June 22, 2017

Strasburg In Harrisburg: Altoona, April 11, 2010

April 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Who is he?

He’s a right-handed pitcher, picked first in the nation by the Washington Nationals in the 2009 draft. We know as much. He grew up in Santee, California, under his parents Jim and Kathleen Swett, and went to West Hills High School there. He then attended San Diego State University as a public administration major, where in his freshman year he was considered the overweight weakling of the team. In his senior year he finished 13-1 in 15 starts, striking out 195 batters,walking only nineteen and posting a 1.32 ERA. No doubt you’ve read the stats before. He pitched for the 2008 bronze-medal Olympic team, then gave his handlers a heart attack by twisting a knee after only 19 innings pitched in the Arizona Fall League. Thankfully no permanent damage came of it. He credits his early weight to eating burritos that come with fries stuffed inside of them. He likes golf and emulates Jake Peavy. Does this answer the question?

Who is he? All that has come before has lead to this moment in Altoona, Pennsylvania, on April 11, 2010 where he strides to the mound for his first start in organized baseball as a member of the Harrisburg Senators, the AA level franchise of the Nationals. Today he is facing the Curve, a franchise of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The team is named after Horseshoe Bend, a famous railroad engineering feat of the nineteenth century which sits a few miles from the town.

When he emerges from the dugout, everyone has the same thought as I do: Tiger Woods. Down in Augusta, Georgia, Woods is playing in the final round of the Masters golf tournament today, and buzz in the stands will send the word around that the master of his game has issued three bogies and is fading from the lead. Struggling after a tumultuous and overexposed private life, Woods is probably learning that the answer to the question, “When will I allow myself to win again?” is probably, “Not quite yet.”

But the thought of Woods must strike everybody who sees the physique of Stephen Strasbourg, for he is the second soul I have ever seen who has stumbled into the perfect body for his sport. (No: perhaps third, after Michael Jordan, in days and in a venue when I wouldn’t have thought of such things.) Strasburg is ‘Neo-lanky,’ two-hundred and twenty pounds of flesh spread over a six-foot four frame in a way that only the modern science of nutrition and weight machines could possibly produce, his torso stemming from legs long enough to slingshot his pitches without getting his knees in the way. In a sense his body overshadows the mound—it becomes hard to remember that he is standing on a hill.

I live about sixty miles west of Factoryville, Pa, a quiet dying ember of a few houses in the hills outside of Scranton whose largest claim to fame is the birth, one-hundred and forty years ago, of Christy Mathewson, ‘Big Six,’ the man who, alongside Iron Joe McGinnity became John McGraw’s win machine for the New York Giants in the early years of the last century. On the long drive to Altoona I had already considered comparisons to Mathewson as a compass for my thoughts, and I am surprised on seeing Strasburg how well the comparison holds up. Strasburg has three inches on Matty, but put him in baggy flannels with a few light stripes and we are looking at the same lithe and looming profile.

His career starts murkily. With two out in the bottom of the first, Curves left fielder Alex Presley slams a 2-0 pitch into left field for a double. Right fielder Miles Durham follows with a run-scoring single. Through the inning, Strasburg is struggling with the plate umpire’s strike zone and making this slightly too obvious for comfort. Stooping for the catcher’s signals, he gives off the impression of struggling with his own height. Although Strasburg is more compact, Randy Johnson leaps to mind.  Strasburg walks catcher Kris Watts, and Altoona third baseman Josh Harrison works the count to 2-2, then fouls off two more pitches before biting and missing on high heat that any thinking pitcher might have thrown. The Senators can respond only with a weak two-out Texas Leaguer before going down in the top of the second.

Blair County Ballpark is one of the most beautiful concrete monstrosities I ever have seen, beautiful because it is hidden behind an enormous dark brick façade with soaring, arched plate-glass windows. Four of these windows at the main entry are peeled over with larger than life photo profiles of pitchers and batters. Wedged in a ravine between the city itself and a hill of suburbs to the east, the park is part of a larger amusement complex. Its main claim to character is the Skyliner, a wooden roller-coaster that sits over the right field wall. It’s too early in the year for the amusement park to be operating yet: earlier, when I arrived and parked on the third, top  tier of a concrete garage, I walked to the edge and had my share of seeing. Nearest to me as I looked down, a kid’s Indy course traced a careful oval. Nestled against the bends of the coaster, and lined with the same tires as the kids’ course, the adults’ ‘Monster Motor Way’ composed only  enough curves to ensure that no driver builds up any speed. A blue lined water slide curled in the distance.

To the right, over another barrier, the ball park spread out below me, the grass mowed in standard checkerboard, a teen rolling the warning track on a riding tractor. Among ads for Yuengling beer, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, the Altoona Mirror, and St. Francis University of Lorreto, where my father attended his freshman year of college before moving north to be nearer my mother, another young employee raised up the Stars and Stripes towards where I stood above. Painted black, the back of the hefty scoreboard featured four tiers of walkway with a ladder up the center which I’m glad it wasn’t my job to climb.

In the intermission of the second inning, prophecy occurs, the kind of sloppy and inappropriate prophecy that lets you know it’s real.  The crew lugs out a cardboard piano. Sitting down to play is a mascot called ‘Steamer.’ Steamer is a plush green, overweight Martian with a head resembling a cork pulled from  a wine bottle. Only later will I notice the resemblance to the smokestack of a locomotive. I’m not at all sure that Steamer has fingers, but he pounds the keys as the P.A. system transitions from Chopsticks to Dave Brubeck’s theme for Peanuts. Finally smoke issues from a corner of the piano as Steamer concludes with Jerry Lewis’ ‘Great Balls of Fire.’ The staff of the Curve have no idea how ironic the Balls of Fire theme is about to become.

In the second and third innings Strasburg settles in and shows his stuff. At the bottom of the line-up, shortstop Jose De Los Santos and opposing pitcher Rudy Owens both watch strike three having seen nothing called a ball. In the third, center fielder Gorkys Hernandez and then Presley again wave as two-count curveballs fall out from beneath their swings.

Rudy Owens is a making a good show of it.  He’s a story in himself. Drafted in the twenty-sixth  round in 2006, it’s almost impossible that he’s made it to Double-A ball. A lefty who must rely on sleight of hand and changing speeds, he holds the Senators in the fourth again, whiffing their center fielder Leonard Davis after Davis has fouled off four consecutive 0-2 counts. Owens gets an assist from shortstop De Los Santos, who hits the dirt to smother a hard grounder in his laces, then stands and pegs a throw that easily beats Sens’ first baseman Chris Marrero down the line.

We’re seeing something special, but something has to happen. One of the great appeals of baseball is that change is coming, but, unlike life, it is assured to be contained. This is the mood now in the park. ‘It’s been great, but we’d like some action also.’ The action does not come from the Curve. Instead, Strasburg’s defense implodes behind him. With one out, Strasburg again walks catcher Watts. Josh Harrison taps a routine ground out to short, but Pedro Lopez stops inches from the base and tries to hand the ball off to his teammate Michael Martinez. As if it was Galileo’s proof thrown from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the ball plops lazily to the ground.

Of the seven times a runner reaches first against Strasburg, the next batter will reach base on four of them. This is not a great average, but not a surprise for a first effort. This time Strasburg bucks it up, freezing first baseman Shelby Ford at the plate with a dropping changeup. The next man up, De Los Santos, does not let a count develop. He slaps the first pitch he sees into center where Leonard Davis, overeager for a chance after striking out at the plate, fields the ball and throws it to the backstop on the fly. Two runs cross the plate. De Los Santos stands on third. Senators’ manager Randy Knorr holds a conference, but shaken up and out of rhythm, Strasburg goes 2-2 on pitcher Owens and then allows him a single.

They are down 4-0. This isn’t a surprise. Altoona has taken the first three games of this four game series, and my game program tells me an incredible story. Since the franchise in Altoona has been re-established as ‘the Curve,’ five years ago, the Harrisburg Senators have played one hundred games here and won only thirty-three of them. With three more wins to kick off the new season, Altoona now has the edge in this particular home series, 69-33. It’s a .676 winning percentage, the equivalent of a major league team winning 109 games in a regular season. It is dominance, a statistic which almost certainly reveals a psychology.

But tonight the Senators are having none of it. Right fielder Valdez stings a 1-2 offering off of Owens into right. After a foul-out behind the plate and a ground ball which advances Valdez, catcher Jhonatan Solano plunks the ball into left. An accurate throw home eludes Kris Watts and gives Valdez the plate and Solano an extra base. Owens is visibly tiring, the sliders and change-ups fooling no one now if only the Senators could connect. Stalling for time while  right-hander Dustin Molleken warms in the pen, Curves manager Matt Walbeck strides to the mound. The next batter is Stephen Strasburg.

During Strasburg’s days at San Diego State, coach Tony Gwynn wouldn’t allow Strasburg to hit. To compensate, Strasburg admits that when playing baseball on the Wii computer system, he prefers the mode which allows him to hit for each batter, for both sides. Embarrassed with his weak ground-out to first in his initial at-bat, and frustrated by the last inning on the mound, he jumps on a high and outside set-up pitch and bangs it to the right field fence on one hop. Michael Martinez then plates Strasburg and scuttles back to first on a probe from right. He has finished off Rudy Owens. Now facing Molleken, shortstop Pedro Lopez sends a ball far as he can—probably three hundred and seventy feet or so, backing up Gorkys Hernandez to the warning track.

I keep such an intent scorecard and so many notes that the man sitting to my right finally gives in and asks me if I’m a scout. His name is Joel, he’s a local; he has a sister up north near to my own town. He’s here today with his son and his daughter-in-law. Although Blair County Stadium is as full as he’s ever seen it, he would not drive as far as I have for the event; he’s seen ballgames in his life and probably stops in here five or six times in a season. His graying hair, and a beard settling in beyond grizzle tell me he’s retired, or is looking forward to it. Strasburg pitches one more inning and garners one more strikeout, but the bullpens here are simply mounds and plates in foul territory down the lines, and we can see the relief warming up. Past the left-field fence, on the far slope of the ravine where the park sits, two or three younger women bask sleepily in the sunlight, and couples have spread picnics on oversized beach towels.

We have suffered the inevitable letdown of watching just about what we expected. The man many have come to see has managed to strike out eight and walk only two and look flustered and nervous and young in the process. He has obviously been ordered to ignore the baserunners. From my vantage point behind first base I see only his broad back and gray uniform with the number, 37. The one throw to first, when it comes, surprises me, obviously ordered by the catcher or the bench. Except perhaps for his resolute double, it has all been scripted well enough for the circus, but not necessarily for the stage or the opera. There remains the question of game, Harrisburg still trailing four to three.

With two retired in the top of the sixth, De Los Santos again makes a flat-out and sparkling stop, but this time his desperate throw sails wide of the bag. With Valdez on base, Senators’ third baseman Andy Fox grounds a seeing-eye ball through the double play combo. Left fielder Bill Rhinehart works a count on Molleken, then guesses correctly on 2-2 and sends Gorkys Herandez chasing over the grass. The ball is far behind him, and Fox, off and running on the two-out, two-strike count, easily scores the go-ahead run  behind Valdez. Catcher Solano then beats out his own ground ball hit to the hot corner, but Rhinehart, pumped up from his hit, rounds third and finds catcher and ball waiting for him nonchalantly at the plate.

From here on out the air seems to leave the stadium. The sun is much more than we expected. I will be sunburned for a week. The Curve have already won three times in the series, and perhaps the fans simply can’t believe in a four-game sweep. The tension of watching Strasburg has left no energy for the rest of the game, and then again, the day is too beautiful for people to be intense. A woman chosen from the crowd must guess the attendance from three choices posted on the scoreboard. The catch is that if she guesses right, the MC gets a pie in the face, but if she is wrong, she does. Or maybe she will just get the pie. The crowd, a paid attendance of 7,887, is thinning out now but is still too large not to distract itself.  Next to me, a teen from the high school, or perhaps the local branch of Penn State University, arrives at universal anxiety: “I think I have a quiz tomorrow.”

Senators’ reliever Erik Arnesen, like many another player here, twenty-six years old and running out of time to reach the majors, bears down and allows only one hit in two-and-a-third, striking out three. Drew Storen, Strasburg’s closer for his tenure in Pennsylvania, finishes neatly. No ball leaves the infield and two men watch it nick the zone before they must sit down. Abe Lincoln flashes on the scoreboard, jawing “Go Curve!,” but Honest Abe is of no help today. The Senators tack on a run in the ninth with a textbook first-to third hit-and-run and a hard, deflected ground ball towards first base. The ball arcs exactly to Michael Martinez running over to help out his teammate, and the out is recorded at first base, but the run has scored.

As I drive home the long mountains freshen with their spring blooms. In the valley below discarded school buses slant on crests of hills. Who is he then, the man everyone came to see? Outside of the statistics he is likely to accumulate for the next fifteen years, we know as much now as we ever might. He is Stephen Strasburg, behind Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods the third contemporary athlete with the perfect body for his sport. He is a goofy kid from Southern California who had to punish himself to get in shape. He happens to be ‘the one,’ any ‘one,’ a flashpoint, a potential un-dammer of dreams. In my rear view mirror I catch a car approaching fast. I think it has mud all over the front fender, but when it catches up to me I see the paint is simply scraped away. Three guys of college age ride past, the one in the back seat slumped down with his feet perched on a front headrest. The white Chevy is receiving hard punishment from youth. Stephen Strasburg is behind me giving seventy members of the media a long press conference, but he is still like one of the kids in that car. The rickety Impala will beat me to State College.

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