Last June baseball fans from San Diego to D.C. had the privilege of watching the Major League Baseball debut of Washington Nationals stud pitcher Stephen Strasburg. The nation-wide pandemonium of his highly-anticipated first start was rewarded in kind, with 14 strikeouts and a win.
The years of hype, speculation and mystery, had started to pay off.
Over the course of the next three months, Strasburg continued to take the mound on a somewhat regular basis, promising not only quality starts but quality entertainment. Entertainment that you wouldn’t have typically sought to find at Nationals Park prior to the 2010 campaign.
Men and women flocked from around the country to watch the formative years of the right-handed hurler who hit triple digits more often than the southwest in the summer. They went, of course, for the novelty of it all, but also to say that they were there when the 21-year-old punched out his first batch of professional ball players.
The world had and has high hopes for the kid, so it made sense at the time that everything he did drew eyes and attention.
Last week, Strasburg caught the attention of the media and the world once again, but not in the same superhuman context he did last June. On Thursday, with less than a week remaining before the day when healthy pitchers and catchers were scheduled to report at spring training for the first time, Strasburg was simply “throwing.”
At the end of last August, as fast as the young star broke into our household discourse he vanished like a comet. The signs were there when he missed a pair of starts at the end of July and beginning of August, but it didn’t really sink in for most until he was gone. Something was up with the young prodigy, plagued unfortunately by complications in his shoulder and arm.
On Sept. 3 Strasburg underwent Tommy John surgery, a procedure far more popular for the victims its claimed than the careers it’s saved. As a result, the legitimate significance of Strasburg’s first “throw” is unquestioned.
Though it was known as early as last autumn that Strasburg wouldn’t likely make an appearance in 2011 (and certainly not until late in the season if he did), it still hurts for baseball fans as they prepare for the season this spring. What stings the most, though, isn’t that they’ll be without the ace’s absurd strikeout totals and otherworldly fastballs, it’s that every time his progress is broadcast in the media, they’ll remember the buzz that surrounded the baseball world every time he took the mound.
If early reports are to be trusted, Strasburg’s recovery is running smoothly and on schedule. The fact that he is able to go through the motions of a pitch without feeling pain is a major step in the expected direction.
The question then, isn’t on Strasburg’s ability to get back out onto the field, but on the baseball world’s ability to wait patiently until he gets there.
What Strasburg did in his limited time in 2010 did more than simply help increase the value of an otherwise forgettable franchise, it reignited a passion in the game that casual fans had gotten in the habit of ignoring.
In his first season as a pro, Strasburg finally hinted at what exactly he’ll be capable of over the course of the coming years, proving that he’s well worth the hype that preceded his MLB career. Maybe his absence in 2011, combined with the routine updates and teasers of his recovery from Tommy John surgery, will raise that hype even higher.
Let’s assume that he can handle it. Can the rest of us?