- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 16, 2012


A pitcher’s arm and a football player’s head might seem like two different things — and on the anatomical level, of course, they are. But there’s a connection between them, too, especially in regard to the increasingly disputatious Stephen Strasburg Debate.

Put it this way: Doesn’t it seem strange, at a time when the NFL is under attack for not paying closer attention to concussions, that the Washington Nationals are getting slammed in some quarters for being ultra-careful with Strasburg as he recovers from Tommy John surgery? It would be nice to think pro football is entering a more enlightened age, one in which the participants’ long-term health is a higher priority. And it would be just as nice to think this attitude is shared by other sports, even ones that don’t require shoulder pads.

But that’s not what we’re seeing as the Nationals’ ace right-hander approaches his innings limit, as yet unannounced. (The envelope, please.) Instead, we’re seeing a fair amount of second-guessing, if not eye-rolling, by experts named and unnamed. The gist of their argument — and it’s not unfounded — is basically this: One, no one really knows how much is too much for any arm. And two, there’s no telling when the Nats, possessors of baseball’s best record, will have another chance like this to win the World Series.

One “NL executive” even told the New York Post that Strasburg might not be the kind of pitcher who’s destined for a long career, given his track record. So why worry, he said, about Down the Road? Why not just concern yourself with the Here and Now?

This is the approach, the living-in-the-moment approach, that has gotten the NFL chest-deep in a lawsuit. Not that I’m trying to single out football. After all, the culture of sport, pretty much across the board, always has been infected with a certain amount of willful ignorance. You’ve gotta play hurt. That’s the motto. And so injured players are put back in the game, sometimes before they should be put back in the game.

It’s the whole Vince Lombardi/”Winning is everything” mentality. But it’s also something else: a perception of the athlete as a disposable commodity.

If he breaks, we’ll just get a new one. And one of the rationales, chilling in its cynicism, is: “Hey, a building could fall on the guy tomorrow. There are no guarantees in life.”

Until recently, baseball’s treatment of arms was particularly egregious. Check out Wally Bunker’s baseball-reference.com page sometime, those of you too young to remember him. We can only imagine the numbers he might have put up if the Baltimore Orioles hadn’t pitched him 214 innings at the age of 19 (in 1964, when he went 19-5). Alas, by 26, he was out of the majors.

The game, to its shame, is littered with stories like that, stories of haste leading to incredible waste. Fortunately, nowadays, in the era of the five-man rotation and the guaranteed contract, teams tend to be more protective of their hurlers. You still have old-school clowns such as former MASN announcer Rob Dibble — who, after Strasburg came out of a game with an arm injury, exhorted him to “Suck it up, kid” — but their shrieking is usually drowned out by the Voice of Reason.

That’s the voice Mike Rizzo is listening to, the one that keeps reminding him that the Atlanta Braves dynasty wasn’t built in a day, that good things come to those who wait, etc., etc. Judging from some of the comments in the Washington clubhouse, though, his players aren’t in complete agreement with this logic.

It’s important to understand what’s behind this grudging acceptance. The opportunity to win a ring is just part of it, really. The other part is what that ring would mean — more money for everybody, either here or somewhere else. Look at what winning a championship in Philadelphia meant to Jayson Werth: seven years, $126 million. And he was far from the star of that team. But when clubs break out the checkbook in free agency, they like to sign guys who are “proven winners,” who can help “change the culture.” What Nat wouldn’t love to put that on his resume?

So that’s part of the dynamic, too, hidden though it might be. And it just makes Rizzo’s situation more unenviable. No general manager wants to be in the spot he’s in, having to tell his players, essentially: Strasburg’s future is worth more to us than this team’s present.

That’s why, as we get closer to Stephen’s shutdown date, the discussion figures to get even more uncivil.



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