With Stephen Strasburg, the story can never stand on its own merits and essentially tell itself. Within his game results and his performance in that game, he is constantly surrounded by a cyclone of drama. Much of it is his own doing, but a good portion of it is due to the Washington Nationals’ enabling him and his agent Scott Boras to largely dictate to them how their well-compensated employee will be treated rather than vice versa.
He signed a major league contract for four years and $15.1 million with a $7.5 million signing bonus after being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLB draft; was in the majors one year later; and the protective inning limits unfortunately coincided with the Nationals’ expedited rise to prominence in 2012, sparking the oft-mentioned shutdown.
From that time, fast-forward five years when he has had injuries to his elbow, back, forearm, oblique and neck that sidelined him for periods ranging from short to long and prevented him from taking the mantle of “ace.” That’s in the truest sense, not just someone with his ability, but someone who takes the ball every fifth day and wants to be relied upon in a pennant race and in the playoffs, his desire or lack thereof as bewildering as his fragility. Despite the hovering concerns, the Nationals signed Strasburg to a contract extension worth $175 million to preclude his free agency. He was paid like the ace they expected even if he had yet to become that.
Outsiders who wondered why the Nationals signed Max Scherzer after the 2014 season need only look at Strasburg’s injury history and the industry-wide belief that he didn’t have the deep desire to be as great as he could be.
This issue cropped up again when Game 4 of the National League Division Series against the Chicago Cubs was postponed from Tuesday to Wednesday due to rain. The Nationals, down 2-1 in the series, had a tailor-made opportunity to move Strasburg up to pitch instead of No. 4 starter Tanner Roark. When manager Dusty Baker went to the microphone to address the media regarding the club’s Game 4 plans, he gave a series of inscrutable justifications to explain why the club was sticking with Roark in lieu of Strasburg on regular rest. Illness, mold, a bullpen session that he said happened on Tuesday but was really on Monday — who knew what was really going on? Then it was later revealed that the club asked Strasburg to pitch and he said he was too sick. The outrage from former players in the media was overt and sans the customary nuance. Presumably, there was a similar reaction throughout the game, especially within the Nationals organization.
It’s become passe to question Strasburg’s manhood as many are wont to do. No one can know what’s going on in another person’s body when they say they are not well enough to perform. He may be brilliantly talented and was masterful in a Game 1 loss that came due to a porous defense, but he is also brittle. As great as he can be, his history has been one of a person who has had his gifts thrust upon him with no significant enjoyment in having them. He has appeared, at times, to have a “take it or leave it” attitude toward plying his trade. He plays baseball because he’s good at it and because it pays him an amount of money he would not make doing anything else. None of that changed from Tuesday afternoon into Wednesday. In fact, it further embedded the perception that he was not just physically fragile, but emotionally as well.
During the infamous “shutdown” of 2012, the outside criticism directed at the organization and Boras was loud, but so, too, was the questioning of Strasburg and his role in it. Had the player demanded to be allowed to take part in the postseason either before the shutdown was looming or after the threshold had passed, it would have happened. The simple act of saying, “I’m pitching in the postseason or I want out of here. And if you don’t trade me, you can forget about me ever signing a long-term deal here” is sufficient. He did not do that. In reacting to the negativity surrounding the shutdown by saying he wanted to pitch and forget the shutdown, it was done in a lukewarm manner as if for show, and he quickly backed down and got with the program.
Evaluating Strasburg goes beyond the mid-90s fastball, knee-buckling curve and mind-bending changeup. The question as to his desire will consistently be asked, in part, because of his own behavior.
Like the shutdown, the Nationals are a major factor in this as well. The poor weather forecast for the originally scheduled Game 4 was known well beforehand. On Monday, they should have gotten their plans straight so there would be no need for a story; they should have communicated their position clearly to the players, so there was no risk of Strasburg doing whatever it was he did to hinder his ability to start. If he was ill, he was ill. But the entire timeline and shifting details made the organization look clueless and Strasburg look indifferent.
Strasburg and the Nationals were eviscerated by the media and fans from the time the announcement was made Tuesday afternoon to Wednesday morning, when the club did an about-face and named him the starter.
The how — intravenous fluids, medicines, a magical cure of the “mold” Baker referenced — is largely irrelevant. Rank and file players will tolerate a certain amount of diva-like behavior from star players if those star players are living up to their billing and earning their lofty salary. But for the Nationals and especially those Nationals who were on the roster in 2012 and watched their season get extinguished in part because they did not have Strasburg, perhaps enough was enough.
Sports teams might have people who are paid far more lucratively than they are in the workaday world; the underling has substantially more power than his bosses in name only — the managers and coaches — but it is still a workplace with the politics, drama and internal personal and professional strife that afflict any work environment. Did Strasburg want to endure another Nationals postseason loss and spend the entire winter with anonymous comments and eye rolls about his illness preventing him from pitching in Game 4? Then likely spend another year with basically the same group hoping for one last run as many prepare to move on with Strasburg remaining as a centerpiece for the retool/rebuild?
Pitching while under the weather was preferable to not pitching; having a compromised Strasburg was better than having a fully functional Roark. These are harsh realities that the lower-level players must accept in a postseason scenario. It’s not a denigration of Roark to say that Strasburg is better and if the team loses, it should be with Strasburg on the mound, if possible.
Was he pressured into starting? Did again enduring the widespread ridicule that has been as much a hallmark of his career as his devastating array of pitches and rampant disappointment with the on-field results and durability spark a sudden determination to get out to the mound and show the world that he cares and can perform in a make-or-break moment?
The motivation became secondary as soon as Strasburg repeated his Game 1 mastery of the Cubs and issued a dominating performance. For a pitcher who has frequently been attached to one of the deadliest adjectives in all of sports — gutless — Strasburg displayed a competitiveness and a nerve that he has rarely had or given himself the opportunity to put on display. Gone was the uninterested body language and “I did my job” attitude after pitching six innings and surrendering two runs that was technically true but practically false.
On Wednesday, Strasburg gave the Nationals seven full innings of three-hit ball with 12 strikeouts and 106 pitches. He clung to a one-run lead until the game was broken open by a Michael A. Taylor grand slam. That he did it while he was ill only adds to the type of legend that anyone who plays a sport strives for in delivering for the team in times of adversity and turmoil. Rather than being part of the problem that has led to the Nationals never winning a playoff series in three previous tries, Strasburg was the solution. He kept them alive for Thursday’s Game 5 at home in Washington and gave them a chance to destroy that moniker of perennial loser that they had earned in large part because of him.