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Tiger Woods Gives Up Don’t-Miss TV to Strasburg: Scott Soshnick

You have to laugh at the numbskulls around Major League Baseball who are cold to the idea of Stephen Strasburg occupying a spot on the All-Star team.

I’ll take it a step beyond that. Not only should the Washington Nationals newbie play in the July 13 game but, based on what he’s already done for the team and sport, he should start.

It isn’t very often in professional sports, especially in an ESPN world, when an athlete exceeds the hysteria. Strasburg has managed to do it. Baseball has more than just lightning in a bottle with this kid. This isn’t ephemeral excitement. It’s every five days. What will Strasburg do tonight? He’s what Tiger Woods used to be -- must-see sports TV.

Here we have the Loch Ness Monster meets Sidd Finch, George Plimpton’s fictitious phenom blessed with a laser-beam fastball. Only this time, as they say in sports, the deal is real.

And yet, the tired traditionalists are blathering on about the rook with the flamethrower of a right arm not having put in enough time. Not yet. They talk about paying dues when, especially with stadiums rife with empty seats and debt obligations, they should be focusing on how he pays dividends.

It’s as if folks like Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire and ESPN broadcaster and hall-of-famer Joe Morgan have forgotten what the All-Star game, a midseason showcase, is all about. It’s about giving the paying customers what they want, giving the sponsors a reason to keep on investing in the game, in your game.

It’s Business

It isn’t, contrary to clubhouse belief, about fairness and rewarding those who’ve played well.

The refresher course on baseball economics ought to come from someone like, say, the commissioner, who might consider sending a note to everyone making a handsome living off of the game, reminding them that professional sports is nothing more than entertainment.

Baseball competes not only with the other sports for whatever disposable income is out there -- if there’s any left - - but movies and concerts and theme parks, too. Salaries are determined by eyeballs, both in the seats and on television. Networks and companies pay for an association with baseball because it’s a vehicle to a mass audience.

And, right now, there’s no bigger draw in U.S. professional sports than Strasburg, a 21-year-old pitcher who with only four big-league starts is drawing comparisons to Roger Clemens and Dwight Gooden.

Strasburg is baseball’s version of LeBron James, the kind of player even fans of the opposing team gladly will pay to see.

Baseball Treat

Already fans have created a mythical holiday for Strasburg’s starts: Merry Strasmas, they say.

Watching him is a treat.

Let’s look at the numbers because, well, baseball is a numbers game.

Strasburg possesses a 100-mph fastball. His earned-run- average is 1.78. He’s tossed 25.1 innings, striking out 41 batters while walking just five.

Strasburg throws more than just speedballs, as Bruce Springsteen would say. He’s got a knee-buckling curveball and a change-up that teammate Matt Capps compared to a Nintendo pitch. These days, it seems the highest praise that can be awarded is to confer video-game status upon an athlete, much like Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger did with soccer player Lionel Messi.

Strasburg’s off-field accomplishments just might be more impressive than what he’s done on the pitcher’s mound. Although he plays for the Nationals, a last-place team, he commanded the Sports Illustrated cover. He’s appeared on David Letterman and, here’s the money angle again, he’s driven ticket sales at home and on the road while prompting television networks to dump teams like the Red Sox to show his starts.

Dues Paying

But his All-Star critics would have you believe the kid has to prove himself.

At least Charlie Manuel of the Phillies, the National League manager, has an open mind. Says he’s been keeping up with Strasburg, whose name, he surmises, is sure to come up when it’s time to pick pitchers.

Strasburg so far has thrown against the Pirates, Indians, Royals and White Sox, which is the only club of the four with a winning record. Tonight he faces the Atlanta Braves, who entered the weekend having scored the most runs in the National League.

“A guy with the stuff he has, and the way he handles himself out there, is not going to be hit by a high average team or a high home run team,” Nationals teammate Ryan Zimmerman said. “There’s no team that’s going to be able to handle him. It’s not going to matter.”

Strasburg likely will have made six big-league starts by July 4, when baseball announces its All-Star rosters. Of the 13 pitchers on each team, eight are selected by the players. The managers choose the rest.

“It’ll be a very interesting call,” Nationals manager Jim Riggleman told the Washington Post. “I don’t know what the right answer is.”

Let’s just hope that Manuel does.

(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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