Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals pitches against the Florida Marlins at Nationals Park in Washington DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Once upon a time there was a highly touted right-handed pitcher. A phenom. Drafted in the first round, he made the major leagues at a relatively young age and immediately began to wow observers with strikeouts.
But it wasn't too long before this pitcher succumbed to one of the ravages of the modern age, Tommy John surgery.
How does this story end? You're probably thinking, "We don't know yet", because you think I'm talking about the Washington Nationals' Stephen Strasburg, scheduled to return from Tommy John surgery in a start against the Los Angeles Dodgers Tuesday nightl.
I could be -- because those facts fit Strasburg's career to date -- but I'm actually describing the first couple of years of Kerry Wood's career. Wood, the No. 1 pick of the Chicago Cubs in the 1995 draft out of high school, raced through the Cubs' system and wowed scouts and fans in spring training 1998 with consistent 98 MPH speed. Then-Angels manager Terry Collins was asked toward the end of that spring, after Wood was among the last cuts from the Cubs' roster, who he thought would win the World Series. He answered, "The Cubs." Asked why, he replied: "If the Cubs have five pitchers better than Kerry Wood, they must be the best team in baseball."
Wood didn't stay in the minor leagues long in 1998; he was recalled after just one Triple-A start (in which he had struck out 11 in five innings), and five starts later, on May 6, 1998, he struck out 20 Astros, walking none and allowing just one infield hit in what is arguably the most dominant pitching performance in major league history.
Wood went on to win Rookie of the Year and help lead the Cubs to the wild card in 1998. But the next spring in Arizona, he heard a "pop" in his right elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery, missing the entire 1999 season.
And that's where we stand now with Stephen Strasburg. He last pitched in the major leagues just over a year ago, before undergoing the Tommy John knife. Thirteen years after Wood's successful surgery, the procedure has been refined to the point that not only is the recovery period somewhat shorter, but many pitchers who have had the procedure come back throwing better than before. Strasburg has pitched well in six rehab starts, striking out 29 and walking only three in 20-1/3 innings.
Kerry Wood, meanwhile, returned in 2000 and pitched four very good years for the Cubsthe postseason in 2003 -- and then he started getting hurt again. This time, it was shoulder woes; those very nearly made him retire in 2007. He reinvented himself as a relief pitcher. He's never quite been the pitcher he was forecast to be as a young man, but he has had a productive major league career.
Is this where Strasburg is headed? It depends. The recent history of baseball is filled with pitchers as highly touted as Strasburg or Wood who never made it, or flamed out quickly due to various injuries: Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, another Rookie of the Year who got hurt midway through his second season; Don Gullett, who pitched in two World Series by age 21, but who was done at 27 due to arm woes; Gary Nolan, also a star at 19 and twice in the top six of Cy Young voting before age 24, forced to retire before he was 30, his shoulder nearly shredded.
And then there's the sad case of Dick Drott, the Kerry Wood of his era. Winner of 15 games at age 20 and third in Rookie of the Year voting for a woefully bad 1957 Cubs team that won just 62 times, he set the Cubs' team record of 15 strikeouts in a game in his ninth big-league start on May 26, 1957 against a powerful Braves team. That record stood for 41 years until Wood broke it. In his second season, Drott's ERA jumped by nearly two runs; he finished his career with 27 major-league wins.
So will this be Strasburg's fate? Doomed to multiple injuries and just the promise of what might have been? Of course, it's way too early to tell. Perhaps he'll be the Nolan Ryan of his generation, a pitcher who will be able to throw 95 MPH fastballs into his 40s. Or perhaps he'll be the Tommy John of the 2010s, pitching effectively for many years after surgery.
We'll find out beginning Tuesday night in Washington. Weather permitting, that is.