Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Ballad of Stephen Strasburg

It was the fall of 2007 when my friend Eric and I decided to start a blog about minor league baseball. We were both bloggers already – Eric’s specialty was college basketball and mine was “esoteric bullshit,” at least according to a commenter on Awful Announcing, the blog where we met as commenters and ended up becoming fellow contributors and friends – but the goal here was to just kick back and have fun writing about a sport that was meant to be exactly that.

The timing of Bus Leagues’ debut was pretty typical for the way we approached life in general – for the uninitiated, the bulk of minor league baseball action ENDS in the fall; it was like we showed up to a game in the ninth inning – but we still took to it with a delight that never fails to surprise me when I think back on it. We were just a couple of random dudes, writing about random teams in a random sport, and we had a blast.

We tried to look at the game from a fan’s perspective, since that’s what we were (later, we gained experience as “insiders” and while that was fun as well, and led to a number of remarkable memories, it didn’t spark the same organic joy), which meant that one of the first things we focused on was the players. And ironically, one of the first players to catch our eye wasn’t a professional, but a promising college pitcher named Stephen Strasburg.

In 2019, Strasburg is a ten-year veteran with a career 3.16 ERA and more than 1,500 strikeouts, all with the Washington Nationals. In 2014, he led the National League with 34 starts and 242 strikeouts en route to a ninth-place finish in the Cy Young voting. In 2012, he was infamously shut down while the Nationals were still very much in the mix for a championship, the team putting long-term arm health ahead of short-term competitive goals (they still haven’t reached a World Series). In 2010, he turned in one of the most remarkable debuts in major league history, striking out 14 Pirates and walking none in seven innings to pick up his first career win. And sometime in 2009, Eric dubbed him Lord Vishnu, a nickname that was both completely nonsensical and one of my favorite things in Bus Leagues history.

But the moment Strasburg first appeared on our radar was in 2008, when as a San Diego State sophomore he took the mound one night in April and struck out 23 Utah batters. That was what started it all, both for us and the baseball world in general. That was when Stephen Strasburg announced his presence for all to see.

The reason I thought of this wasn’t Strasburg’s 1,500th career strikeout, which came on May 2nd this season against St. Louis, or his 100th career win, which he recorded on June 4th against the Chicago White Sox. It wasn’t even anything Strasburg did, though he is certainly putting together a nice Hall of Very Good career and looking back on his first decade makes me unreasonably happy. What made me think of Strasburg was a performance over the weekend by Vanderbilt freshman Kumar Rocker, who took the mound for his team in an elimination game and completely dominated Duke, striking out nineteen batters and pitching the first no-hitter in NCAA Super Regional history.

This performance scratches so many personal itches. The name, Kumar Rocker – even if this young man doesn’t reach the major leagues (and his performance this seasons – 3.50 ERA, 97 strikeouts in 87.1 innings – would seem to indicate that he’s well on his way), he should donate his name to someone who does, because that name BELONGS there. It’s like Madison Bumgarner. His size – at 6’4”, 255 lbs, he’s built more like an NFL defensive end than an elite pitcher (and according to his Vanderbilt bio, his father was a standout college football player who went on to play in the NFL). The age – he won’t turn 20 until November; my college “athletic” highlight when I was his age was running the table to win a pool tournament in my school’s game room. All of it together gives me Strasburg bumps. (That sounds weird but I don’t care.)

Kumar Rocker (I want his fastball to be named Harold, the pitch he desperately needs but spends all night trying to get a feel for to be named White Castle, and his out pitch to be Mary Jane’s Last Dance; if he doesn’t have three quality pitches, then GET MORE PITCHES) may be great, or he may amount to nothing. (If he enjoys even a portion of the success that Stephen Strasburg has, he’ll be doing alright for himself.) Most likely it will be somewhere in between, like the rest of us. But at the very least, he brought a nearly forty-year-old mostly former blogger a bit of joy and a flash of memory and awoke that old feeling of “this is great – I want to write about it!” And I appreciate that.