Fireballer, mystic phenom and strategic National asset Stephen Strasburg returns to the mound this week for the hapless Washingtons of big league baseball. This after scaring everyone half to death last month with midsummer "stiffness" and nonspecific shoulder "soreness;" with a worrying failure to "get loose" and with a brief stay on the disabled list.
Any or all of which in a pitcher so young will whiten a manager's hair overnight; produce lifetime reflux in a throwing coach; break a fan's heart; or, as is the case today, provoke a few columnar thoughts on the nature of the major league arms race, on resource management and risk abatement, on hope and fear and luck, on wishful thinking and intercessory prayer, and on the rickety voodoo of science itself.
It has been a truth of baseball from its muttonchop-and-woolens beginning that a great arm is worth a great deal. In Mr. Strasburg's case, and thanks mostly to a fastball that flirts brazenly with 100 mph, his arm has earned him a $15 million contract at the age of 22, and a three-ring media circus to go with it. By headline count, page view and acclamation, he is A Sure Thing, the hottest flamethrower in The Year of The Pitcher.
But it is also an Old Testament truth of baseball that great arms are not just a limited resource, but a fickle one; a physical mystery more alchemy than biology, about which no one anywhere knows anything. These rare arms are as fragile as the hopes they inspire.
Witness Mark Prior, the last Big Noise, whose arm has long since soured and betrayed him. Mark Prior, once-and-future media darling and the hope of Major League Baseball, now pitches for the Orange County Flyers.
Before Prior, the Promethean American fire-starter was going to be Kerry Wood, now of the New York Yankees. Despite hopes that rose over the moon, the most representative number he's posted since he entered the league is probably 14 -- the tally of how many times he's been on the disabled list.
It is in the nature of the game, and in the delicate architecture of the human body, that arms and elbows and shoulders will fly apart, fail. In baseball, the question is not "why?" In baseball, the only question is "when?"
Most break much sooner rather than later. In fact, for every Cy Young, for every Bob Feller, for every Nolan Ryan, for every Johnson or Spahn or Seaver, for every freak of nature with an arm and a shoulder and a mind strong enough to bear the forces of a big league fastball, there are 1,000 kids a year somewhere in the system who one afternoon feel a "pop" or a "ping" or a "bang" and wind up back on the tractor, daydreaming about what might have been.
It doesn't much seem to matter how you manage them, either; how you work them out or train them or feed them or platoon them or protect them or use them. The arm gives way or the arm does not. The arm yields or the arm does not. The arm fails. Or the arm does not.
In a universe in which all states of order lead back to chaos, this seems about right to me.
A manager can't win. Use those arms too much and the imbecile press says you've carelessly worn the arms out. Use the arms too little and you're a mollycoddle who won't let them build the strength they need. Change their motion and you've ruined them. Leave their motion alone and ditto.
Do you want to see a million pieces of conflicting advice all in one place? Go to YouTube, and enter "pitching mechanics" in the search box. Long toss will save you! Long toss will kill us all!
Try this! Try that! Hands higher! Hands lower! Elbows in! Elbows out!
Or maybe just have the surgery!
Google around long enough and you'll see that even the old verities no longer apply. Science contradicts itself on every page. Ankle sprain?
Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. Maybe. Maybe not. Ice for treatment of swelling and inflammation? Not so fast, Grandpa.
In a world of perfect confusion, of randomness and opposition and unintended consequence, how do you manage a precious resource?
This is the fundamental argument between exploitation and conservation that Americans have been having for 450 years. What is the price of progress? Of victory? What are you willing to do to the Gulf of Mexico in exchange for extracting that national asset? What are you willing to sell to balance your ledger? Despite the lies and reassurances of science, what does it cost us all merely to live?
In that sad state of ignorance and vulnerability must we all proceed. And across the entire horizon there are no sure things anywhere.
But Stephen Strasburg threw 43 pitches in a simulated game last week and seemed fine. So keep your fingers crossed. Because what can his manager do? Or his coach? Or his fans?
What can any of us do but fret his pitch count like a rosary? And hope?
So hold a good thought for Stephen Strasburg.
Hold a good thought for us all.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What are sports for?" You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.