I am a huge cynic when it comes to sports. I’ve made sports a huge part of my life for 35 years now and during that time I’ve been repeatedly letdown by the teams and players that I have admired. Because of that disappointment, I’ve learned to be very guarded when it comes to athletes and the possibility of allowing them to ever reach hero status.
I’m one of those who believed steroids were playing a huge factor in baseball prior to any of the allegations being made publicly and I believe to this day that close to 75 percent of all MLB players dabbled with performance-enhancing drugs during the peak of the Steroid Era. When I see a former All-Star struggle I tend to think it’s because he’s adjusting to life without the juice. When I watch a once-healthy player become injury plagued season after season I tend to think it’s because his body is adjusting and breaking down after years of PED use.
If I hear of an athlete involved in a police matter I almost always assume guilt. When I hear athletes do an interview, I almost always assume that their words are what he or she thinks the public wants to hear versus what they truly believe. When I listen to an athlete apologize for past transgressions I often see fake contrition taking a back seat to genuine remorse.
Whether it’s Tiger recalling his VIP-room hook-ups with tears in his eyes, Big Ben promising he’s learned from his mistakes, or LT coming halfway clean and admitting a small portion of his criminal behavior, I have a hard time buying any of it.
Right or wrong, my history with sports has made me jaded in this way and I’ll be the first one to admit it. But ever once in a while I allow my guard down long enough to revert back to my youth when I allowed a player’s amazing skill be the sole basis upon which he is judged. You remember those times, when you admired a player’s freakish abilities so much so that he could do no wrong. An idolizing impact so strong if “your guy” was found to have a flaw you were certain it would soon be proved to be unfounded and the claim rescinded. Someone to good to be true but yet so reliable that he continuously put your fears to rest and allowed you to only see the good in him. Nobody could argue with you, you had the full blinders on and no darkness could bee seen in your shimmering hero.
For the last three years I’ve been reading about Stephen Strasburg. You know the guy, the Washington Nationals flame-throwing can’t-miss kid with the 100mph heater and the knee-buckling bender. During that time I’ve heard HOFers and scouts alike claim they’ve seen nothing like him, a real-life Sid Finch without the April Fool’s wake-up call afterward. A guy so talented that he could single-handedly rejuvenate the sports card industry (think Brien Taylor, Kris Benson, Ryan Leaf and Tony Mandarich except without the bitter disappointment that followed) and become the face of the sport and our hobby for years to come.
Because we’ve all heard the hype machine spin out of control in anticipation of the sports world’s “next big thing” before, I quickly dismissed the scouting reports as yet another overblown adu about nothing. I wasn’t about to let my guard down, develop yet another man crush only to be left broken hearted again.
But after getting my first real look at Strasburg in his MLB debut last night, I started to get the same feelings I had when I first saw greats like Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Nolan Ryan and Dr. J for the first time, and boy it felt good. You know the feeling. It’s like watching a movie and instantly going on to the Internet to see if there are any plans for a sequel. It’s like coming to the end of a first date and already putting together a plan for the second. It’s like finding a great new restaurant and eating there three times in a week because you just can’t get enough.
And in the case of Strasburg, it’s like watching a guy throw what you expect will be his last pitch of the night and immediately looking forward to the next time he’ll take to the hill (Sunday against the Indians in case you were wondering).
And much like a classic movie, a great first date or a new favorite meal, they don’t come along very often so I suggest we all savor every last morsel of everyone’s new favorite pitcher. If he can display the same skill level and somehow manage to not be overwhelmed by the pressure associated with being the sports world’s “next big thing,” I think he might end up being exactly that.
I’ve tossed aside my cynical guard because upon further review I believe we might actually have the real deal on our hands here. Here’s hoping the young phenom won’t make me pay for it.