As the world treats the ace like a business commodity, the true debate is lost.
It’s the backyard, baseball fantasy for every boy that falls in love with the ball and the mound. It’s the bright lights, the cold sweats of October, the pressure, the packed house, and the promise of a ring. It’s the World Series. Every boy that dreams of pitching dreams of pitching on baseball’s greatest stage –of throwing that twenty-seventh out that culminates in a mass of bodies converging on the field in celebration. That’s the dream. There’s nothing bigger, nothing greater.
It’s the dream that the Washington Nationals are willing to strip from the hands of Stephen Strasburg.
By all accounts, Strasburg will reach an arbitrary number of innings (somewhere between 160 and 180), and subsequently, disappear from the 2012 baseball season. The powers-that-be in the Washington Nationals’ organization are adamant. They’re sticking to this decision, no matter what, at any cost –at the expense of the now, in favor of the future. When 2012 began, this theory was met with little vitriol, as everyone saw the Nationals as a team that was a year or two away from assuming the role of contender.
That’s why they play the games. The now that the Nationals are willing to sacrifice in the name of protecting Strasburg’s long-term possibilities is one of the most promising present-tense situations that any team in baseball can claim. At 72-45, the Nationals own the best record in baseball, sit atop the NL East, and look poised to make a deep run in the playoffs. And Strasburg, obviously, has been a huge asset in this surprise surge, accumulating a record of 13-5, an ERA of 2.90, and an astounding 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings. This team, and especially its pitching, is fantastic… right now.
The future that the Nationals are protecting seems less certain. As ESPN’s Jayson Stark points out so well in this article, there is no comprehensive data that can tell us how young pitchers that have undergone Tommy John surgery should be handled. There are small sample sizes, medical opinions, and much heated debate. I won’t pretend that I have the answers to that question –the question as to whether this is what’s best for Stephen Strasburg’s arm and the millions of dollars invested in it.
Maybe it is. Perhaps the Nationals look at a case like Kerry Wood, who had Tommy John Surgery in 1999, accumulated more and more innings pitched in the subsequent years (peaking in 2002 and 2003 with over 200), and then suffered a litany of injuries beginning in 2004 that led to his rapid decline, early retirement, and unrealized potential.
But perhaps they are simultaneously ignoring the fact that injuries can happen to anyone at any time. AJ Burnett, for example, had Tommy John Surgery in 2003. It forced him to miss the 2003 World Series. He only made 19 starts in 2004 (120 IP; well below the current Strasburg-threshold of innings) before suffering another injury and missing more time.
These things seem unpredictable…at least for now. While studies have been done on high school athletes, there is no good, plentiful data to peruse in a case like Stephen Strasburg’s. So, in my opinion, that debate is completely missing the point. That’s the debate you have when Strasburg’s arm is nothing more than a business commodity –a bearer of fastballs, dollar signs, and a promised contract. What seems to be lost in that debate is that there is a human being attached to that arm –a human being who has dreamed of a chance to pitch in the biggest games since he was a kid.
The Nationals seem confident that this year will not be their only chance to make a deep run. They’re willing to mortgage this chance for all of the future chances that they’ve all but promised the fans of Washington. This, to me, is where the Nationals seem to ignore the evidence. Perhaps I don’t know whether or not what they’re doing is better or worse for the long-term health of Strasburg’s arm. But I do know this: if you have a chance to go to the World Series…you go for it. For many teams and their players, that’s simply once-in-a-lifetime. As good as this team looks on paper, history tells us that repeat trips to the World Series don’t come easily. If this is the year for the Nationals, it could be the only year.
Consider this: From 1980 to 2000, there were 20 World Series, 40 teams (would have been 21, 42 without the lost Series of 1994). Of those forty teams to vie for a World Series ring, twelve have never returned to the October Classic through the 2011 season. The 1982 Brewers, the 1983 Orioles, the 1985 Royals, the 1988 Dodgers, the 1990 Reds and Athletics, the 1991 Twins, the 1993 Blue Jays, the 1997 Indians, the 1998 Padres, the 1999 Braves, and the 2000 Mets have never since returned to the biggest game. That’s 30% of World Series teams in a twenty-year span –one and done. They probably thought they’d have many more chances, too. Do you think Cal Ripken, Jr. ever imagined 1983 would be his only chance at October glory? Of course not. But perception isn’t reality. That’s why they play the games.
And it isn’t like all the teams that comprise the other 28 World-Series appearances in that span were yearly contenders for the championship. The average amount of years between World Series appearances for the repeat offenders was nearly seven years (6.6). For nine of the 28 teams (nearly a third), the wait was longer than ten years. While the Yankees proved that a team could win three consecutive World Series from 1998-2000, one should also consider the fate of all three teams they played in that span –none of them have been back.
So what’s my point? Why am I pointing out that it’s not so easy to make repeat trips to the games in late October? Because Strasburg may not have twenty years to live this dream –no amount of protecting his arm can guarantee that kind of longevity or that kind of constant contention. If 2012 indeed represents a chance for the Nationals to win the ultimate series, then 2012 might represent Strasburg’s only chance to realize a dream that was long-ago born on the mounds of little league fields and the grass of his childhood backyard.
Even if the Strasburg-inning-threshold could guarantee twenty more years of his pitching career, it can’t guarantee multiple chances to avenge this year’s run at the World Series. Some of the game’s greatest pitchers have lasted for years and never thrown a fastball beneath baseball’s brightest lights. And when they did, it was special. It never became a constant routine.
Phil Niekro pitched 24 years; he never pitched in a World Series. Gaylord Perry pitched through 22 seasons; he never pitched in a World Series. In 22 seasons, Randy Johnson had to capitalize on one, single chance at a ring. Tom Seaver, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina, Walter Johnson, and Bert Blyleven combined for 100 seasons of pitching in Major League baseball –they each only had two World Series appearances.
The message and truth behind these stats is this: A World-Series birth is special. It doesn’t come easily, even to the best teams and best players in the sport. That’s why the boys of summer dream of making it to October –because standing on the mound in the World Series is to stand in rarified existence. It’s to do what thousands before and thousands after will only imagine.
So imagine this scenario: The Nationals continue to surge through the National League. With Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann still providing quality starts at the top of the rotation, they find a way to navigate the playoffs and find themselves with home-field advantage in the World Series. This isn’t fantasy. This is very possible.
If such a scenario plays out, the Nationals will reach the pinnacle of their sport long after they’ve decided to end the season of Stephen Strasburg. They’ll be standing on the precipice of greatness, staring down the chance of a lifetime, and the chance to redeem a city that has been deprived of baseball for much of its existence.
And all the while, Strasburg will be sitting, watching, and waiting –waiting for his own chance that will never come.
This isn’t about what’s affordable. This isn’t about what’s business savvy. There is a human being attached to Strasburg’s arm, a fan base that loves him, and a present that is very much more real than any prognosticated future.
Considering all of that, can the Nationals truly look Strasburg in the eye, and in one simultaneous move, strip him not only of the ball that he holds so confidently in his right hand, but also strip him of what may be once-in-a-lifetime.
Would they strip him of the chance to realize a dream that existed long before baseball, to Stephen Strasburg, had anything to do with dollars and sense?
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