“Your career starts once you get here. It doesn’t matter what you did in college or the minor leagues.” So says Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. Gwynn has been very much in the limelight this week as the sports world prepares for the long-anticipated arrival of Stephen Strasburg to the big leagues. Gwynn was Strasburg’s college coach at San Diego State University.
The Washington Nationals made Strasburg the No. 1 selection in the June 2009 draft and later signed him to a $15 million bonus. In the ensuing months, the Nats carefully orchestrated his movement through the fall instructional league, AA Harrisburg and AAA Syracuse. He was scheduled to make his first start last night against the Pirates at Nationals Park before a sellout crowd. Phil Wood, who covers the Nats, has dubbed Strasburg “The Green Line” – a play on words as the green line of the Metro runs to Nationals Park, while sellout crowds follow Strasburg’s every start.
I certainly wish the kid well. He seems to have his head on straight, not to mention a 99 mph fastball and command of four pitches. He also has never faced a live major league hitter. I join Nats fans in hoping that “St. Stephen” will be the difference maker in allowing Washington to compete in the ever-tough National League East. I have, however, been around long enough to at least remain cautious in my optimism. In every sport, in every year, there arrives a savior that just doesn’t pan out.
In the NFL, Skins fans remember the excitement when Joe Gibbs used the No. 1 selection in 1994 to choose the next “franchise quarterback” out of Tennessee. Heath Shuler quickly lost his starting job to the unheralded Gus Frerotte, who was taken in the same draft in a much later round. Shuler was out of football and into politics in short order. In 1998, the Colts had decided to select Ryan Leaf with the No. 1 pick. At the last minute, they changed their minds and went with Peyton Manning. Manning will be in the Hall of Fame, while Leaf is often referred to as the worst starting quarterback in the modern era of the NFL.
The NBA is famous for its lottery busts, as well. Sam Bowie was quickly out of basketball, but not before the Portland Trailblazers chose him over the great Michael Jordan in 1984. In 2001, the Lakers made Kwame Brown the top pick in the draft. Brown is generally considered the biggest waste of a No. 1 pick in history.
Basketball and football players tend to build more of a track record as a result of the minor league system known as the NCAA. Baseball scouts have to do a much better job projecting a player five or six years into the future. It is not an exact science. Present Yankee stars Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada were selected in the 22nd and 24th rounds in 1990. Conversely, a list of top picks includes the likes of Steve Chilcott, Danny Goodwin, Al Chambers, Shaun Abner, Brien Taylor, Paul Wilson and Matt Anderson. Scouts thought so highly of Goodwin that he was actually chosen with the No. 1 pick twice, after high school in 1971 and then again after college in 1975. Only two No. 1 picks – Bob Horner and
Darryl Strawberry – have ever gone on to be Rookie of the Year.
Strasburg is most often compared to David Clyde (1973) and Ben McDonald (1989). Clyde was rushed to the big leagues fresh out of high school and soon developed arm trouble.
His major league record is a paltry 18-33. McDonald faired a bit better with a 78-70 career, but the 6-foot-7-inch fireballer was never able to capture the promise he had shown at LSU.
The Nats have tried to follow a conservative and more traditional path to the big leagues for Strasburg. He has moved through the system gaining valuable experience. He has not been overly rushed to the majors just to sell tickets, as was the case of Clyde and McDonald. As a citizen of Natstown, I have my fingers crossed.