(Photo by Getty Images: Stephen Strasburg talks to catcher Pudge Rodriguez in the dugout after coming out of his debut outing on Tuesday).
I remember seeking out Twins announcer Bert Blyleven to get his take on Felix Hernandez, shortly after his electrifying Seattle debut against Minnesota at Safeco Field on Aug. 9, 2005. I went to the Twins broadcasting booth and asked Blyleven – who had been a teen phenom himself — what he thought of the 19-year-old Hernandez.
He laughed and said, “You mean, ‘God’?”
It’s a bit hazy now, five years later, but the buildup and anticipation for King Felix’s arrival in Seattle had been feverish, the hype relentless. And when Hernandez finally was unveiled for the home folks, after one start in Detroit, he didn’t disappoint, blanking the Twins on five hits over eight innings, striking out six and not walking any, in a 1-0 Seattle win.
I remember that Safeco was rocking that night as Felix mowed down the Twins. It definitely felt like something special had arrived, as though an era was starting.
Now multiple all that by about 10 zillion, and you have Stephen Strasburg on Tuesday in Washington D.C.. While Hernandez’s unleashing was largely a local phenomenon, Strasburg’s progress through the minors riveted fans throughout baseball. Strasburg had been elevated to the realm of legend before he had ever thrown a major-league pitch. That’s what happens when you hit 103 mph on the speed gun – in college! – and then mow down minor leaguers every step of the way in your first pro season.
It was as if the mythical Sidd Finch had actually come to life in the form of a 6-foot-4, 220-pound manchild. In the ensuing five years since Hernandez came up, the internet hype machinery has grown exponentially, helping to fuel the frenzy. And so when Tuesday came, and Strasburg strode to the mound in Washington D.C., the nation turned its lonely eyes to him.
And here’s where the miracle happened. In a situation built for a letdown, primed for disappointment – because with the ridiculous expectations that had been built, how could he possibly live up to them? – Strasburg somehow managed to exceed every ridiculously overwrought hope.
You all saw the highlights, if you didn’t see the game. This guy has awe-inspiring talent – a fastball that not only overpowers, but seems to have a late hop that makes it change directions just as it’s upon the hitter; a sharp curve that buckles knees; a changeup that is faster than most fastballs, but enough of a variance to get the job done. And he’s just 21.
I was fortunate enough to travel to San Diego last year to watch Strasburg pitch during his final season under Tony Gwynn’s tutelage at San Diego State, and even more fortunate to witness one of his signature games: A no-hitter against Air Force, with 17 strikeouts. There was no mistaking then that Strasburg was special, a singular talent. Watching him pitch made me almost giddy, as is reflected in this blog post I wrote at the time. Here’s part of I wrote:
“I’ve got to say, it’s been a long time since one performance had me so jacked up. As I’m sure you’ve heard or read by now, Strasburg fired a no-hitter, striking out 17, against Air Force, in a 5-0 Aztecs victory. He’s now 11-0, with a 1.24 ERA, and has 164 strikeouts in 87 1/3 innings (and just 17 walks). For all that I’d read about Strasburg, and the YouTube videos I’d watched, I still was blown away by his overpowering stuff, his command, his presence — the whole package. Totally dominant.”
Still, I remember thinking to myself, “Well, it’s only Air Force.” And now some are saying, “Well, it’s only the Pirates.” A little caution is a wise thing. It seems clear that Strasburg is a prodigy, a virtuoso being thrust upon us. And yet there still is no guarantee of anything for him. Mark Prior was a prodigy, and he hasn’t thrown a pitch since 2006, and may never again. Rick Ankiel was a prodigy, and he mysteriously lost the strike zone and now plays outfield for the Royals. Dwight Gooden was a prodigy, but his expected Hall of Fame trajectory went off course.
Felix was a prodigy, and he has, for the most part, lived up to the hype, at least up to the point when he was the Cy Young runnerup last year. We’ll give him a mulligan for the inconsistent two-months-plus of 2010.
But it would be wise to recall the words of a sage baseball man, Terry Mulholland, who was 42 and still pitching for the Twins in 2005 when Felix made his first start.
I sought out Mulholland, too, to get his take on the wunderkind, Hernandez.
“There’s been a lot of guys that showed up in the big leagues that had a world of potential and unbelievable futures ahead of them, and were just flashes in the pan,” Mulholland told me.
“It’s one thing to have talent; it’s another to not abuse it. Abuse it means taking it for granted. The big leagues are not easy. You have to work hard, maintain your skills, condition yourself physically, deal with media attention, deal with travel, deal with all the other stuff off the field — family, friends. A lot of guys get sidetracked.”
Here’s hoping Strasburg doesn’t get sidetracked, because the guy I saw in San Diego, and on Tuesday in Washington — I want to watch him for the next 10, 15 years.