I must apologize to those who care about baseball-related ethics matters. I have been so immersed in the problems dogging my sad and dispirited Boston Red Sox that I have neglected the more glaring ethics issue looming over my current home town team, the Washington Nationals, currently on top of the National League East and almost certainly bound for their first post-season appearance. They face that prospect, however, with a problem: before the season began, management pledged that Stephen Strasburg, the team’s young fire-balling ace who seems destined for a Hall of Fame career, will be shut down for good once he hits 180 innings or less. Strasburg has already had serious arm surgery once, and conventional baseball wisdom now holds that throwing too many pitches before a pitcher has matured risks his arm, his effectiveness and his career. What this means now, however, that was hardly conceivable when the pledge was made, is that the Nationals could be battling the best teams in baseball in pursuit of a World Series title with their best pitcher completely healthy but in mothballs.
I had only given this matter perfunctory focus, concluding as a fan that it was a screwball plan that would never be executed, and not thinking much about the ethics of the controversy—and as you might imagine, it’s a big controversy in the Washington area sports pages. It took respected baseball writer John Feinstein to shock me out of my apathy with his sensible and well-reasoned column on the issue today, that ended thusly:
“Pitching a healthy Strasburg in October is not a betrayal, it’s simply recognizing that circumstances have changed. Not pitching him is a betrayal: to the pitcher, to the team, to the fans and to the city.”
Feinstein’s use of the word “betrayal” places the question squarely in the category of duty and obligation, the ethics strike zone. To whom does a baseball team owe its primary duty? The answer has always been, and still is, the sport, the city whose name is on its uniforms and the team’s fans. The welfare of the players on the team’s payroll are on the duty list for sure, but they only finish fourth. When a championship is on the line, they are expected to take reasonable risks with their bodies, their health and their careers, and the team is obligated to let them do it. Players who hurtle into the stands to make game saving catches risk serious injury; catchers who stand in a runner’s way to block game-winning runs risk career-ending collisions; pitchers who go to the mound with their ankle tendons crudely stitched to their skin risk never pitching again (okay, that was another Red Sox reference: sorry.) Taking such risks is part of the game, and playing hard, and harder when championships are on the line, is essential to the integrity of baseball or any sport.
For the Nationals to take one of their top starting pitchers out of the rotation in an exercise of special caution makes neither logical nor ethical sense. From a purely business standpoint in today’s free agent environment, there is no reason for the Nationals to care whether Strasburg’s career is like Fernando Valenzuela’s or Dwight Gooden’s, a comet that peters out by the time he is 30, or like Roger Clemens (sans drugs, of course), a pitcher who has early career arm surgery and then pitches into senility (Clemens started a comeback last week at the age of 50.) Players have no loyalty, and Strasburg’s agent is the infamous Scott Boras, who typically leads his clients to the biggest contract possible, no matter how happy they were with their original team. Why should the Nationals give up a possible World Series so the New York Yankees get to have Stephen Strasburg winning 20 games for a few more seasons?
There is also no reason to believe that cutting off Strasburg’s innings will preserve his arm, or that letting him pitch more than 180 innings will endanger it. As Feinstein notes (and studies have shown, such as a Hardball Times survey of workhorse pitchers from different eras), some pitchers thrive with heavy workloads early in their careers, and some do not. Every arm, delivery, pitch selection and pitcher is different. The Yankees famously protected minor league phenom Jaba Chamberlain when he first arrived in the majors, and he ended up having arm troubles anyway. The Red Sox (sorry again) shelved young starter Clay Buchholtz at the end of last season for an absurd length of time after he had recovered from an injury to be cautious, and he began 2012 so messed up that he was nearly demoted to the minors.
It is also unfair to Strasburg to rob him of the chance to help win a championship that his talents and efforts got his team in the position to seize. Players live for the opportunity to play in big games. It seems fine to argue that because Strasburg is young and a budding superstar, he’ll have other chances. It doesn’t work out that way necessarily, for players, or for teams and cities. The Washington Senators went to the World Series in 1933; Washington hasn’t been close to another appearance since—79 years later. The 1950 “Whiz Kids” Phillies went to the Series (and lost) with one of the youngest teams to ever get there, and everyone assumed they would be back soon. “Soon” turned out to be 30 years later.
The pledge to limit the young pitcher’s innings made sense before the season when a post-season for the Nationals seemed like a distant dream. Now that it has become reality, Feinstein is right. “As long as Strasburg is still throwing 98 mph and looks completely healthy,” the team should let him be a part of its post-season quest for glory.
It’s the right thing to do.
Spark and Source: Washington Post (John Feinstein)
Graphic: Washington Nationals
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