Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat on April 3, 2017.
By William Mattox
When the Washington Nationals open their 2017 baseball season today, Donald Trump will not be on hand to throw out the ceremonial first pitch (as presidents often do). Instead, the first official pitch will be tossed by someone far more representative of what today’s Washington stands for: Stephen Strasburg.
For the uninitiated, Strasburg is a flame-throwing pitcher with great natural gifts. Like many politicians, he first arrived in Washington with a stellar resume. Strasburg played college ball under Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, became the first overall pick in the 2009 MLB draft and generated so much early buzz that Sports Illustrated called him “the most hyped and closely watched pitching prospect in the history of baseball.”
Like many promising leaders in Washington, Strasburg lived up to the early hype. He struck out 14 batters in his debut, went on to become an All-Star and came within an eyelash of throwing a no-hitter.
Yet, curiously, Strasburg’s career to date isn’t best known for something he did on the field, but something he didn’t do. During the 2012 pennant race, Strasburg voluntarily sat out the last month of the season — and the entire playoffs — because he’d met an arbitrary “innings limit” that Strasburg, his agent and the team’s general manager had set before the season.
Fearful of injury, Strasburg did what risk-averse Washington politicians do all the time: put his own career preservation ahead of the greater good — and urgent need — of those counting on him.
As fate would have it, the Nationals lost the 2012 playoffs in a pivotal do-or-die game. This set off a classic D.C. blame game over whether the player, the team executive or the “special interest” (agent Scott Boras) was primarily at fault. The Nats haven’t sniffed a playoff series victory since.
Now, in view of Strasburg’s career-defining non-moment, it might be tempting to write him off as a symbol of all that’s wrong in Washington. But I’ve had a hard time doing so.
Maybe it’s because I sense Strasburg is a lot like the senator that actor Claude Rains plays in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — a good man led astray by special interests. Or maybe it’s because I agree with Teddy Roosevelt that it’s far more challenging to be “a man in the arena” than a critic on the sidelines. Or maybe it’s because I developed a childlike appreciation for Strasburg when his eye-popping numbers helped me win my Fantasy Baseball League several years ago.
Whatever the reason, I’ll be rooting for Strasburg when he pitches this season. And I’ll be doing so not just because I want to see a redeemed Strasburg someday achieve the legendary status of Curt Schilling (who memorably pitched Boston to the 2004 World Series championship with a sutured tendon bleeding through his sock).
I’ll be rooting for Strasburg because the city he represents is facing urgent problems that are real, not fantasy. And Washington could use a model of courageous leadership that prizes getting the job done — whatever the cost — rather than always casting blame for collective inaction.
Featured Image Courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.