There are no guarantees.
Stephen Strasburg wasn't even through his first big-league start back on June 8 when, already, people were putting him in the All-Star Game, Cy Young conversations and the Hall of Fame.
The kid signed for $15.1 million before he even threw his first professional pitch.
His agent, Scott Boras, told me in June that the job Strasburg's college coach, Tony Gwynn, did, was "remarkable." Said, "Tony was extraordinary. The interest of the player came first throughout."
When Strasburg was scratched from a start a few weeks ago because his shoulder felt tight and he couldn't get it loose, Gwynn told me that the ace had had no arm problems during his three years at San Diego State. None, zero, nada.
By all accounts, Strasburg has been exceptionally healthy, carefully developed and well-bred. No warning signs. No red lights. Not even any blinking yellow cautions.
And now, on an August weekend in the nation's capital, pffft.
Overnight, Strasburg goes from immortality to just another grim statistic.
There are no guarantees. We knew that already, from Mark Prior to Kerry Wood to, hell, Mark Fidrych when he broke down in 1977. Phenom one day, injury rehab the next.
We just hoped Strasburg wasn't here to remind us of that.
We just hoped, somehow, Strasburg would be different.
Pitchers essentially cross open fields dodging heavy sniper fire every day of their careers, especially the hard throwers. We've heard it all before: Pitching is an unnatural motion, pitchers with violent deliveries are operating in the danger zone, the lit fuse on the dynamite gets shorter and shorter each day.
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What's important to remember as another one heads toward the surgeon's knife is that Friday's depressing news does not mean Strasburg's career is finished, or anything close. Just look at the long list of Tommy John survivors thriving today: The Cardinals' Chris Carpenter underwent the surgery in July 2007, then finished second in Cy Young balloting in 2009. The Braves' Tim Hudson went through it, said this spring he felt so great he felt eight years younger, and he has pitched that way all summer.
Florida's Josh Johnson, Royals closer Joakim Soria, Braves closer Billy Wagner, Giants closer Brian Wilson and the Yankees' A.J. Burnett also have made it through to the other side and dominated.
Some pitchers come back even stronger following Tommy John surgery, which, in Strasburg's case, is a scary thought.
The silver lining in this, if it had to happen, is that modern medicine does much better with elbows than shoulders. While there are no guarantees in anything, doctors have come pretty close to perfecting the Tommy John procedure. Pitchers emerge, usually, in better shape than they do from shoulder surgeries. It was the shoulder that ended Prior's career far too early (maybe, he has returned to the field now still trying to come back).
Wood, who matched a record by striking out 20 Houston Astros in just his fifth big-league start in '98, missed all of '99 when he, like Strasburg, suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Wood returned late in the 2000 season, then pitched 174 1/3 innings in '01, 213 2/3 in '02 (12-11 with a 3.66 ERA) and 211 in '03 (14-11, 3.20).
His career went south again in '04 (tightness in his right triceps), but it was the shoulder that got him in '05 and, eventually, would cause him to give up starting and become a closer.
The Nationals are confident that Strasburg's shoulder is sound. The torn ulnar collateral ligament that was discovered in his elbow, doctors believe, occurred during one pitch, not as a wear-and-tear injury over time.
One pitch. It's both comforting and scary. The theory that it wasn't wear-and-tear should give hope to the Nationals and to their fans -- heck, to baseball fans -- that Strasburg will be good as new one day, even if that day right now probably won't be until 2012. Scary, though, because it's also a stark reminder that pitchers, no matter if it's a first-overall pick or just your average chucker, live on the high wire, each pitch being the one that could end a career.
The fierce debate over whether Strasburg should have been included on the All-Star team this July seems almost laughable now. How about giving a 22-year-old kid a chance to breathe before we completely smother him?
Remarkable thing about all of this hype is that, for a very short time, Strasburg not only lived up to it, he surpassed it. He left us running for the record books, rearranging our schedules so we could be by the television when he pitched, slack-jawed in suspense.
What maybe we didn't realize quickly enough was that among the tools in Strasburg's possession -- aside from the 100 mph heater and neck-snapping curve -- was the gift he gave to all of us with each start. Rare is the player who can deliver the wonder of baseball the way he did.
Now, the Nationals and the rest of us can only hope that gift didn't expire after just 12 starts in the majors.