The Boys Of Bummer: Gene Weingarten on the Washington Nationals and Baseball
The hopes and dreams of the new baseball season in Washington, D.C., this year rest on the shoulders of a young phenom pitcher named Stephen Strasburg, about whom coaches speak in the sort of awed whispers not typically heard outside the Sistine Chapel. I'm told he can throw a ball so fast that it actually reverses time. His catchers gradually get younger and younger until they turn into fetuses and have to be replaced.
As baseball fans know, Washington's hopes and dreams will more likely rest not on Strasburg's shoulders but on his elbow, as it does with most pitchers -- specifically, on the durability of a knot of tissue the size and fragility of a corsage. These rupture all the time, requiring "Tommy John" surgery, in which an elbow ligament is replaced by one from elsewhere in your body, such as your foot. Tommy John surgery used to be risky and exotic, but it has become so common that the list of pitchers with elbows made of feet is long and undistinguished, including such people as "Tim Spooneybarger," "Jesse Foppert" and "Lee Gronkiewicz," who I see is now manager of the minor league Columbia (S.C.) Blowfish.
My point is, I love baseball. I'm so glad it's back.
You don't need to be a baseball fan to appreciate the wonderful lunacy of the game, starting with this whole issue of cities' hopes and dreams, which tend to boing comically up and down like those inflatable clown punching bags with sand in their tuchuses. This is particularly true in Washington, which has not seen good baseball recently. By "recently," I mean not since the Coolidge administration, when players all had bad teeth and stupid nicknames ("Turkeyfoot") and wore uniforms that fit like pajamas.
Some cities have been historically unlucky at baseball, but Washington's misfortune has been especially dramatic, starting with the story of its first real star, "Big Ed" Delahanty. One day in 1903, Ed got loud and drunk and was thrown off a train. Now, if he had been with any other bad-luck team -- say, the Chicago Cubs -- he probably would have just staggered off a cliff. But Ed was a Washington Senator, so he lurched onto a bridge from which he plunged into a river that swept him over Niagara Falls, where he encountered the propeller of a sightseeing boat, and was julienned.
In the years since, Washington baseball teams haven't had too many more Ed Delahantys. What we've had is "Bullfrog Dietrich," "Buttermilk Dowd" and "Pea Soup Dumont."
That is why, from a historical perspective, I am so excited by the potential for disaster in the second great hope of the Washington baseball fan this season, the arrival of a one-time star pitcher named Chien-Ming Wang. Fans expect great things of Mr. Wang, even though, when he was last playing regularly, he was, statistically speaking, the worst pitcher in the history of baseball. In Wang's first three starts of a truncated 2009 season, he played a total of 5.3 innings and allowed 23 earned runs, for an earned run average of 39.06. For those of you unfamiliar with the sport, this means that opposing players could get hits off him even if they used rolled-up newspaper. (I believe several did, just for giggles.)
He could be another immortal, like Washington's Hall of Fame great Walter Johnson. Or he could be more like another former Washington player whose sobriquet may best embody baseball in Washington: "Clyde Kluttz."
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