Isn't it amazing when the debut is actually better than the hype?
That's the moment we have to treasure after right-hander Stephen Strasburg struck out 14 batters in his first major league outing for the Washington Nationals. A bona-fide prospect, especially a pitcher who can throw at 100-plus miles per hour, like Strasburg regularly does, can make all the difference to a struggling franchise and its fans. Just like that the nation's capital became a baseball town again.
Before he took the mound, Strasburg's path to Washington already drew strong parallels with Hall of Famer Walter "Big Train" Johnson. Both grew up in California and were overlooked by scouts for a time. But when their mechanics clicked, both began to throw thunderbolts.
Johnson won a World Series in 1924. Even though Strasburg still has a ways to go before reaching such rarified air, he has many in D.C. talking playoffs and beyond the morning after.
You can't teach pure speed, scouts say. They know better than most that no factor can turn around a team's fortunes quicker than an infusion of velocity.
- The Boston Red Sox repeated as champions in 2007, thanks in large part to having fireballer Jonathan Papelbon as their new closer.
- The Detroit Tigers reached the World Series in 2006 with Justin Verlander as a starting pitcher and Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya in the bullpen.
- The Philadelphia Phillies won one championship and lost another because of the roller-coaster ride hard-throwing Brad Lidge took them on.
"The ability to throw hard, with control," says longtime scout Don Welke. "That's the coin of the realm. Always has been, always will be."
Line up the top fireballers of all time, from Walter Johnson to Bob Feller, Billy Wagner to Stephen Strasburg, and there is little correlation between physical size and sheer speed. As two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum says, "You see little guys capable of throwing cheese."
The ability to throw a baseball better than 100-plus miles per hour is a gift, seemingly handed down from above. Despite the wide range in athletic talent, those of us who will never come close to such radar gun readings can learn a valuable lesson from these fireballers.
Several of the fastest of fast (Steve Dalkowski, Dwight Gooden, Amos Rusie) were ultimately more cursed than blessed by their ability to throw hard. More importantly, many of those who are now enshrined at the Hall of Fame went to great lengths to succeed.
In the course of one spring training in Florida, Sandy Koufax transformed himself from a journeyman hurler to an All-Star pitcher.
Norm Sherry, Koufax's catcher at the time, says "throwing fast is a God-given talent. That's for sure. But it's not like a present with all the bows.
"(Sandy) was somehow going to make this work and it took awhile, but he did. I believe that you have to have that: that belief in yourself that it's going to work out somehow."
Nolan Ryan, who was inducted into Cooperstown in 1999 with 98.79 percent of the vote, nearly quit early in his career. That's how frustrated he was by his inability to do right by this gift of a fabled fastball.
"The question is always, can you put it together?" Ryan once told me. "Over the years, I've seen a lot of kids who had unbelievably great arms but never made much of it. ... You have to believe in yourself when the game is on the line. That's what separates people at the highest levels."
Ultimately, I think, everyone has a gift to share with the world. While a night at the ballpark will always be a fine time to stand in awe of sheer athletic talent, to quietly hope that any ballclub may be fortunate enough to have a young hard thrower like Strasburg in its midst, we can take solace by how legends such as Koufax and Ryan transformed themselves, too.
Even though we will never throw a baseball as hard, maybe we can do better in our particular pursuits, too. Perhaps that's what Strasburg really delivered in his major-league debut. He allowed us to again believe in the game of baseball and perhaps even believe a bit more in ourselves.
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