A tale of two major league rookies.
Last week two rookies made a dramatic entrance to mark their debuts in Major League Baseball.
Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg set D.C. and the rest of the nation abuzz by striking out fourteen Pittsburgh Pirates over seven innings without walking a single batter en route to a 5-2 victory for the Nationals.
A few days later, Boston Red Sox outfielder Daniel Nava set Red Sox Nation abuzz by hitting the very first pitch he saw in the big leagues for a grand slam homerun into the Red Sox bullpen at Fenway Park to help the Sox blow out the defending National League Champion Philadelphia Phillies 10-2. Nava became only the second player in Red Sox (and fourth in MLB) history to hit a grand slam in his first plate big league appearance.
This is where the similarities between Stephen Strasburg and Daniel Nava end.
Strasburg was arguably the biggest college baseball star in decades when he pitched for San Diego State under the tutelage of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. Nava was cut from the baseball team at Santa Clara University and then became the team’s equipment manager. Among his duties was doing the team’s laundry.
Strasburg was selected by the Nationals as the number one pick in the 2009 MLB Draft. Nava went undrafted by all thirty major league clubs.
Last August, Strasburg’s agent Scott Boras negotiated a four-year, $15.1 million contract with the Nationals with only minutes to spare. The Red Sox purchased Nava’s contract in January 2008 from the Chico Outlaws of the independent Golden Baseball League for $1.
Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo announced Strasburg’s MLB debut more than a week in advance to increase ticket sales. Strasburg’s debut was greatly anticipated by baseball fans everywhere. Nava found out he had been promoted to the majors less than 24 hours before he took his first swing. The only people who greatly anticipated Nava’s big league debut were his parents.
Even before he threw his first pitch, Nationals fans were sporting Strasburg jerseys on their backs. When Red Sox fans saw Nava’s name in the lineup for the first time they probably asked, “Who is this guy? Nava heard of him.”
Unless Strasburg absolutely falls flat on his face he is in the majors to stay. As for Nava, he could be sent back down to Pawtucket once Jacoby Ellsbury and Jeremy Hermida (who hit a grand slam in his first big league at bat) return from the disabled list, even if he continues to play well.
That is, unless the Red Sox have another Wade Boggs on their hands. Boggs dominated the American League in batting for most of the 1980s, winning five AL batting titles in six seasons. But there’s a good chance that opportunity might have never come Boggs’ way had Carney Lansford (who won the 1981 AL batting title while with the Bosox) not been injured. When Boggs got the call to the majors in 1982 he had been toiling in the Red Sox farm system since 1976.
While sometimes success recedes due to an inexplicable loss of ability (e.g., Dontrelle Willis), at other times a major league player’s time at the top can come to an abrupt end due to an injury. During Strasburg’s second start against the Cleveland Indians over the weekend he slipped several times on the pitcher’s mound at Progressive Field which the ground crew had to fix on two occasions. Despite getting the win, Strasburg walked five batters. But Strasburg is lucky those five walks were his only trouble. He could have twisted an ankle, hyperextended a knee, or severed an Achilles tendon.
Given that the game was in Cleveland, I could not help but think of the career of Herb Score and what could have been. In the mid-1950s, Score excited baseball fans the way Strasburg is today. The southpaw would win 16 games as well as lead the American League in strikeouts with 245 batters en route to becoming AL Rookie of the Year. Score was even better in 1956, winning 20 games and once again leading the league in strikeouts with 263. By all appearances, Score was the second coming of Bob Feller and a destined to be a first ballot Hall of Famer.
But in May 1957, a month before his 24th birthday, Score was struck in the face by a line drive off the bat of New York Yankees infielder Gil McDougald. Score sustained facial fractures and was nearly blinded. Neither Score, nor for that matter McDougald, was the same player again.
Although Score returned to the Indians the following season, he never regained his earlier form and only won 17 more games over the next five seasons before hanging it up in 1962 while a member of the Chicago White Sox. Score would later return to the Indians — as a broadcaster.
While Strasburg appears destined for greatness and Nava appeared destined for obscurity, both men have played their way into the spotlight. For the moment what we have here is a tale of two rookies.
No one can guarantee what will happen next. Perhaps Strasburg will win 300 games and be inducted into the Hall of Fame and Nava will become an answer to a trivia question. Or perhaps Strasburg won’t live up to lofty expectations and it will be Nava who gets a plaque in Cooperstown. Then again perhaps Strasburg and Nava will simply be among the thousands of major league players who have good careers but not receive any special recognition once their careers have ended. What they might lack in greatness will be more than made up for with a lifetime of great memories playing in the majors. In which case, perhaps Stephen Strasburg and Daniel Nava might not be so different after all.
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