Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Stpehen Strasburg will give us a night to remember

I admit it. Even if I weren’t covering Stephen Strasburg’s highly anticipated appearance tonight for The Associated Press, I probably would have journeyed to Frontier Field any way – just so I could say I caught a glimpse of the 21-year-old pitching phenom with the 100-mph heater and the Cooperstown potential.

The opportunity to witness super prospects climb the rungs of the ladder – especially guys who can throw balls through brick walls or launch them over light towers – is one of the great appeals of minor-league baseball. I wish I had a dollar for every Rochesterian who told me, “I remember when Cal Ripken Jr. was just a skinny kid playing for the Red Wings.’’ I’d be rich.

So far, Strasburg, baseball’s top draft pick last June, has lived up to the humungous hype, going 2-0 for the Syracuse Chiefs, allowing just one seeing-eye base hit in 12 Triple-A innings while striking out 13. Throw in his stats for Double-A Harrisburg, and he’s 5-1 with a 1.06 earned run average, 40 strikeouts and just 8 walks in 34 innings pitched. Little wonder famished Washington baseball fans, who haven’t tasted a World Series since Calvin Coolidge was in the White House, have been clamoring for the Nationals to bring Strasburg up ASAP.

They aren’t alone.

Curt Schilling, a pitching prospect himself with the Red Wings before his stellar big-league career, already has anointed Strasburg the next great one before the kid has even thrown his first major-league pitch. “I’ve never seen anything close, not at that age,’’ Schilling said recently. “(When) he comes up, he’ll immediately, potentially, be the best pitcher in the game.’’

Nothing like putting King Kong on the kid’s back, Curt.

Sports fans, especially ones who’ve been subjected to mediocrity for long stretches, are an impatient lot. But there is wisdom in going slowly with “can’t-miss’’ pitchers, because baseball history is rife with what I call “David Clyde stories” – cautionary tales of high school and college flame-throwers who were rushed to the bigs and flamed out quickly.

Plus, there is a financial incentive to have Strasburg stay put. By not bringing him up until June 4, the Nationals will push back the pitcher’s free agent eligibility by a few seasons, thereby delaying the inevitable offers that will be made by the Yankees, Red Sox and other big-buck franchises who'll be covetous of Strasburg should he live up to his press clippings.

As a historian of Rochester baseball, it will be interesting to see how the Wings do against Strasburg. As we learned Friday night against Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman, Rochester hitters aren’t always gracious hosts when a big arm comes to Frontier. They roughed Chapman up pretty good.

The most famous mal-treatment of a pitching prospect by the Wings, of course, came on June 30, 1997, when they turned Yankees prospect Hideki Irabu into Hideki “I Rock You,’’ smacking “the Nolan Ryan of Japan’’ around for four runs in six innings. That rude greeting in front of a regular-season Frontier record crowd of 13,485 proved a harbinger of what would await Irabu in the major leagues. Failing to live up to the hype, he finished with a 34-35 record and incurred the wrath of Yankees boss, George Steinbrenner, who crudely labeled the pitcher a “fat toad.’’

Looking back, Irabu’s visit to Frontier was one of the most electric nights I’ve ever covered at our downtown ballyard. Here’s hoping tonight is every bit as exciting.

Perhaps, down the road, we’ll be able to tell people, “I saw Strasburg pitch in Rochester.’’

No comments: