As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com)
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Hope is alive along the north shore of the Allegheny
River. The Pittsburgh Pirates recently selected
Paul Skenes, a stud right-handed pitcher from LSU, with the top overall pick in
the 2023 MLB draft. Skenes has the kind
of stuff to alter a franchise’s trajectory - in wins and losses, butts in seats
and the national consciousness. Of
course, he’s a pitcher, a profoundly fickle and fragile position, so the dreams
of Bucs fans are, as Elton John might suggest, a candle in the wind. Nevertheless, the flame burns – for now.
This begs the question: What if you could guarantee
that Skenes would play 13 years for the Bucs, win 113 games, post a 3.24 ERA, notch
multiple 15-win seasons and one 18-win campaign, never win the Cy Young award,
record 30 or more starts just three times and pitch over 200 innings in a
season just twice? Would Pirates fans
take that deal?
The short answer, without any context, is probably a
firm “no”, followed by a hearty bite of a Primanti Bros. sandwich and a
spirited Pittsburghian declaration of “Yinz crazy or something?”
The player who produced those statistics, the one Pirates
fans would likely pass on, is Stephen Strasburg, another generational pitching
talent and the top pick in the 2009 MLB Draft.
The lacking context, of course, could change the
answer. Strasburg’s numbers alone are solid,
but not spectacular – in whole or in a single season. He was, though, a player who burned white
hot. His 14-strikeout debut in 2010
against Skenes’ Pirates was pure magic and somehow surpassed the ridiculous
expectations. It is not hyperbole to declare
that game the moment when D.C. actually became a major league baseball city
again – in its and everyone else’s mind.
Then there’s the playoff version of Strasburg: a 6-2
career postseason record with a ridiculous 1.46 ERA. In the 2019 playoffs, Strasburg was a perfect
4-0 and outdueled future Hall of Fame pitcher Justin Verlander in World Series
Games 2 and 6. And there’s really no argument
that Strasburg’s Game 6 masterpiece, with the Nationals facing elimination, is
the greatest individual performance in franchise history.
But the injuries – Strasburg has always been as much
tragedy as triumph. Just two months
after his franchise energizing debut, Strasburg blew out his elbow and was
shelved for a year after Tommy John surgery.
He came back, but battled through all sorts of ailments in the years
that followed. Ultimately 2019 proved to
be his last healthy season. A chronic
nerve issue in his neck and arm necessitated multiple surgeries and has limited
him to just eight starts since that storybook night in Houston in October
2019. Last week, Strasburg, who hasn’t
pitched since early last season, announced his intent to retire in the coming
Strasburg’s retirement will end one of the most unique
careers in professional sports. Using a
real estate reference, I can’t come up with a “comp”. Strasburg was more accomplished than Mark
Prior or Kerry Wood, two other talented pitchers with injury-shortened
careers. He’s certainly more comparable
to the shelf life of The Beatles than the Rolling Stones. Was he a disappointment? Not after his World Series performance. But “what could have been” is still very much
part of his story.
In the end, Strasburg will remain an enigma, a mashup
of franchise-altering accomplishments, a championship parade, unfortunate
events and unrealized promise. To
wrestle some clarity from Strasburg’s career, here are a few thoughts. You just never know – no matter the talent or
circumstance – what life will bring. So
have a plan and set goals, but remain present and recognize that plans are
written in the sand next to a powerful surf.
Be steadfast. Work hard. Flat out grind when you must. Celebrate wins and learn from losses. And at the end of the day, the week, the
month, the year or a professional career, find peace in knowing you greeted every
moment, every curveball from life, with your very best – that is the formula
for contentment, the antidote for regret.
Hopefully Strasburg retires with plenty of the former and not a trace of the latter.