Washington is a town that is all too accustomed to watching phenoms fall flat. Every few years, a new telegenic messiah arrives to walk upon the waters of the Potomac, and promptly sinks.
Last Tuesday, on a relatively cool night in Washington, a 21-year-old kid took the mound in Southeast DC and accomplished something that this town had not seen for a very long time: he delivered on hype.
For more than a year, The Washington Post filled its pages with the legend of Stephen Strasburg. Anecdotes were offered as prophesies to an understandably-skeptical readership. People have grown immune to prophesies and promises of salvation. Nationals fans, like American voters, had reached the point where they just wanted someone who could get the ball over the plate and not talk so much. Yet scouts kept assuring us: “Really, this kid is different.” The amateur hitters he faced gave him the nickname “Jesus,” reportedly a phrase batters mutter while facing him. He spent the spring selling-out amateur ballparks along interstate 81, while introducing a cult of reporters, bloggers and baseball fanatics to the rustbelt gems of Harrisburg and Syracuse. Strasburg’s spring, start to finish, looked more like the heavy touring days of the Grateful Dead than the journey of a young baseball prospect.
After a year of fanfare, Stephen Strasburg entered Nationals Park last Tuesday with an old kind of fame, one which belongs to a time when the radio was the centerpiece of the American home and baseball rose to glory upon its airwaves. Strasburg seemed to emerge from that era: everyone knew his name and heard of his legend, yet no one knew what he looked like.
Those days are probably over.
In his first major league appearance, he struck out 14 batters over 7 innings – that is gaudy, by any measure. For a kid pitching his first major league game, it is other-worldly. The 43,000 in attendance were treated to an electric evening. Baseball, the sport designed for radio, finally joined the television age as Strasburg’s curve ball was a visual work of art – careening across your HD screen as if assisted by the special effects crew from Avatar. There were innings you had to stop and shake your head, not knowing that the laws of nature allowed pitches to do things like that. As the game ended, a nation learned what it was like to, curiously, have expectations exceeded.
We needed that – especially this week.
When the books are written on these years – no matter the outcome of future elections – it will be said that whatever hopeful whispers remained of Obama 2008’s roar into the White House ended on the Today Show – also a product of last Tuesday. Not because the president said “ass” on national television. Viewers went ballistic over that remark, presumably fearing for the virtue of children. The outrage is wasted. In the age of the Internet – the electronic hyper sphere of pornography, online prescription drugs and videos showing people being decapitated – children will never again be what they once were. Today, our children are made old before they are wise.
Nor was this a scripted moment to “look tough.” Obama doesn’t have awkward scripted moments and he has even less trouble getting tough with other Americans.
The moment was pivotal because the fellow, whom everyone wants to stop acting like a global facilitator and start thinking like the President of the United States, explained that he talks to experts so he knows “whose ass to kick.”
When he said it, the American public’s head dropped. We wanted him to say that he talks to experts because he’s working to solve this problem. We wanted him to say that solving the problem requires convening the smartest people. The last thing one expected to hear from the president, as oil continues to gush into the Gulf, is that he assembles councils to determine whose “ass to kick.”
It begs the reply, “If you have to ask…”
It wasn’t a slip-up, it wasn’t a theatrical attempt at sounding tough, it was a rendering of this Administration’s mission statement. It is not sophisticated, it is not particularly nuanced, but that’s what the American people elected, not, as many hoped, the next Clinton Administration. However one felt about Clinton’s policies, he clearly liked people. He was interested, charmed and eternally-amused by other human beings. That is a nice quality to have if you are going to live and work among people. If this so called legacy-Administration so much as likes people, it doesn’t translate in any meaningful way. With each day that passes, it becomes clear that 2008’s election ushered in a wave of golden-tongued misanthropes.
Last Tuesday, while Washington went wide-eyed at Obama’s comments, Stephen Strasburg reportedly spent the day alone in the locker room with his thoughts. No blustering, no councils. Then he went out to the applause of a standing-room only crowd, working under the white heat of the entire sporting press, and reminded us that great expectations are meant to be delivered on. Nothing less will suffice.
He also reminded us what the rest of America has long known: that baseball is infinitely better than politics – something that can now, thanks to Stephen Strasburg, also be said in Washington, DC.
Eben Carle served in the White House as an Associate Director on the Homeland Security Council from 2008-2009. He received a master’s degree in American studies from Columbia University and is currently writing his first novel.