JUNE 28, 2010
Tuesday, June 8 will hereafter be known as day one of the Stephen Strasburg era—when the freakishly talented pitcher/flaxen-haired-son-of-God-put-on-Earth-to-save-baseball-in-Washington made his first appearance in a Nationals uniform. As such, it was a resounding success: The 21-year-old phenom struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates en route to a seven-inning victory. That earned him not just a win, but a place in the record books—the single-game strikeout total was the highest ever for a Nat.
It should have been a moment of pure celebration. I was at RFK stadium on April 14, 2005, when baseball came back to D.C. after stepping out for a generation or so. And I spent the next five years perfecting the sheepish expression of a fan whose Major League franchise insists on fielding a triple-A team. Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t confess some ambivalence. To my mind, the reason to memorialize June 8 isn’t the arrival of Strasburg—who, after all, gives every indication of dominating batters for years to come—but the man he unceremoniously rubbed out of history.
The previous holder of the team strikeout record was a tall, awkwardly-proportioned Texan named John Patterson. Back in 2005, when the Nationals were busy setting the tone for years of soul-crushing futility, Patterson was the one Nat who affirmed your faith in baseball as transcendent experience, at least if you were inclined this way in matters of conscience. You could get used to sub-mediocrity, you’d tell yourself, if only you could watch Patterson pitch every fifth day. Dayenu, as the old-timers say.
Even in such moments of grace, you couldn’t help thinking the arrangement was a bit fragile. That Patterson might turn out to be a big fluke, who could fade back into the obscurity from whence he sprung. But, precisely because of this, there’s a way that John Patterson was a more authentic baseball hero–more in sync with the ethos of the game—than Stephen Strasburg will ever be.
Other than that strikeout record, the big career highlight Patterson and Strasburg shared was being highly touted heading into the Major League draft. Strasburg cruised through his junior year at San Diego State University as the consensus top pick of anyone who’d recently flipped on ESPN. Patterson’s admission to the professional ranks was accompanied by slightly less hoopla, but he was taken fifth overall in 1996, straight out of high school. He’d sufficiently impressed the Arizona Diamondbacks that they awarded him a $6 million signing bonus, real money in those days.
Thereafter, their paths diverged. Strasburg spent all of two months in the minors before his much-anticipated call-up—basically a long weekend by baseball standards. It took Patterson over five years to don a Major League uniform, having paused along the way to have his pitching elbow rebuilt. Strasburg was polished and overpowering from the get-go. Patterson showed signs of promise as a rookie, but was dogged by charges of mental weakness. (Strasburg did have the benefit of three more years of amateur ball, but by all accounts only needed two of them before he was ready for the bigs.) In any case, Patterson’s early success was fleeting. He regressed in 2003, got himself traded to the Nationals franchise in 2004, and then promptly reinjured himself.
By the time the 2005 season opened in Washington, Patterson didn’t even have a spot in the rotation. He got a chance to start a week later, when the militantly forgettable Tony Armas Jr. came up lame. He made the most of the opportunity with a seven-inning, two-run outing.
The next two-and-a-half months were up and down—some real signs of promise, a nagging injury, a few steps back—and then something just … clicked. The team had shot to the top of its division early on owing to what can only be described as luck. (It had a statistically improbable knack for winning one-run affairs.) Then mean-reversion set in, and the Nats lost games in bunches. Between July 4 and the end of August, they were an abysmal 19 and 33. During roughly the same stretch, Patterson was almost unhittable. In one 44-inning stretch he gave up a mangy one run per nine innings and struck out 54 batters. By the end of August, the statistics said he was the third-best starter in the entire Major Leagues.
On paper, Patterson struck you as the only thing that made following the Nats tolerable. In person, he was positively sublime. The curveball was as looping and gangly as his 6’-5” inch frame. It took such a backwoods path to home plate—during one rehab assignment in the minors, an opposing batter lunged away from an oncoming pitch, which landed benignly for a called strike—that the sheer linearity of his 95-mile-an-hour fastball was devastating.
What made watching Patterson somehow sweeter was the complete lack of respect he got from the national sports media. Between the team’s free-fall and his own dodgy history, Patterson’s performances were invariably relegated to the final five or ten minutes of “SportsCenter.” (You can ask my wife, whom I forced to sit through the highlights.) There was a special satisfaction you took imagining opponents ask themselves how they got blanked by a guy they’d never heard of.
There’s an old joke that says attendance runs into the millions at games where famous milestones are reached—because of all the fans who retrospectively put themselves in the stands to see Roger Maris’s 61st homerun or Nolan Ryan’s 5,000th strikeout. By this logic, I’m guessing the number of fans who‘d recall being in RFK on August 4, 2005, would be substantially less than the official tally of 35,422. But even if only a handful of us remember, it was arguably the most impressive performance of any pitcher that season, and certainly the most impressive in Nats history, even four games into Strasburg’s career. Patterson’s line: Nine innings, four hits, no walks, 13 strikeouts. When it was over, Patterson, who was prone to reflecting on the childhood he’d lost while devoting himself to pitching, poignantly told The Washington Post, “It's the first time in my career I've been happy.” Less than a year later he was back on the operating table. He never regained his form and was out of baseball by 2009.
Other than its novelistic quality, which fits nicely into the tradition that brought us Bull Durham and Bang the Drum Slowly, what makes Patterson’s story more of a baseball story than Strasburg’s? Notwithstanding all the recent soccer philosophizing, baseball has always been the pro sport that most closely approximates off-the-field reality: Even the best hitters fail about seven times out of ten; the time in between chances is accompanied by lots of boredom. But pitching is probably more “realistic” than any other position. As a pitcher, you don’t arrive from the womb fully-formed, unlike, say, a standout perimeter player in basketball these days. (Witness 19-year-old point-guard John Wall, whom the Washington Wizards legitimately expect to revive their franchise in a year or two.) Even the best pitchers generally need years to polish their game in the minors, and adjust to the physical and mental rigors of professional ball. Then they have to learn it all over again once they face big-league hitting.
Pitching may be the way to make a living in sports that’s least dependent on pure athleticism, as location, sequencing, concentration, and finesse typically trump pure power. There’s a certain cruelty that follows as a result: As in life, you may be well into your prime—or even past it—by the time you have the skills to realize your potential.
Don’t get me wrong: As a Nats booster, I’m beyond delighted to have a thoroughbred to root for. And as a long-suffering Washington sports fan, I’m painfully aware that even the guys who seem indestructible one minute can be broken the next (which is why it’s insane to offer them a $125 million contract). For that matter, I know Strasburg’s own path to the majors wasn’t all peaches and cream. (Actually, very little cream: He was so fat and out of shape as a college freshman that the team’s strength coach suggested he take up another pastime.) But there’s something disconcertingly inorganic about the way Strasburg just showed up at spring training and immediately turned heads across America—like the franchise had gotten a boob job or something.
So I’ll enjoy seeing Strasburg strut his stuff every five days, and I’ll cheer as loudly as the next guy when he runs the count to two strikes. But, whenever I see him pitch, something inside me still pines for John Patterson. Deep down, I guess I prefer my fake breasts where they belong—in an NBA arena.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor of The New Republic.