September 10, 2012
The division-leading Washington Nationals baseball team has gone ahead with their plan and shut their prize young pitcher Stephen Strasburg down for the season. He's coming off Tommy John surgery and team management had decided early to only let him pitch 160 innings, even if they had a chance to go to the postseason with him.
I don't have anything intelligent to say about Strasburg, I just wanted to use this opportunity to post a link to a video I saw on the evening sports news on May 6, 1998. I was sitting on the couch talking to my wife with the TV on but the volume off, so I didn't get any audio hints about what was coming. I vaguely recognized Kerry Wood, the Chicago Cubs' 20-year-old phenom pitcher, and was hardly surprised when they started showing clips of his strikeout pitches from that afternoon's game at Wrigley Field against the hard-hitting Houston Astros (Bagwell & Biggio).
But I became increasingly distracted from my conversation as the strikeout pitch clips kept going on and on, past all reasonable limits, a dozen, a dozen and a half, and still kept piling up. And the pitches weren't just Wood's 98 mph fastball. He was getting bizarre motion on the ball. By the end of the game (the 19th is 3:00 into the video), Wood was throwing what looked like 90+ mph whiffle balls at the befuddled batters. The catcher could barely backhand the 20th and last strikeout pitch, which broke two feet horizontally from right to left. The poor batter would have needed a pool cue to get any wood on the ball.
Was Wood's 20 strikeout one-hitter in batter-friendly Wrigley Field in 1998, the McGwire-Sosa peak of the steroid slugger era, the greatest game ever pitched? Many people think so.
I saw Sandy Koufax pitch at Dodger Stadium when I was five, and have been a big Koufax fan ever since. But Koufax was pitching with a huge vertical strikezone, bottom of the knees to shoulders. So he threw two main pitches: a curve that dropped sharply (but didn't swerve much horizontally like Wood's last pitch) and a rising fastball. A baseball thrown hard enough with enough backspin will tend to sail upward above its natural trajectory and that's what a lot of legendary 1960s pitchers threw. (By rising fastball, I mean one that falls slower than gravity alone would imply.) Pitching 320 innings per year burned out Koufax, who retired in 1966 after going 27-9.
But the leagues and the umpires progressively took the rising fastball away from pitchers after 1968. By the 1990s, the strikezone barely extended above the belt, forcing pitchers into odd contortions to avoid rising fastballs.
After Wood's 20-strikeout game, it suddenly became hugely important to everybody interested in baseball, for reasons that no longer are clear, for Wood to break the record for most strikeouts in two consecutive starts, which he did. And then he had to break the record in three consecutive starts, which he did. A few months later he had Tommy John surgery.
And Wood was never quite the same. He had three operations on his arm, and 14 trips to the disabled list. He retired earlier this season with a career record of 86-75. It was a fine career with two All Star game appearances, but it wasn't what everybody had hoped that May afternoon when he was 20.