THE SPORTS PHILOSOPHER: In A Universe Of Dull Asteroids, We Have A Brand New Comet

June 13, 2010
Share this story:

      Sports usually disappoints.

      I mean it.   The end result of most landmark sporting events is that the anticipation far exceeds the actual outcome of the event itself.   This might strike you as a surprising comment from a man who loves sports, writes about sports, and knows more about most sports than most of you could ever hope to know about anything.   But it’s true.

Behold the Prince of Pitchers

Behold the Prince of Pitchers


      Think about it.   Aren’t most Super Bowls disappointing?   Aren’t most World Series disappointing?   Most tennis matches, most golf tournaments, most tiddlywinks title tilts?   When I consider my own personal experience as a sports fan, I am even more convinced.   The 2002 World Series should have been my shining hour as a fan, but in Game Six my beloved San Francisco Giants set themselves on fire, their vaunted bullpen in charge of emptying the kerosene can.    In the 2007 Super Bowl my beloved Chicago Bears were kicking the Colts’ overrated asses all over the stadium, but then the Bears suddenly stopped blitzing and so Peyton Manning simply took a deep breath, yawned, and carved them up like a Christmas goose.   In last year’s Open Championship of golf, 59-year-old Tom Watson was one hole away from making a memory all us 50-somethings could take pride in all the way to our graves, and he would have too, if one of the five or so most shrewd and canny golfers yet living had simply pulled the proper club on a golf hole he knows how to play better than any man who has ever played that hole.   But instead, Watson hit an 8-iron into the green on the 18th at Turnberry instead of a 9-iron, the ball rolled clear off the green, he couldn’t get up and down, and lost in a playoff.   That might have been the most disappointing ending of a sporting event I have ever suffered through.

      Speaking of suffering, take the 2010 NBA championship, to be concluded this week—one way or the other—right here in Los Angeles.   It’s Lakers vs. Celtics, which means as a lifelong Lakers fan I’m almost always disappointed.    It’s even worse for me than you, because beloved brother Jeff is the mother of all Celtics fans.   He is indeed the blarney-spewing official court jester of Celtics drivel.   Personally I can’t take much more Lakers/Celtics disappointment.   If the Celtics pull off yet another hoops miracle I may decide to punish old Jeff, the big dope, pay him back for his lifetime of basketball blasphemy by hitting him over the head with something I found out a few years ago that he doesn’t even know, something mom never told him;  that he was adopted.   That’ll teach him.         

      America is all about hype.   I get it.   I know it.   I write about it.   And I mock it like the hardened cynic I am.   Yes, I know I’m cynical, and I’m proud of it.   I’m one of the most cynical men you’re ever likely to meet.   I’m cynical about everything.   Take, uh….well, take Salvation….don’t you think God set it up just so he could grab all the credit in the end, even though Salvation can’t help but be an incredible relief in ratio to life’s difficulties because He Himself is responsible for making life so incredibly hard, difficult, thankless, and disappointing in the first place???   I’m just asking.  

      Anyway.   Hype almost always trumps result.   That’s why sports is almost always disappointing.

     However, once in awhile, not often but once every lunar eclipse or so, the event actually equals the hype.   And even less often than that, say, once every arrival of Halley’s Comet or so, the event actually, dare I say, eclipses the hype.

      Such a sublime, celestial occurrence was showered down upon us on Tuesday.

      Stephen Strasburg.

      Stephen Strasburg, phenom of phenoms, finally pitched his 1st-ever big league game.   And he was even better than advertised.

      Exceeding expectations for Strasburg was no small feat.   His was easily the most ballyhooed debut of any baseball player of my lifetime.   I can’t recall anyone else’s coming-out party coming close.   The not-yet-22-year-old top pick in last year’s Major League Baseball Draft had been throttling minor-league hitters like they were frightened Little Leaguers.   Which, unfortunately for Strasburg, is what everyone expected him to do, after signing a $15-million-dollar contract with the Washington Nationals, the largest ever for a rookie.   He didn’t make things any easier before that, when, as a junior at San Diego State, he went 13-and-1 and struck out nearly two batters per inning!   So all this hype he’s dealing with is pretty much his own damn fault.

      Fortunately, he’s good.   I mean he’s really good.   His stuff is so good, no less an authority than retired pitching great Curt Schilling had commented recently that the poised and polished Strasburg might, on the very day of his debut, instantly become the best pitcher in major league baseball!   I saw him say it right on TV!   What a dumb thing for even the mercurial, ever-opinionated Schilling to say, I thought.   At the time I wondered, how do you suppose the current consensus three best pitchers in baseball—Roy Halladay, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Tim Lincecum—would respond to such an outlandish claim?

      For weeks prior to his June 8th unveiling, the Strasburg hype machine in Washington had been going great guns.   Every minor league start was front-page news.   There are at least three D.C.-area restaurants now peddling a newly christened burger….yeah, that’s right, the Strasburger.   Good grief.   I’m not making this up; Strasburgers for sale in three different restaurants.   Talk about putting adult pressure on a relative baby.   His exact debut day was slotted into the calendar by the Nationals a couple weeks in advance, to stimulate interest and spur ticket sales.   It worked.   The nation’s capital was thoroughly infected with baseball’s newest disease; Strasburg Mania.   Not to be confused with Strasburger Mania….

      Then the big day arrived.   Nationals Park, normally a tomb of indifference, was packed to the gills.   The pressure must have been suffocating.   Fortunately for Strasburg, he does have the veteran’s poise and electric stuff of which Schilling spoke.   Right from the get-go, he started mowing down the Pittsburgh Pirates hitters.   In the 2nd inning, he threw his 1st-ever-big-league-100-mile-per-hour pitch.   I have a hunch there will many hundred more of those.   He soon started piling up the strikeouts.   His fastball struck like a spitting cobra.   His breaking ball sliced through the air like a curved Saracen scythe.   Pirate hitters looked worse than baffled; they were both embarrassed and emasculated.   Then in the 4th inning, the Pirates’ Delwyn Young suddenly must have felt like the luckiest guy on earth when Strasburg threw him a change-up (only 90 measly mph), which he deposited over the right-field fence for a 2-run home run to put Pittsburgh ahead.   Suddenly it looked like Strasburg might even lose.   But the lad kept his cool and kept mowing them down.   The baseball gods noticed.   Washington was allowed to put up three runs in the 6th and tacked on one more in the 8th and that was enough.   The Nationals won 5-2, and Stephen J. Strasburg had his 1st big-league victory.     

      But that wasn’t the story.   The story was the way he did it.   The tall lanky right-hander, even after allowing the homer the very picture of a young man totally in control, finished with a flourish.   He struck out the last seven batters he faced.   He struck out 14 guys in all, while walking none.   You know how many guys in baseball history had struck out as many as 11 batters (much less 14) in their 1st big-league start while walking none?   ZERO!   That’s how many.  

      In fact, only two other guys ever struck out more than 14 batters in their 1st game period, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Karl Spooner (great name) in 1954 and the Houston Astros’ James Rodney Richard (even better name) in 1971.   They had 15 strikeouts each, but those fellas went the full nine innings.   Strasburg, restricted by a pitch count, was pulled after only seven innings, to wild roars of approval from the home crowd.   He emerged from the dugout to take a quick curtain call, as the Washington faithful chanted his name.

      And then he broke another record.   After the game, during his post-game interview, they hit him with not one not two but three shaving cream pies in the face.   Pretty cool.

      I’m having fun just typing this stuff.

      Y’know what?   I couldn’t help but think of another Washington Nationals pitcher who had a similarly successful major league debut, about a hundred years ago.   It was August 2nd, 1907, to be exact.   A nineteen-year-old Kansas hayseed by way of the Idaho bushes, Walter Perry Johnson, took the mound for the Nationals that fine summer day against the best team in the American League, the Detroit Tigers.   Rather than me tell it, listen to what the Tigers’ peerless Ty Cobb said of Johnson that day: “The first time I faced him, I watched him take that easy windup—and then something went past me that made me flinch.   I hardly saw the pitch, but I heard it.   The thing just hissed with danger.   Every one of us knew we’d met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ballpark.”    I suspect many a Pirates player will have similar stories to tell of Stephen Strasburg one day.

      Oh, and Johnson?   He did all right.   He wound up winning 417 games, pitched 110 shut-outs, and was one of the charter members of the Baseball Hall of Fame.   He is probably the greatest pitcher of all time.  

      Let’s hope Strasburg is allowed to follow the splendid path of Johnson and not the ill-fated road traveled by both Spooner and Richard.   Spooner was every bit the phenom then that Strasburg is now, with a terrific fastball and limitless potential.   But he hurt his arm, pitched only one year of major league ball, won only 10 games in his too-brief career and was out of baseball by the age of twenty-four.   He died in his early 50s.   The towering Richard—6-foot-8 in his stocking feet—played longer but fell harder.   After nearly a decade as one of the National League’s best pitchers, leading the league in strikeouts twice and winning 107 games in all, Richard collapsed from a blood clot and a stroke (of all things) in 1980 at the age of 30; almost killing him.   This effectively ended his baseball career.   A few bad business deals and a couple of expensive divorces later, Richard went from broke to destitute to finally finding himself homeless in Houston and living under a bridge, before eventually turning his life around and becoming a minister.  

      It just goes to show that nothing is guaranteed in “the show”.   Anything can happen.   No matter how good you are, or how great you start out.

      So let’s not just hope, let’s pray that this is not the best we’ll ever see from this kid.   Heck, I hope he throws about 6 no-hitters, a couple perfect games, and wins 9 or 10 Cy Young Awards.   I’m hoping for a lifetime of brilliance and limitless achievement from Stephen Strasburg.   It’s the knowing that there’s at least a very small chance that accomplishment might actually exceed hype that makes sports great.   Maybe he’ll be a 400-game winner like Walter Johnson.   Maybe he’ll switch from pitcher to hitter, like Babe Ruth did.   Or like Robert Redford did in “The Natural”, his Roy Hobbs striking out The Whammer on three pitched balls….and then winding up becoming the best hitter in the game.   Gimme somethin’ special to believe in, that’s what I always say.   I may be cynical, but I’m a sucker for a good Hollywood ending.

meet….The Sports Philosopher!

The Sports Philosopher

The Sports Philosopher

Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, undiscovered fictioneer, and protector of the sacred church of baseball— in no particular order.   Brad’s other recent columns for LaVerneOnline can be found in Sports under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’.    Brad has also written 4 novels and over 20 short-stories.    Samples of his best fiction work can be discovered within the fascinating links below:







Leave a Reply