Stephen Strasburg seems to be coming along nicely in his rehab from Tommy John surgery. By all accounts, he looked good Sunday, even if he did give up three hits. That was hardly surprising in his first real outing against real hitters — albeit Class A hitters — in more than a year.
He also threw 31 pitches, 25 of them for strikes, also not surprising, given his prodigious talent. The sellout crowd, the large media contingent, the hype — that wasn’t surprising, either. The only surprise was that he couldn’t beat the biggest draw in Hagerstown history, the San Diego Chicken.
Then again, that Chicken was good.
The Nats can only hope Strasburg’s career comes close to the length of the Chicken’s. So far, he’s managed only 12 major league starts. But striking out four in 12 / 3 innings is a good start on the road back to his rookie season form. Now, as long as he experiences no pain or swelling after his starts, he’ll continue his march through the Nats’ minor league system like Sherman’s march to the sea, but with less destruction and more media coverage.
And along with that will come the rules, the laundry list of things the media can and can’t do. We’re not quite at the “don’t look him directly in the eye” and “sort out the brown M&Ms” stories you hear about rock stars and movie stars, but it’s close. Obviously when you’ve got a media swarm in a small ballpark, you’ve got to have some sort of plan in place, and the Nats did that in Hagerstown.
But it’s just as obvious the Nats are going to continue to swaddle Strasburg in cotton wool, and Strasburg is going to continue to let them, because he doesn’t enjoy the media attention and truthfully, he doesn’t seem to enjoy the fan attention, either. In private, one assumes he enjoys something, but his public face is often one of exasperation or annoyance.
Teammates have said that Strasburg simply can’t stand the amount of attention he’s drawn. He just wants to play baseball. And if he had been born, say, a century ago, or maybe even 30 years ago, that might have been possible.
But we live in the times we live in. We can rage against it — and some of us do, quite often — but there is not a thing any of us can do about. Even if we have the money and the talent and the power of Strasburg. Baseball media and fans simply aren’t going to agree to avert their eyes every time Strasburg takes the mound.
Once Strasburg gets out of the small parks and back to the majors, the Nats need to cut the apron strings and let Strasburg deal more often with the real world. They aren’t doing him any favors by coddling him; if they want him to be the biggest draw in town every fifth day, they need to make him a bit more accessible, or at least make him seem a bit more accessible.
Or maybe they’ll just bide their time until Bryce Harper arrives in Washington. He clearly doesn’t mind attention of any sort. Strasburg must be counting the days until they’re on the roster together, so Harper can take the spotlight and Strasburg can disappear into his self-made cave, only to emerge every five days and — the Nats hope — give fans and the media a reason to crave more from him.