Strasburg injury is bad for the Nationals and sad for all of us
The Nationals announced that Stephen Strasburg will need elbow surgery
Strasburg has been a phenom since even before he was drafted No. 1 overall
Several other hard-throwing phenoms have struggled to rebound from injuries
There is something terribly sad about this latest Stephen Strasburg news. It's not just sadness for Strasburg, who apparently needs Tommy John surgery -- he is a wealthy and (mostly) healthy young American male who should be fine, no matter what happens. And it's not just sadness for the Washington Nationals, who lost the one guy who has made them relevant.
No, it's the sadness of an artist who is no longer able to paint, or a musician who suddenly can't play a chord. What is lost is not just a game or a part of a career, but something on the outer edges of human achievement.
Strasburg was not just on his way to becoming a dominant pitcher. He was doing things with a baseball that some Hall of Famers could not do.
And now, precisely because he could, he no longer can.
Maybe man is not meant to throw 102-mile-per-hour fastballs. Since the start of the 20th century, elite athletes have gotten taller, stronger and fitter. They run faster, jump higher and move quicker. Yet for 100 years, the hardest throwing pitchers have thrown roughly 100 miles per hour. Babe Ruth may or may not have been a better hitter than Albert Pujols. But Walter Johnson basically threw as hard as Stephen Strasburg.
Throwing a baseball overhand, as hard as you can, is the most unnatural act in sports other than rooting for the Clippers. At some point, every pitcher fights arm pain; the harder you throw, the more likely that is. What made Strasburg so great is what made him a risk.
Strasburg may yet become a great pitcher. But he will never be the same pitcher. He has a long struggle ahead -- rehabbing from this kind of surgery can be done, but it's never fun. And when he comes back, he will likely have to pitch a different way. He may not have the same velocity, he likely will have to deal with more pain, and he surely won't feel like the kid who dominated opposing hitters from his first major league start.
He won't be the wunderkind who made it look so easy. He will just be another talented guy trying to claw his way back.
We've seen this movie before. Kerry Wood struck out 20 Houston Astros at age 20. The next year, he underwent Tommy John surgery and has not been the same since. Wood's former Cubs teammate, Mark Prior, was one of the most complete young pitchers in history; injuries derailed him, too.
In 2006, Joel Zumaya was a phenom -- like Strasburg, he seemed too good to believe. Zumaya struck out the Yankees' Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez in a playoff game; with the afternoon shadows at the old Yankee Stadium, poor A-Rod could not even see Zumaya's pitches, let alone hit them.
Zumaya pitched 83 1/3 innings that year; he has pitched 126 1/3 innings in the four years since.
Wood has had a nice career, but not the one he anticipated. Prior will probably never pitch in the majors again. Zumaya is hoping to make yet another comeback.
But I remember the Zumaya of 2006 -- so brash, so full of adrenaline, so determined to throw gas, that I wondered even then how long this could last. In the best baseball film ever, Bull Durham, Crash Davis tells Nuke Laloosh: "When you were a baby, the gods reached down and turned your right arm into a thunderbolt." The message is that Nuke better take care of that arm, but I always think of something else; that thunderbolts disappear just as quickly as they arrive.
One day in 1998, I was sitting in a Wrigley Field dugout during batting practice when the conversation turned to where guys would be in 10 years. Wood had already struck out those 20 Astros, and somebody cracked that he surely had no reason to worry. But Wood looked out onto the field, without even a hint of a smile, and said something like "I'll be on a boat."
I think he meant that he could take or leave his sudden stardom. But it was probably a good attitude for any young flamethrower. Tomorrow is promised to nobody.
I sincerely hope Stephen Strasburg comes all the way back and becomes an All-Star. But even if that happens, the artist is gone. When Strasburg returns, he will just be a pitcher.