Saturday, August 25, 2012


Let's take a backhanded approach to the big debate in major league baseball.

Remember Dick Fosbury? He was the first guy who went over the bar backwards in the high jump in a track and field meet. Not only did it work, but he brought everyone along with him because it turned out to be more effective than what had gone before.

Remember Pete Gogolak? He came over from Hungary in the 1960's, and started kicking "soccer-style" for the Cornell football team. Then it was on to the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants, where he was a reliable place-kicker for years. Within 30 years, every pro football kicker came from the side and not from straight behind the ball.

Remember the first guy ever to try to flip in the air during track's triple jump? Of course you don't, because it was hard to get enough momentum to go all the way forward in the area. It usually resulted in the jumper's shoulders landing in the sand first.

The pioneers of life sometimes get remembered, and sometimes they don't. They all get criticized along the way ... unless it works.

That brings us to Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals.

Strasburg is one of the three most valuable pieces of talent in major league baseball. He, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are all very, very good and very young. You want to take care of them.

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo knows this. He also knows Strasburg is coming off Tommy John surgery. So he doesn't want to take any chances on his career.

Therefore, Rizzo is limiting Strasburg's innings for the year. The number supposedly is around 170, more or less, and the pitcher is coming up on that number soon. Rizzo says he'll send his young pitcher home then, even though the Nationals are in a pennant race for the first time in history.

Rizzo has received plenty of criticism for his action. The argument goes that there is no definite link to pitching more than 170 innings in Strasburg's situation and an arm injury. You don't get that many chances at a World Series, and Rizzo's move might jeopardize Washington's chances of winning it all.

But the biggest problem is that Rizzo's approach is new. And people don't like new.

Tony La Russa decided several years ago in Oakland to use his closer for one inning at a time when his team was ahead. Before that, pitchers came in for two or three innings when necessary. Dennis Eckersley filled that role nicely, the Athletics won a lot of games -- or more to the point, didn't lose many with leads in the ninth, and everyone copied La Russa because success breeds imitators.

Some years later, the Red Sox didn't have an obvious closer, so they tried to mix and match pitchers with batters -- closing by committee. Boston got roasted. The problem was that they didn't have anyone good in the bullpen, so it didn't work. But it might have been more of the fault of the personnel than the idea.

We'll never know if Rizzo's approach was best. Strasburg's arm could fall off, rhetorically speaking, next season no matter what happened this year. It's the nature of the beast. But he's willing to put his reputation on the line to possibly trade the present for a brighter future.

It's easy to root for a guy like that. Let's hope he winds up like Fosbury and not the guy in the landing pit, shoulders first.

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