Is Stephen Strasburg the Pope of Washington?
Fairness is when the same rules apply to everyone. Greatness, in the minds of some, is deserving of special treatment.
There’s a famous anecdote, presumably apocryphal, attributed to the Hall of Fame Umpire Bill Klem. “Son,” Klem said to a rookie who believed his pitch to Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby caught the plate, “when you pitch a strike, Mr. Hornsby will let you know it.”
In Klem’s view, Hornsby’s greatness allowed him to call his own balls and strikes. He was above the law of the umpire. He was his own authority. A mere rookie, condescendingly referred to as ‘son,’ must defer.
This was not an isolated incident. It is often said that umpires expand the strike zone for star pitchers, or give them the benefit of the doubt on close calls. It is believed that a pitcher struggling with his control won’t get that same benefit. Which means a pitch thrown two inches outside by a Hall of Famer may be a strike, but a pitch thrown by a journeyman on the corner following successive walks may not be. This is not fair. But it follows, perhaps, from greatness, or the lack thereof.
It seems to be a fundamental truth of the universe that Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg possesses greatness. The 2009 number one overall draft pick made his Major League debut Tuesday night in front of 40,315 fans in Nationals Park, Washington, D.C.. This following the previous game’s attendance of 27, 2002. Strasburg manifested his greatness nearly immediately. He struck out fourteen and walked none over seven dominating innings. He allowed only four hits and two runs.
But in the minds of Washington fans, Stephen Strasburg didn’t even need to prove his greatness; it was, apparently, self-evident. Home plate umpire Tom Hallion, however, was not to be Bill Klem on this night. At least, not for the first two innings.
Each of Strasburg’s first two pitches – both tailing fastballs over 95 miles per hour- were well off the plate. Both were rightly called balls. But on each, the sell-out crowd booed. Loudly. They did not boo Strasburg, who had not disappointed already. They booed Hallion, who, apparently, had the nerve to call balls on the great Strasburg.
After Pirates leadoff hitter Andrew McCutchen lined out to short, Neil Walker strode to the plate. Strasburg unleashed a devastating curveball on the inside corner at the knees, which Hallion called for ball one. The next pitch- a biting fastball at the knees- was called for ball two. The audacity; the man in blue was treating Strasburg like a mere rookie. The crowd let him have it. The packed house booed yet again when Andy LaRoche singled to right in the second for the first Pittsburgh hit.
Two out singles with nobody on in the second inning are not typically booed. Only an affront to authority can provoke such a defensive reaction.
At this point- with two outs in the 2nd- Strasburg already had 3 Ks. He would get his fourth on the next batter, striking out the side for the first time in his Major League career- and on just his second try.
And that was enough to prove the point. To start the 3rd, inning, Strasburg got a first pitch knee high strike call on Bucs catcher Jason Jaramillo. He then got a strike call on a changeup well off the plate away, pushing the count to 1-2. The called strike three on the borderline backdoor curveball was then a matter of course.
So, it took Stephen Strasburg just two Major League innings to established his legitimate Rogers Hornsby-esque authority. In the bottom of the third, Strasburg, now at the plate, lollygagged down the line after grounding a ball in the hole between short and third. He was thrown out by two steps. What other rookie in first big league at-bat could jog down the line and not get an earful? Fairness- the equal treatment of all- was already history. Strasburg, like the greats before him, is exempt.
The MASN TV sideline reporter informed the viewing audience in the bottom of the sixth inning that the holy objects used by Strasburg- the pitching rubber, the plate, and so forth- were being “authenticated” in several ways because of the “historical” nature of game, before their trip to a baseball shrine.
Reporters do sometimes use the perfect word. ‘Authentic’ comes from the Greek ‘authentes’, meaning “one acting on one’s own authority.” (‘Authentes’ itself comes from ‘autos’- “self” – and ‘hentes’, meaning “doer, being”.) The word ‘authority’ comes from ‘auctor’, meaning “master, leader, author”. So, something that is authentic derives from the genuine self-directed actions of an authority, the master, author, or creator of events.
It is appropriate to certify – authenticate – Stephen Strasburg’s authority. It ritualizes, and so legitimizes, his greatness. It recognizes it.
After Strasburg allowed a two-run homerun to Delwyn Young in the 4th inning, he retired the next- and final- ten hitters of his outing, including the last seven in a row by strikeout. Like Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham, Strasburg had “announced his presence with authority.” In response to Young’s challenge, he simply asserted his dominance. He had, in the words of the Nationals broadcaster, “shut-down stuff.”
Authority- being genuine and authentic- is not to be challenged. The dogma of the infallibility of the Pope entails that Catholics cannot question the Pope’s authority on matters of faith; he is thus the ultimate authority. The Pope, to many, thus appears above the law, and not subject to the same rules- or penalties – as everyone else.
Stephen Strasburg, of course, has been described as the savior of the oppressed Washington franchise. After his dominating debut, he will have converted many (though of course the level-headed and skeptical will need further persuasion). It is ironic, then, that Strasburg wears number 37, the jersey number of anti-authoritarian ballplayer Bill Lee, and anti-authoritarian inmate “Cool Hand” Luke Jackson. In Bull Durham, Crash Davis called strikeouts “fascist”, and groundballs democratic. Strasburg, though, did not try to avoid contact. He walked none and threw only 94 pitches in 7 innings, despite striking out 14. He didn’t try to do too much, he didn’t strain, as did Paul Newman’s Luke, to eat all 50 hard-boiled eggs. He tried to be democratic, to be fair to his whole team, and have his defense equally involved. But he couldn’t; he was just too great.
Photo by acaben
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