The incumbent World Series most valuable player, who will hold that distinction until the next World Series is played, dealt with a nerve problem in his pitching hand, costing him one start but amplifying his sense of perspective. The long view matters as much to Stephen Strasburg as do such small details as whether to bust a fastball or a slider in on a hitter.
“To be frank,” the Washington Nationals righthander told reporters after his scratch against the New York Yankees, “this season is kind of a mess to begin with, so I got to think big picture here. It’s my career. I know that in the long run it’s important to try to make as many starts as you can, and by putting yourself in a compromising position now, I don’t really know if it’s the best way moving forward.”
A hand nerve issue in a normal regular season doesn’t cost a pitcher or his team as much as the issue does in a truncated, sixty-game season. Strasburg, however, isn’t an ordinary pitcher. He’s not just the defending World Series MVP, but he got to the career point where it became possible thanks to that “Strasburg Plan” that shut him down well before 2012 ended, in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.
With the Nats headed for that postseason it seemed most of the world demanded they man up, compel Strasburg to do likewise, because who knew when they’d get another shot, right? Strasburg and his team decided a) they weren’t going to die if they didn’t go to the Promised Land then, and b) they’d get there sooner or later and they’d kinda sorta like Strasburg along for the ride.
Now it may turn out to be that Strasburg missing a little more 2020 time because of that nerve issue is the least controversial portion of this Twilight Zone of a season. Submitted for your further consideration, in case you began considering before I sat down to write:
Since last weekend, twenty-one Miami Marlins and four St. Louis Cardinals have tested COVID-19 positive, while a few Philadelphia Phillies may or may not have returned false positives. The real positives stranded the Marlins in Philadelphia after last weekend’s series, until a bus delivered the Fish to their Miami home waters at last.
They also provoked fifteen to seventeen scheduled games canceled, including this weekend’s set between the Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers. The latter’s outfielder Lorenzo Cain joined the list of the opting-out during the week while we were at it. So did Marlins second baseman Isan Diaz on Friday. Diaz wasn’t a COVID-19 positive Marlin but seeing so many told him some things really do come before baseball, after all.
“This has been a decision that I have discussed with my family, and I feel it’s the best one for me and my overall well-being,” he said in an Instagram post. “I will deeply miss my teammates and competing on the field. I wish my brothers the best and look forward to taking the field again with them soon!!”
Meanwhile, commissioner Rob Manfred, who rarely misses the proverbial opportunity to miss an opportunity, has channeled his inner Richard Nixon and harrumphed against quitting on whatever’s passing for this truncated major league season. “We are playing,” Manfred told ESPN’s Karl Ravech on Saturday. “The players need to be better, but I am not a quitter in general and there is no reason to quit now. We have had to be fluid, but it is manageable.”
In one sweep of his tongue Manfred implied the players who opted out of playing this season as they were granted the right to do were a bunch of quitters and implied players were to blame for the COVID-19 outbreaks among the Marlins and the Cardinals. As if the players scheduled the Fish for that final exhibition game in Atlanta, a city in a state where the coronavirus now is about as rare as oppressive July heat in Las Vegas.
Yes, a few Marlins went out on the town while in Atlanta. Not too bright if they weren’t masked and sanitising, but who put that game on the schedule and didn’t even think about calling it off when Georgia’s coronavirus presence metastasised? And who are the bubbleheads who couldn’t even think about finding an appropriate “bubble” in which to play major league baseball this year?
(Not to mention, who couldn’t even think about taking better steps to assure the Toronto Blue Jays wouldn’t have become the Show’s first strictly road team.)
For a couple of decades the Show has strained to get into what it thinks must be step with other leagues such as the National Basketball Association. The problem has been that it’s paid closest attention to the wrong things (championship-diluting, everyone-a-cookie playoffs) and ignored the right ones.
Once upon a time, knowing he’d be impeached over Watergate if he did otherwise, Nixon announced he’d resign the presidency by saying, among other things, “I have never been a quitter.” Which was jarring enough coming from the man who accepted his defeat in the 1962 California gubernatorial race by quitting politics altogether (so we thought), saying, “Gentlemen, you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
Manfred’s in no position to proclaim himself a non-quitter. He quit on the off-field-based, illegal electronic sign-stealing scandal, baseball’s biggest running story until the coronavirus world tour arrived in America in earnest, giving the cheating Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox players immunity to spill instead of ordering them to spill or be spilled no matter what Players Association grievance might have been filed.
He suspended two managers (one who’d been the Asterisks’ 2017 bench coach before managing the 2018 likewise World Series-winning Rogue Sox) and a general manager, and fined one owner what amounted to tip money. He might have bagged the Astro Intelligence Agency co-masterminds, as also the replay room operator in the Rogue Sox Reconnaissance Ring, but he still let the cheaters skate.
Maybe he thought public outrage—from victimised opponents to Astro and Red Sox fans alike who had to come to terms with their heroes being exposed as high-tech cheaters— would be punishment enough. Then the coronavirus world tour knocked Astrogate and Rogue Soxgate both into the yesterday’s news morgues.
Until Manfred dropped an eight-game hammer on Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly for doing in spirit if also extreme action what the commissioner failed to do, a quarter of brushback pitches holding at least Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa to account. You don’t have to agree with Kelly throwing near Bregman’s head to get that.
The commissioner still hasn’t pressed the New York Yankees to obey a judge’s ruling that the detailed letter of reprimand over the illegal dugout phone and possible network camera sign-stealing be made public, either.
Manfred also quit on the people whom the fans normally buy tickets to see at the ballpark when, under the impetus of his bosses, the unimpoverished owners, he tried to strong-arm the players out of agreed-upon fully pro-rated 2020 salaries, for whenever a season might begin, then failed to help develop a far more reasonably safe way for the season to be played.
He quit on the game’s integrity with his bread-and-circuses rules experiments such as the free runner on second to open each extra half inning and the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. When both collide in the extras, it can be (and has been, here and there) murder for the poor sap on the mound and his manager who can’t do a thing to stop the execution until after batter three.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Nero keeps fiddling while the health of the game—in the game’s actual playing terms and the physical health of enough of its players—keeps burning. No wonder Dodgers pitcher David Price, who opted out of pitching in 2020 before the truncated season began, fumed last week:
Now we REALLY get to see if MLB is going to put players health first. Remember when Manfred said players health was PARAMOUNT?! Part of the reason I’m at home right now is because players health wasn’t being put first. I can see that hasn’t changed.
If player health was paramount, Manfred and whatever’s passing for his brain trust—if canceling the 2020 season outright wasn’t to their taste—would have found a healthier mileu than just regionally based games where certain areas in the Show are COVID-heavier than others. And he wouldn’t have slapped even by implication those players who opted out of the season for the sake of their health and their families’ health as quitters.
Manfred may want to revisit his rhetoric if not necessarily reconfigure his mind. He may not have a choice but to cancel this truncated, surrealistic, Twilight Zone-meets-penny arcade season. There’s a difference between quitting outright and making a strategic retreat, which is exactly what canceling the rest of this loopy but risky season would be.
The moment Manfred sees and understands that distinction, the less he’ll look like the man who misread the signposts up ahead. Less like the commissioner who fiddles while baseball burns, in . . .