Friday, December 29, 2023

The Enigma

As published in The County Times (

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 weeks. 

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. 

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