In some respects, Stephen Strasburg’s MLB debut was the worst thing that could have happened to him. When he made that first start on June 8, 2010 as a 21-year-old, it was impossible to imagine he’d match the hype that preceded his first big league pitch. How could he? After destroying collegiate hitters and dominating the 2008 Olympics, he was the No. 1 pick who was going to be the next Nolan Ryan, the next Roger Clemens, the next … well, pick a Hall of Famer. “His combination of stuff, pitching savvy and command make him a once-in-a-generation phenomenon,” wrote Baseball America after the draft. “I’ve never seen anything like him,” said one scout to SI’s Lee Jenkins in 2009.
But match the hype he did. He went up against a major league lineup as a rookie and struck out 14 hitters in seven innings, allowing just two runs. He threw 98 mph and got 18 swings and misses on 94 pitches. He was untouchable, and he was 364 days removed from being drafted. “There are guys who come up to the plate, look down at me and say, ‘This guy is unbelievable,’” said Ivan Rodriguez, then catching for the Nationals, as Strasburg’s rookie season went supernova.
That start, though, created expectations that no one, not even someone as talented as Strasburg, could ever hope to fulfill. Amid the highs and lows of the next seven years, it could only feel like we were being disappointed. Strasburg was great—his 2012 season, off of Tommy John surgery, was brilliant, as was his ’14 campaign when he struck out 242 in 215 innings—but he wasn’t transcendent. Worse, he seemed brittle: It felt like he was constantly missing starts or going on the disabled list. And the complaints from baseball’s seemingly endless supply of old-school tough talkers and carnival barkers were legion: He’s soft; he doesn’t want to be great; he’s a headcase; he’s pampered and delicate.
That was the take apocalypse surrounding him on Tuesday night, when reports emerged that he had asked out of starting Game 4 of the NLDS against the Cubs because he was sick. The narrative was easy: Here was Strasburg, once again wimping out, unwilling to do the hard thing—as if his entire career had been some happy accident, with Strasburg simply showing up and succeeding without trying—and not enough of a man to go out and pitch at less than 100% even with his team’s season on the line. On Wednesday morning, he and the team reversed course, but even that wasn’t enough for some. As one former player told ESPN’s Pedro Gomez, “Everybody shamed him into starting.”
But where are those Strasburg criticisms now? He didn’t just save the Nationals in Game 4; he shut his haters up forever. His performance was absolutely brilliant: seven shutout innings and 12 strikeouts in damp, frigid weather in front of a loud Wrigley Field crowd against the hard-hitting lineup of the defending World Series champions, all while sick. Calling him “tough” doesn’t begin to do him justice.
“He’s a man of few words,” said manager Dusty Baker after the game, “but the words he said gave us every indication that he was ready.”
“Games like this, you have to go out there and give it everything you have, whatever it is,” the man himself said. “I called Mad Dog [pitching coach Mike Maddux] in the morning and said, ‘Just give me the ball.’”
It was never enough for Strasburg to be as great as he already is; he had to go above and beyond, to a place where so few players are capable of going and where no one should be asked to go in the first place. Think about the fact that Strasburg needed antibiotics and an IV simply to get to a point where he felt like he could pitch; most people who get that kind of treatment would stay on their couch all day, if not all week. But if Strasburg hadn’t done this, he never would have been able to live it down. His entire legacy would have been determined and ruined by doing a sensible, safe and smart thing.
We ask so much of the athletes we love. We want them to put aside pain and exhaustion and fear and anxiety and everything else just to win. We beg them to be superhuman. And we’re so quick to call them weak or coddled when they disappoint us or refuse to achieve the impossible, especially if it seems like anything is within their reach. Strasburg was so good so young that his limits didn’t seem to exist—and if they did, then they had to be self-created, the product of someone who wasn’t willing to give everything he had. Not starting Game 4 would have been more evidence of that: a self-imposed ceiling, a refusal to embrace true greatness by leaving it all on the line. Never mind that Strasburg likely wanted more than anything to start but felt that his body wouldn’t cooperate: A true warrior would be out there, no matter what.
But start Strasburg did, and no matter what happens to the Nationals in this series or postseason, his greatness can’t be called into question again. Strasburg’s legacy before Wednesday, fair or unfair, was as the man who had all the talent in the world but couldn’t deliver on it the way we all expected—if not outright demanded—from the moment he first stepped foot on a major league mound. But thanks to Game 4, everyone got to see that that greatness has been there the whole time.