy before throwing the ball 100-mph. He also had that hammer—the curve ball from hell—that had the makings of becoming the best pitch in the game.
That is if it wasn’t already.
Then he reportedly heard a “pop” in his elbow and got scared. Obviously, that pop resonated pretty loudly because it conjured up names and tales of haunted glory and unfilled promise. As quickly as one of those fastballs old names were bandied about. And as skewed as the angle on his curve, opinion came from mouth breathers of satellite radio and the floor of Congress. Actually, you could set your watch to it. Todd Van Poppel, David Clyde, Brien Taylor, Mark Prior and Kerry Wood should be starring in beer commercials any day for as much as they have been talked about lately. Talk about a Q rating…
Or maybe we should say, gentlemen, start your second-guessing. Based on watching Strasburg pitch in the minors, his major league debut and his final big league start, the kid was treated as if he were a Ming vase since signing with the Nats last year. Even in the minors Strasburg had an entourage of major league public relations people setting up the velvet ropes around the meal ticket. Moreover, his outings were monitored as if they were science experiments with strict pitch counts and plenty of rest.
If there was one pitcher who should not have gotten hurt it was Strasburg. After all, there were all those ex-big leaguers who said the kid was being babied too much. He needed to toughen up and pitch more.
“It's frustrating, because this happens to people you think it shouldn't happen to,” Nats GM Mike Rizzo told The Washington Post. “This player was developed and cared for the correct way. Things like this happen. Pitchers break down. Pitchers get hurt. We're satisfied with the way he was developed. I know [Strasburg's agent] Scott Boras was satisfied with the way he's been treated, and Stephen is also. We're good with that. Frustrated, yes. Second-guessing ourselves, no.”
The silver lining is that Tommy John surgery is very common. There are plenty of players on every team in the big leagues that have undergone the operation, which more and more seems like one of those milestones pitchers have to cross…
The minors, a big league debut, arbitration, free agency and Tommy John. Not necessarily in that order.
There’s also a chance that when Strasburg returns in April of 2012 that his fastball will be faster than it was before. The drawback is it will take him some time to regain the feel for his curveball, but the fastball will be OK. Besides, there were nine players in the All-Star Game that had Tommy John surgery: Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, Josh Johnson, Arthur Rhodes, Brian Wilson, Joakim Soria, Hong-Chih Kuo, Rafael Soriano and Billy Wagner.
Is baseball doomed in D.C.?
The problem isn’t the surgery, it’s the recovery. It’s not the process, either, but the time. In baseball, like any other corporate structure, time is money. Considering that Strasburg wasn’t just the ace of the Nats, but also The Franchise, it’s fair to ask if baseball in Washington can weather this storm. Yes, Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman are good ballplayers, and Josh Willingham is having a tremendous season while Nyjer Morgan could become a solid leadoff man. But those guys weren’t putting the butts in the seats.
Only the Pirates and Marlins averaged fewer fans per game than the Nationals amongst National League teams, and even in Strasburg’s last home start just 21,695 fans turned out—a good 2,000 below the team’s average per game.
So even with Strasburg was baseball viable in Washington?
Think about it… Washington is a two-time loser in baseball, yet when the Expos where no longer right for Montreal, MLB insisted on giving the city a third shot. Worse, they stuck it to the overburdened taxpayers of D.C. and forced them to build a ballpark that no one goes to.
Now it could be a career-threatening arm injury to cause a section of Southeast D.C. to go back to its pre-Nationals Park form, while the franchise moves on to Portland, Charlotte, Las Vegas or maybe even Monterrey, Mexico. We’ll start using names like Brien Taylor, David Clyde and Todd Van Poppel. We’ll tell more cautionary tales only to go back to believing the hype with the next kid with an arm that supersedes his years.
Washington could be a three-time loser with baseball, which only guarantees that there will not be a fourth chance.
“He’s going to be a tremendous pitcher,” Manuel said. “He has to stay healthy, though.”
Stay healthy because only the entire franchise is depending on it.