Matt Spiegel is a sports talk show host, writer, and singer.
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The Rise and Fall of the Young Pitcher
“I’ve thought about this a lot. And I think there is just something incredibly compelling for us about seeing boys dominate grown men.”
This is what Ron Darling, the longtime New York Mets announcer and former excellent pitcher, said to me years ago on Sporting News Radio, when I asked him about a mercurial rookie pitcher named Johnny Cueto.
Every time I consider the baseball fandom’s fascination with the youthful, imposing starting pitcher phenom, I remember this quote.
See, baseball is hard. The most difficult task in all of sports is hitting a round ball flying erratically at 95 miles per hour with a cylindrical bat. There’s a reaction and adjustment time of less than half a second. You can quibble about jobs in other sports—a goalie making a save on a re-directed slapshot while being obstructed by an NHL defenseman ain’t exactly a walk in the park—but hitting’s challenge is undeniable.
So when a lineup full of veteran hitters who have worked their entire lives to master this craft is held in check by a 20-year-old, we marvel.
But that generational dynamic is only part of the allure. The real hook is that with each heralded, impressive, precocious new pitcher that arrives on the scene, there exists the possibility that we may be witnessing the emergence of true greatness. This new kid may just be the best there ever was. He could be Nolan Ryan without the awkward Mets’ bullpen years he needed to develop. Or Randy Johnson without the quest for control that saw him lead the league in walks for three seasons, diminishing his dominance. Or Sandy Koufax, without the six years of Dodgers mediocrity that preceded his unhittable prime.
As an intern working on This Week In Baseball, I once heard broadcaster Mel Allen tell a packed editing room about Giants pitcher Juan Marichal. Mel had a dreamy look in his eye as he detailed a 1960 game in which the 22-year-old Dominican in 1960, flaunted a straight leg kick that made his delivery look unlike anything anyone had ever seen, and how he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the Phillies and struck out 12. Marichal threw complete game wins in his next two starts and ended up in the Hall of Fame, which certainly made Mel’s story more prescient. But I bet that dreamy look on his face would probably have remained, even if Marichal had flamed out.
Chicago Cubs fans lived through a complicated and thrilling succession of phenoms over a six-year period that showcased the full range of possibilities and the inherent danger of emotional investment. In 1998, 20-year-old Kerry Wood—already christened with the alliterative nickname of Kid K—was viewed as the heir to Ryan, another Texas-bred fireballer who would dominate the league for almost two decades.
I was all-in. (I can claim genuine attention from pitch 1 to pitch 122 of his legendary 20 strikeout game against Houston.) I’d been in a conversation at work for weeks before, passionately telling both hardware store co-workers and sports radio interns that this kid could be the next Roger Clemens. That June day, Wood had the best slider most of us have ever seen. Sure, he threw across his body in a violent motion that Cubs color man Steve Stone warned might shorten his career, but he also might be special and unbreakable like Ryan had proven to be.
Wood needed Tommy John surgery in 1999 and missed the full season. He did recover, and provided tantalizing flashes of brilliance for a few years, settling in with his best full season in 2003. Wood went 14-11, struck out 266, and threw his fastball consistently harder than any pitcher in the majors.
By then, he had company on the Cubs roster.
Mark Prior looked like the prototypical sure thing. The mound phenom was the number pick in the 2001 draft, an imposing stud who ruled the PAC-10 at USC. Scouts, influenced by the trusted pitching coach and iconoclast Tom House, raved about his “perfect mechanics.” Prior made his first big league start in May of 2002 at age 21, striking out 10 Pittsburgh Pirates in six innings. In 2003, Prior went 18-6, finished third in the Cy Young voting, and should have pitched in the World Series.
Another starter that fabled Cubs season was Carlos Zambrano, who himself had debuted at 21 in 2001. Big Z’s path was more circuitous than Wood’s or Prior’s: He was a 16-year-old Venezuelan free agent who worked his way through the farm system, and had wildly inconsistent results both as a reliever and starter during his first two big league seasons. In 2003, he found it. Zambrano started 32 games, finished with an ERA of 3.22, and along with Wood, Prior, and Matt Clement, made long-suffering Cubs loyalists feel like the next great MLB rotation lived at Wrigley. An aging Greg Maddux would return to Chicago in 2004 via trade, making the comparisons to his Atlanta Braves rotations that featured Tom Glavine and John Smoltz inevitable.
But these were the Cubs. Their collapse against the Florida Marlins in the National League Championship Series was a harbinger of things to come for these young arms.
Prior’s usage in 2003 is something former Cubs skipper Dusty Baker will never live down. He threw more than 120 pitches in a game on ten occasions, and more than 130 pitches four times. Beginning in September, through his complete game against the Braves in the NLDS, Prior’s pitch counts were 131, 129, 109, 124, 131, 133, 133. I’ll never forget seeing him on the Wrigley mound to start the sixth and seventh innings of NLCS game 2, with an 11-0 lead, all the time thinking, With so much series to go, why, Dusty, why are you leaving this kid in the game? Admittedly, the bullpen, led by Joe Borowski, wasn’t optimal, but an 11-run lead? Come on.
With all the strain Baker put on Prior’s poor body, it’s little wonder that his trajectory smacked against a hospital wall, with an injury to his Achilles, a fractured elbow, a “loose shoulder” problem followed by a “stiff shoulder” problem, and an eventual trade into obscurity with San Diego.
As for Kid K, he needed surgeries on his triceps, his knee, and eventually his rotator cuff. He would be converted to closer, be beaten out for that job, and then allowed to leave Chicago via free agency.
Zambrano, the most volatile of the bunch, would be the one who aged the best. He won at least 13 games every year between ’03 and ’08, the only pitcher in the National League to do so. His career is one of the best for a Cubs pitcher over the last 50 years or so. But for many, he is remembered for the anger and control issues that often got the best of him.
The Chicago pitching collapse of the early-aughts demonstrates that either via injury or immaturity, phenoms can break your heart. But the capacity for delusion in an optimistic fan is vast.
Baseball isn’t the only venue for this kind of willful, somewhat fantastical belief in the young.
The musical world seizes on potential with ravenous jaws, yielding mixed results.
Mozart debuted as a pianist and composer to the public at age four. Chopin and Liszt both did so at nine. Murderous Salieri aside, their public adored them, and their fanaticism made them famous beyond the quality of their initial talent.
Little Stevie Wonder was 12 when Motown turned him loose on the world with “Fingertips.” Billy Preston appeared on Nat King Cole’s television show singing “Blueberry Hill” at 11. These two went on to fabulous careers, outdistancing expectations.
Guitar prodigy arrivals seemed to hit the radio yearly in the 1990’s. Kenny Wayne Shepherd followed Derek Trucks, who followed Jonny Lang…with blues old-heads everywhere saying “this kid is the truth!” Trucks continues a formidable musical life, but the other two faded, a two-out-of-three dynamic that paralleled the Wood/Prior/Zambrano arc.
Then there is the vapid machinery of Mickey Mouse Club and Disney et al, feeding culture with Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber, and so many more. It’s hard to tell the talent from the merely well-packaged. But the excitement from corners of the public is dependable.
The vital difference in sports is that the playing field is literally tangible, and quality will rise or fall to its deserved level. When Freddy Adu signed with professional soccer club D.C. United at age 14, we knew we’d find out if he truly belonged. When Kobe Bryant hit the NBA straight out of Merion Catholic High School in Philadelphia, we were assured an instant measuring stick.
And when Johnny Cueto went 9-14 as a 22-year-old Cincinnati Red in 2008, the league had told him he wasn’t as good as I thought. But still, I hunt for this year’s model, and traffic in my own hope.
I still compare my experience with every phenom to watching Mets hurler Dwight Gooden in 1984.
I was 14. He was a mere five years older. The fastballer skipped both Double-A and Triple-A ball, with his legend preceding him in my suburban New Jersey newspapers. Then he arrived in New York, better than advertised.
Gooden had a 98 MPH heater, with a classic over the top delivery. He mixed in a curveball so beautiful, so regal, that instead of the traditional “Uncle Charlie,” Ralph Kiner of the Mets broadcast team christened it “Lord Charles.” A nickname of Dr. K—or “Doc”—and a shy, unassuming smile added to the allure.
Mets fans brought giant letters to “The K Korner” to count his strikeouts. Mets games were one of three options in my house (Yanks and Phillies being the others), and he was more fun than any Bronx Bomber of Philadelphian. I remember when Doc was the youngest player ever to appear in the All-Star Game, and he struck out the side. I internalized some numbers (numbers were my obsession at the time), marveling as his ERA never rose above 2.00, and he threatened Bob Gibson’s preposterous record of 1.12 from 1968.
What I remember most is his September. The Mets were fighting for a playoff spot they hadn’t earned since 1973, and everybody in my house was locked in. Doc dropped two straight complete game shutouts down the stretch, the second being was the first of two starts in which he struck out 16 without issuing a walk. He broke the rookie strikeout record, which had been held by Herb Score for 30 years.
I thought, This kid is for real, and believed I was in on the ground floor of the best there ever was.
That was it, the feeling I still subconsciously chase when I embrace the possibility of a phenom going the distance.
Even as a theoretically impartial adult in the sports media business, I embraced the feeling with vigor when Stephen Strasburg hit the bigs in 2010. I’ll never forget the airport drinks at O’Hare, hoping my flight got even more delayed so we could watch Strasburg dominate the Pirates. I’d argued passionately on the radio that despite a delivery featuring the foreboding “inverted W,” Strasburg really did have lasting power dissimilar to the man he was compared to the most at that time: Mark Prior.
I bought in with everything I had to Jose Fernandez in 2013, when he got promoted at age 20, five years after defecting from Cuba. The story of his small group on a boat having to duck gunfire from Cuban authorities as he sailed towards his pitching dreams made a mark. I wasn’t going to miss his Miami Marlins debut, so I logged into MLB.TV on a Sunday in April to see him strike out 8 in a five masterful innings. Tragically, he was killed in a boating accident three years later.
Gooden’s endgame was tragic in its own way. The 1984 season represented his peak, as he became a victim of his own success—it was too much too soon, and his life quickly careened out of control. We later learned that he watched his teammates in the 1986 World Series victory parade on television after an all-night cocaine bender. He would flame out, and never reach the long-lasting greatness for which he seemed so destined. It was and is heartbreaking.
But oh, that 1984 season. It felt magical, full of endless potential—life and baseball move forward, intertwined, both filled with intrigue while that potential remains tantalizingly out of reach.
Nonetheless, regardless of the potential for heartbreak, I’ll be the guy at spring training every year scanning the scouting reports, looking for the pitching phenom that makes me feel those possibilities once again.