The Politics of LeBron, Strasburg, and Spahn

David Stokes
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Posted: Jul 11, 2010 12:01 PM
The Politics of LeBron, Strasburg, and Spahn

With the imminent arrival of Major League Baseball’s perennial All-Star game, it just seems appropriate to pull out the old reliable analogy-stretching tool and apply it to a couple of items in the news. Let’s find the real—political—theme behind the headlines.

I’ll get to baseball in a bit—with my take on the politics of Stephen Strasburg—but first, the big story in the past day or so. It’s been the focus of frenzied media attention. Only a heavy-weight news story—like the one about that oft-quoted Lindsay Lohan—could distract any measure of attention from it: just where would LeBron James choose to play?

I have had many sleepless nights over that one. Forget about the gulf oil spill, or President Obama’s recess appointment of Dr. Donald Berwick to run Medicare (this is where many readers say, “who?” and/or “what?”), celebrity once again trumps gravitas, if not reality.

For those of you who have had a recent Rip Van Winkle moment, LeBron (he has surely now achieved one-name-only-needed status) is persona non grata in Cleveland at the moment—likely being put on their do-not-fly-here list. Former fans have burned number 23 jerseys and the owner of that city’s Cavaliers, for whom LeBron has played for the past seven years, has called LeBron’s big fat dis a “cowardly betrayal.”

LeBron has traded home for Heat—Miami Heat, that is. The official narrative is that it’s all about the opportunity to “be alongside greatness.” But there were other teams in the running for LeBron’s largesse that could have filled that bill. I actually think there is something else at play—politics—with a little help from that aforementioned analogy-stretcher.

It’s really all about taxes.

You see, LeBron—and all others making mega-money where he has been working must fork over nearly six per cent of it to the Buckeye state—no small piece of change. And the other major team/city in the running for the superstar has been New York, where the state income tax is ever higher. Plus there is also an emerging city income tax in the five burdened boroughs of the Big Apple.

Miami, for anyone who went to the Lauren Caitlin Upton School of Geography (she was Miss South Carolina Teen USA in 2007), is located in the State of Florida. The significance? Well, there is no state income tax in Florida—none—nada.

So there you have it, the real story, behind the story—here’s the headline: “LeBron’s Own Personal Tax Revolt.” Please note my tongue on the inside wall of my cheek.

Now, back to the real sport—baseball. So I turned the TV on recently to finally get a chance to watch the young pitching phenom, Stephen Strasburg. The guy throws so hard his “change up” pitch is still around 90 miles an hour. You can almost hear hitters arguing with umpires, “Hey, that last one sounded high!”

He may have a stellar career ahead of him, but it will take awhile to know for sure—you see, they’re carefully managing the actual innings he works and number of pitches he throws. The

Washington Nationals have him on a schedule to pitch a combined 160 innings this year (includes minor league work before being called up), and they’re trying to keep his pitch count under 100 per game.

It’s all so very scientific.

Maybe it’s the whole being in the nation’s capital in an era where more and more of everything is carefully monitored and controlled, but I find myself longing for the laissez faire days of America’s favorite past time. I also find myself sounding like my dad, or his, “Back when I was a kid, son—baseball was war!”

Now, I am not saying that Strasburg is a wimp—nope, he’s a fierce competitor. I just wonder what management is thinking when they sell out a game only to have half the crowd leave after the pitcher fulfills his pitch quota for the day. Money that would be spent on wildly overpriced beer and hot dogs around the seventh inning stretch, exits to buy expensive dinners and automobiles.

It’s been 20 years since George Will wrote his book, Men At Work—The Craft Of Baseball (an anniversary edition was released in April of this year), but the spirit of what he ironically had to say lives on. I say ironically because the game he described two decades ago has now been chiseled into cultural stone. The great pastime is starting to resemble the “nanny state” where things (and people) are carefully managed along the lines of a collectivist vision.

Here’s one for Glenn Beck: Have socialists carefully and craftily infiltrated that most American of all sports? And were any of the recent rounded-up Russian spies tracking box scores? Well, when I saw Strasburg pulled out of that game against the Mets by some invisible force, I began to wonder: was George Will onto something?

Wait! Is George Will one of them? (insert tongue in other cheek, here.)

In July of 1963, Juan Marichal for the San Fransico Giants, faced Warren Spahn for the Milwaukee Braves. The game was scoreless into the 16th inning—and both starters were still on the mound. In those days, there were no “middle relievers” or “closers”—only starters and wannabes. The bullpen was the “timeout” place for pitchers who weren’t good enough to start games.

Alvin Dark, skipper of the Giants in those days, tried to talk Marichal into leaving the game in the 13th (in those days pitchers had more say, I guess). The flame-thrower from the Dominican Republic was 25 years old. Pitching for the Braves that day was a guy named Warren Spahn—a left-handed legend. Noting that Spahn was 42 years old, Marichal was determined

not to leave before the old man.

Not only was Warren Spahn a legend—he was a hero, too.

Like many ballplayers of his generation, Spahn missed three seasons due to World War II (he still won 363 games over his career). He chose to enlist in the army. He was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. When asked, years later, about how nervous he was before an important game, he issued a curt reply: “Nervous? I was at Remagen.” He had been part of the 1159th Engineer Combat Group’s 276th Engineer Combat Battalion. He credited his experiences in the war as giving him self-confidence.

Indeed.

On that day 47 years ago, Spahn on his 276th pitch in the top of the 16th, served up a screwball that didn’t break. He had added that particular breaking pitch to his repertoire late in his career to make up for a faded, but still formidable, fastball. Willie Mays swung at the flag screwball and won the game with a walk-off homerun.

But went on to win 23 games that year anyway.

If Warren Spahn were alive today, and one of the luminaries gracing the field this Tuesday in Anaheim during All-Star pre-game festivities, he’d probably repeat something to someone holding a microphone—something he said long ago:

“A sore arm is like a headache or a toothache. It can make you feel bad, but if you just forget about it and do what you have to do, it will go away. If you really like to pitch and you want to pitch, that’s what you’ll do.”

Good advice for baseball, politics, and—life!