Collier: Don't put Strasburg away for safekeeping

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Sidney Crosby and Stephen Strasburg have little in common, generally speaking, absent being born within a year of each other and ultimately developing sporting skill sets of a capacious nature.

Yet both the relevant details of the new Sidney Crosby contract and the controversy that's only beginning to broil over the work status of Strasburg, the best pitcher on the best team in the National League, illuminate in tandem the complexities of sports management for the 21st century.

In Crosby, the Penguins have a talent so significant as to be potentially incomparable and an element so critical to their brand that they can't afford not to sign for him the long term, their captain's exhaustively documented health risks be damned.

In Strasburg, the Nationals have a talent so promising and yet so fragile that before they even get to the stage where they probably can't afford to pay him, they'll come to a day when they effectively can't even afford to play him.

That day, despite their half-effort denials, is only about 70 innings down the road, 11 or 12 more starts based on Strasburg's pace so far in 2012. He had pitched 90 innings by the weekend, gone 9-2, and struck out 118 batters, more than any pitcher in the game.

Mike Rizzo, the Nationals' general manager, has accused the media of manufacturing the 160-inning limit on Strasburg's season, but the club has never denied it plans to shut its main unit down before he breaks down.

That would seem prudent, except that this isn't your typical summer of baseball in the nation's capital, where the various incarnations of major league talent have traditionally been about as useless as Congress.

Ninety-two iterations of alleged baseball all the way back to 1884 have played in Washington under the banner of the Senators, the Statesman and the Nationals, doing little but establishing an indelible cultural tradition of awfulness interrupted only in 1924, when the Senators won the World Series in the dark days of the baseball's Dead Nickname Era. That's when Bucky (Harris), Goose (Goslin), Muddy (Ruel), Curly (Ogden), Mule (Shirley) and Big Train (Johnson) toppled the New York Giants in seven games for Washington's only baseball championship.

Since most fans of this Nationals team weren't around for that chaos, it's safe to say they're looking forward to a pennant race and, in particular, a pennant race that includes their best pitcher.

"Where we're at in the standings in September is not going to dictate what we do with this guy," Rizzo told MLB Radio at one point, going on to say that the club shut down Jordan Zimmerman last year, and that this is no different.

Last year at this time, the Nationals were working on their sixth consecutive losing summer and a third-place finish in the National League East Division. If the Nationals are going to exclude Strasburg, who has yet to work a full season after Tommy John surgery in 2010, from the climax of a season when the city might well be on the verge of its first pennant in 79 years, then baseball truly has reached a watershed moment.

It took years of enthusiastic research, but the Nationals have discovered a much sought but never identified baseball species -- the player who is simply too valuable to play.

The previous time I remember really getting into a discussion like this was in my grandmother's dining room, where she and my aunt were discussing some newly acquired Waterford Crystal. They washed some goblets and some sherry glasses and turned them over in the light as though Indiana Jones had just yanked them out of the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

They were reverential toward all of it, placing it gingerly in the china closet, and there was a brief discussion about when and under what circumstances it might come out again. Apparently it was only for company, and the company would have to include the Pope, the King (Elvis) and the Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem.

There was no point in asking what the point of that was, but the Nationals do not have the standing of the ladies in the dining room. No way. This is the big leagues, boys. This is no developmental backwater.

If you have a chance to win everything, you go for it with everything you've got. Anything less is a violation of your emotional contract with the fans and calls into question the very integrity of the game.

This is the moment Strasburg has been pitching for since he was a kid. He turns 24 this month and might never be a better pitcher than he is today. If his arm tires and he hurts himself on a cold night in September, he won't be the first.

If he stays healthy into 2017, the Yankees and the Red Sox will be there with an endless portfolio of $25- to $30-million summers for him, and he'll be gone.

In that way, I doubt Strasburg can afford to be like Crosby. He can't take less than market value to help the organization maintain a consistent contender. He knows that in Washington, summers like these come around about once every 80 years.

A National treasure

Numbers for Washington's Stephen Strasburg (before Saturday):

Year Gms W-L IP H BB SO ERA OBA

2012 15 9-2 90.0 71 23 118 2.60 .217

Career 32 20-4 182.0 142 42 234 2.57 .214

Selection Sunday

All-Star teams will be named at 1 p.m. today on TBS.

genecollier

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com. First Published July 1, 2012 12:00 AM


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