The Strasburg Rules that the Washington Nationals keep conjuring up to ensure that their hard-throwing pitching phenom, Stephen Strasburg, has the optimum chance to become the next Justin Verlander, not another hard-luck story like Mark Prior or Mark Fidrych, deserve some lampooning. And not just for the nefarious reasons that Rob Dibble, the former big league pitcher turned budding conspiracy theorist, speculated about a few days ago on his Sirius XM radio show when he accused the Nats of rushing Strasburg back to the big leagues because "they want to put butts in the seats" now and goose season-ticket sales for 2012.
The zigzagging logic behind some of the Strasburg Rules is just hard to understand. The Nationals have their emphasis backward. They whiff on some big things and sweat the small stuff.
Washington is hovering at 20 games out of first place in the National League East, but management is not ruling out the very big step of allowing Strasburg to make a few major league starts in September. Remember, he isn't even one year removed from Tommy John surgery Sept. 3 to replace a ligament in his pitching elbow.
Yet the Nats are micromanaging details that pale in importance, like firing off a compulsively controlling media advisory before Strasburg's first minor league rehab start on Sunday. It read as though it had been drafted by someone in an Agoraphobia Anonymous 12-step program and demanded a synchronizing of watches. (For a good laugh, you can read it here.
The entire 407-word decree didn't quite get to the point of declaring no ballpark franks for anyone who dared look Strasburg in the eye or touch the gilded hem of his garment. But you get the idea. One of the commands was: "No photography or videography on the field is permitted during the course of the game."
(No cameras? Is Strasburg Amish?)
Nobody cares about reporters' access problems except reporters, of course, so this isn't a sympathy grab. The club obviously needed some kind of plan for handling the 65 credentialed media members who were planning to descend on its Hagerstown (Md.) Class A affiliate and old Memorial Stadium. That's about double the media mob that showed up earlier this year for the debut of 18-year-old Bryce Harper, the showboating, power-hitting outfielder who's been nearly as hyped as Strasburg. Unlike Strasburg, Harper seems willing to swan dive into a Grand Canyon-sized vat of attention and do the backstroke if just told where to show up.
But the Nats' reprise of the strict ground rules they instituted during Strasburg's rookie season is a revealing window into the team's angst about All Things Strasburg. So was the fact that Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner hauled his bones to Hagerstown -- which, lovely as it is, has never been confused with taking the waters in Vichy, France -- just to see The Franchise's return firsthand for the mere two innings Strasburg was scheduled to pitch.
Strasburg was upbeat afterward, saying, "I'm right where I want to be."
But you get the feeling the Nationals would still swaddle Strasburg in bubble wrap off the field if they could. It's getting increasingly fair to ask who the overbearing parties are: outsiders or team management? Who is really guilty of not letting the kid breathe?
The Nats treat the 23-year-old Strasburg as though his mental state and feelings bruise like an overripe peach.
They've apparently concluded that he is an incalculably valuable asset who will go on to do great things, all right, if only he can be protected from the howling mobs of fans and prying questions. (The gist of inquiries lobbed at him in Hagerstown included: How do you feel? and What do you think about failing to outdraw the San Diego Chicken's sold-out visit here in 1993?)
But you know what the most curious thing is? Folks who worked with the late-blooming Strasburg back at San Diego State insist he never asked for any special dispensation there. Not even after word tore around like wildfire that he struck out 23 batters in a college game his junior year, and experts and scouts were soon cramming the bleachers and calling him the best pitching prospect ever, and the media requests snowballed until the crush became too much for the school's staff to handle.
Someone who was at San Diego State at the time says, "Anything we asked Stephen, he never said, 'It's too much, I'm too busy.' He was very accommodating -- in fact, that might be the problem. He might be too accommodating. He's a great kid. He'll talk. He's a good interview. I know it's not him saying, 'Keep these people away from me' -- that that type of thing. The Nationals are probably just trying to be protective of him, because of the sheer volume."
So, fine. Let's say the Nationals are willing to be the heavy and spare the kid the angst of saying no.
Let's say the different portrait that has been painted of Strasburg since he arrived in Washington -- "his public face is often one of exasperation and annoyance" is how The Washington Post has put it -- is who he is now.
The Nats' approach is still a strange way to go about the care, feeding and development of baseball's next great hurler, especially because Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, his coach at San Diego State, has said Strasburg was so confident and hotly competitive in college that he sometimes had this crazy, wholly unseconded notion that he shouldn't give up any hits or runs. Ever.
The night Strasburg made his big league debut last season, then-teammate Adam Dunn sized the kid up and said, "Are you as good as they say you are?"
Strasburg answered back, "I think so."
In the past, the Nationals have been admirably conscientious about putting innings and pitch-count limits on Strasburg, which is smart. So why run their franchise pitcher out now in meaningless big league games in September and let him and his repaired elbow rip against the Ryan Howards and Albert Pujolses of the world? Why not let him finish his rehab in the minor leagues pitching to hitters against whom he has nothing to prove and even less to fear?
Other pitchers who have had Tommy John surgery are split on what's best. On Tuesday, Yankees pitcher A.J. Burnett, who had the procedure in 2003, said, "People are saying [wait] because Washington's obviously not in the hunt. But if the kid's feeling good and he's showing no signs of letting down, then why not? He's been down long enough. He's going to be the kind of pitcher that's going to pitch the same in minor leagues as he would in the major leagues. Balls to the wall, hard as he can. Why not have it in the major leagues instead of the minors?"
But Tommy John himself has told the Washington Examiner he'd be cautious, saying: "What difference does it make if Stephen Strasburg is out 10 months or 15 months?"
Most pitchers or managers will tell you that sometimes it's not how many innings a pitcher throws, it's how hard he has to work during those innings. The generally accepted window for returning from Tommy John surgery is 12 to 18 months. Strasburg is on the short side of that; as of Sunday, it had been 11 months and four days for him.
Worse, the kid already has shown a hint of self-consciousness about coming up lame in the first place after getting his record $15 million bonus-baby contract. He's spoken several times during his long rehab about how, "I want to be a horse in the rotation someday. I want to be able to throw 240 innings in a season and be that guy that, you need me to go out in the eighth, ninth inning, you need me to pitch on three days' rest, I'm that guy."
Washington can try to make Strasburg a boy in the bubble. But Strasburg and the Nationals will have to find a way to deal with the spotlight and expectations at some point. Because as long as 100 mph fastballs come hissing out of his hand -- batters say they can literally hear the ball blazing toward them -- and as long as even his so-called changeup hurries up to the plate at 91 mph ("That's as fast as my best fastball right there,'" fellow Washington rookie Drew Storen said, laughing, when Strasburg made his electric big league debut last year and struck out 14 Pittsburgh batters in seven innings), the attention on Strasburg will remain white-hot and unrelenting.
The most amazing part of Strasburg's first comeback start Sunday was that despite all his rust, he threw 25 of his 31 pitches for strikes in his 1 2/3 innings. He is the rare young flamethrower who knows how to pitch and can locate the ball with surgical precision.
Everyone will be checking on his second start Friday for Class A Potomac to see whether he can do it again.
It's a quaint little notion, this hope of maintaining a lovely little cocoon of peace and quiet into which Strasburg can retreat at the ballpark. It might even work -- if this were 1909 and Strasburg were playing for, say, the Wabash Riveters.
But this is 21st century big league baseball, and Strasburg's talent is beyond big-time. He really could be an all-time great. If the Nats want to do something kind for the kid, they should let him finish this season in the minors. And when he reports to spring training next season, they should ditch the Strasburg Rules. Treat him like the other guys. Let him be a grown-up. He can decide whether he wants to stand by his locker and talk like everyone else in the game or say, "Sorry, guys. Not today."
Other than a prizefight ring, a big league pitching mound is the loneliest piece of real estate in American sports. The Nats can't wish away or micromanage that.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at email@example.com.