The Washington Nationals have just decided Stephen Strasburg will pitch four days from now.
This is what the hype surrounding baseball’s newest phenom feels like nowadays.
First, analysts argued if the Nationals should take him with the No. 1 overall pick in last June’s draft because of the exorbitant contract he would require. Then analysts wondered when he would break through into the major leagues, even before he started pitching in the minors.
That was all well and good. He deserved more coverage than the normal draft pick. After all, Strasburg was the biggest pitching prospect in a long time, as the nation saw in his herculean performance in the 2009 College World Series for San Diego State.
In a world dominated by media hyperbole, however, he was the anointed best pitcher ever.
It’s understandable to get excited about the best new player coming into the big leagues. It’s why all of the major sports’ drafts are covered so heavily, full of mock drafts in the months leading up to the event and staffed with well-paid experts whose sole job is to research the future rookies and determine where they will go in the grand scheme. Unless you’ve won it all, the draft holds the hope of the missing piece — the one that will get you over the hump and into greener pastures. It offers the excitement of promise and the allure of the unknown.
Strasburg, however, is no longer an unknown. His triple-digit fastball, knee-buckling curveball and mystifying changeup have been picked apart for months, marveled at by players former and current. The only highlights of minor league games on SportsCenter were coming when Strasburg tossed for the Syracuse Chiefs, providing a minute or so more of a look at baseball’s next best thing. Before Strasburg ever buttoned up a Nationals uniform, the casual baseball fan had seen him just as much as — who am I kidding, way more than — Ubaldo Jimenez, who, by the way, is pitching in his fifth MLB season.
And now that Strasburg is here, the hype machine is stuck on overdrive. For the 22-year-old’s debut against the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, the Nationals issued 187 media credentials. As Tim Kurkijian reported (live from Nationals Park, no less), that’s nearly as many given out at the World Series. ESPN runs a Strasburg specific category on its scrolling ticker, updating the world after every inning he gets through with a complete stat line. Then, after his performance is complete, every media outlet picks apart and sits awestruck by yet another phenomenal performance from Strasburg.
It’s all getting to be a little much. Yes, he is an incredible pitcher, especially after only a few months in the minor leagues. His strikeout stats speak for themselves (41 in four games, most ever), and he has a sterling 1.78 ERA.
But how do you not cringe when you hear things like what Ryan Zimmerman told The Washington Post after the young ace earned his first loss in a 1-0 affair to the Kansas City Royals?
"A guy with the stuff he has, and the way he handles himself out there, is not going to be hit hard by a high-average team or a high home run team," said the Nats’ slugger. "There's no team that's going to be able to handle him. It's not going to matter. He’s unbelievable."
Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell wrote a piece after Strasburg’s six-inning effort on Wednesday in which he gave up one run and struck out nine entitled "Even in Defeat, Nationals’ Strasburg Continues to Amaze." Sure, it was a very solid pitching performance that usually merits a win. But this happens. A lot. In fact, it happened Toronto’s Ricky Romero on the same night, as he pitched eight innings of shutout baseball but was robbed of a win against the Cardinals because his team, too, could not score any runs.
But Strasburg, apparently, is above normal. Manager Jim Riggleman believes it’s time to start likening him to Roger Clemens and Dwight Gooden. Curt Schilling claimed he would be "the best pitcher in the game" when he finally did reach the majors. Fans are spending $101,000 on his rookie card. And the media, who is to blame for all of this, keeps pushing anything related to Stephen Strasburg. At the very least, the player himself is keeping a level head and wants to focus on baseball, not memorabilia, as he requested to the Washington Post, "Let's focus on the game. It was a tough loss for us."
If TV channels and newspapers continue to shove Strasburg down our throats, though, he is dangerously at risk for entering the realm of Barry Bonds, Terrell Owens and Brett Favre. All legends in their own right, yet all receive exhausted eye rolls from spectators every time another news bit hits the airwaves.
We didn’t care about Drew Rosenhaus repeating "Next question" at reporters who gathered outside TO’s house during his contract dispute. We still don’t care about Favre’s should-I-stay-or-should-I-go? routine.
And we don’t care if the Nationals have decided to hold Strasburg to 86 pitches in his next start.