'Tim Terrific' was a Strasburg of his time

Forty-nine pitchers have made their major league debut as a starter for the Mets. None had quite the hype that Stephen Strasburg will get tonight in Washington when he faces the Pirates. But a few got their fair share of attention.

Three decades ago, there was one of note, pitching for a Mets team that was in a similar position to a Nationals team looking for a turnaround and a box office draw. That was Tim Leary.

The right-handed Leary was the No. 2 pick out of UCLA in the 1979 MLB draft, with a fastball that matched Mike Pelfrey’s peak velocity of 95 miles per hour, and a nasty slider. He won 15 games and threw 11 complete games with six shutouts at Double-A Jackson in 1980. That was good for Texas League MVP honors and enough to convince the Mets to bring him up at age 23 in 1981.

The headlines hyped Leary as “Tim Terrific” since New York was starved for an ace after the trade of Tom Seaver to the Reds in 1977.

Unfortunately, the Mets made the mistake of giving Leary his major league debut on an unpleasant, chilly April 12, 1981, at Wrigley Field. Starting on the road toned down the hype, but didn’t provide the most pleasant pitching conditions. Leary struck out the first two hitters he faced but left after two innings with an injury to a muscle in his forearm, one that may have come from too much weightlifting.

“If you’re a pitcher, you’re going to get a sore arm,” Leary said, speaking while stuck in traffic in his native Santa Monica on Monday . “It’s bound to happen for any pitcher with time.”

It took two months for Leary to heal and in that time he heard whispers that he was faking his injury, which wasn’t the case at all.

“It’s tough to be overhyped in New York,” Leary said. “It’s tough to live up to it. The injury wasn’t career-ending but it seemed like it was at the time.”

By the time he was ready to return, the major league players were out on strike. Leary went to Triple-A and didn’t make it back to the big leagues until 1983, thanks to a pinched nerve in his shoulder that wasn’t initially properly diagnosed.

Leary made 22 appearances and nine starts for the Mets in 1983 and 1984, going 4-4 with a 3.92 ERA. He was traded to the Brewers in a four-way deal in January of 1985. He was well-traveled, pitching for the Brewers, Dodgers, Reds, Yankees, Mariners and Rangers in a career that was surgery-free and lasted until 1994.

Leary never lived up to the hype that preceded him, but at age 52, he knows that there’s no shame in 78 career wins, 105 losses, and a World Series ring -- from winning 17 games, a Silver Slugger, and a Comeback Player of the Year award with the 1988 Dodgers, who beat the Mets on the way to winning it all.

Most Career MLB Wins

Drafted in 1st Round By Mets

“It all worked out okay,” Leary said. “It’s not that easy to a) get in the major leagues and b) stay in the major leagues. Very few players make the Hall of Fame. Success doesn’t mean that you have to be a Hall of Famer. A lot of good things happened to me in baseball.”

As for advice for Strasburg, Leary’s comes from 13 years in the majors, five years as pitching coach at UCLA, and now time as a private instructor and insurance salesman in his native Santa Monica. Leary thinks it was a good idea for Strasburg to be brought to the majors this quickly, noting it seems silly to waste pitches in the minors if he’s clearly big league ready.

“He should just trust that he’s going to be a good major league pitcher,” Leary said. “He’ll have his growing pains, and it’s not going to be all rosy for him. But hopefully, he’ll be able to make the most of it.”

Mark Simon is a researcher for Baseball Tonight. Follow him on Twitter at @msimonespn or e-mail him at webgemscoreboard@gmail.com.