In life, everything will be okay until it’s not. That’s the small time-pressure that lives within the big one, mortality. You know each aspect of your life will eventually cross some inflection point from rising to falling but you don’t know where it is or even if it’s in front of you. It might very well be behind you—you passed it when you were thinking of something else. Maybe you were too young to know any better. Maybe your parents threw you across the line. There are so many ways for our tops to wind down that even those of us not inclined towards self-destruction will get there by other routes. It’s an inevitability.
I’ve crossed and recrossed that line a number of times now, being chronically unsmart, but the day I know I truly achieved the point of hopelessness was in 2003 when doctors sewed a radioactive plaque to my right eye, destroying its optic nerve. It wasn’t having a second chance at life that undid me, but not knowing what to do with it.
On Wednesday, Barry Svrulga of the Washington Post wrote a story asking, “Can Stephen Strasburg rediscover his dominant 2019 form?” Due to carpal tunnel syndrome and thoracic outlet syndrome, Strasburg has made only seven appearances totaling 26.2 innings since 2019. The Nationals great is going on 34 years old (his birthday is July 20) and may well have had one syndrome too many given that TOS has often been the slayer of pitching careers from J.R. Richard (who it almost ended in every sense) to Chris Carpenter. The great exception is Chris Young (now Texas Rangers general manager), who returned from 2013 TOS surgery to pitch well—though not durably—for the Mariners and Royals in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Strasburg is presently building up his arm strength and will be back when he’s back.
If the last of the great Strasburg seasons came in 2019, when he went 18-6 with a 3.32, led the National League in innings pitched, and struck out 251 batters in a season worth 5.6 WARP (the best, by a sliver, of his career), encoring with a 5-0 postseason and a World Series MVP award, it won’t quite make him the equivalent of some fellow 34-year-old who peaked half his life earlier when he kissed the prom queen. But what they’ll have in common is not knowing the scythe had fallen when it happened.
The preceding was inspired by the late Dodgers great-for-a-moment Tommy Davis, who passed away on April 3. In 1962 Davis, then 23, had an offensive season remarkable for its hitting excellence and consistency. The Dodgers’ cleanup hitter for much of the season, the left fielder and occasional third baseman hit .346/.374/.535 in 163 games, leading the National League in batting average. His 230 hits and 153 runs batted in led the league as well. Davis’ 27 home runs were unremarkable (Willie Mays led the league with 49; Davis ranked 12th) but that actually helps put the spotlight where it belongs: Davis saw 510 baserunners, a high total for the NL that year but not an especially high total overall. Davis was not a hitter who liked to walk, but in this case his eagerness to swing worked in his team’s favor—he averaged .376 with men on and plated 25% of those runners, which is a top-20 figure all time and one of the highest figures by a player working outside of the rabbit-ball 1920s and 30s. Put another way, only 23 players since 1900 have driven in over 150 runs in a season, and Davis is one of them.
Maury Wills stole 104 bases that year. It’s an oversimplification to say that every day in 1962 Wills singled, stole second, and then Davis singled him home, but it’s not far off either, eliding only the contributions of two- and three-hitters Jim Gilliam and Willie Davis, both of whom had good seasons and were also capable of scoring from second on a single or first on a double. The recipe is simple—three fast, high-OBP guys followed by a .350 hitter—but manager and general managers are almost never able to complete the picture. This was one of the very few times it has happened.
Davis won a second consecutive batting title in 1963, hitting .326/.359/.457. In context it was almost as good a performance as the year before, albeit one lacking the gaudy RBI totals (he drove in 88). He couldn’t have known it at the time, but he was already climbing back down the mountain. In 1964 he hit a disappointing .275/.311/.397 in 152 games. As of May 1 the following year he was hitting .250/.270/.300 in 17 games when his right foot caught in the dirt as he executed an awkward slide into second base against the Giants. His ankle shattered.
“When I got there, the bone was sticking out at a right angle,” said Dodgers trainer Wayne Anderson, “and I popped it back into place.”
Davis was out for the year but for a pinch-hitting appearance on the last day of the season. When he came back 1966 he still hit well enough to play for another 10 years, but the old pop was gone. He had been fast and athletic, playing multiple sports as an amateur, stealing 68 bases in the low minors. That was over. He still had his moments, hitting .300 in full or partial seasons in 1966, 1967, 1971, and 1973, but his home run power had ebbed and he was no longer an asset in the field. After Davis’s second batting title he hit .286/.322/.380 in nearly 1500 games. Was it all due to his severe ankle injury? His 1964 off-year calls that narrative into question. On yet another hand, he had finally found his stroke in September 1964, hitting .320/.352/.600 that month, and though he had started 1965 cold he was heating up, going 6-for-10 in the at-bats leading up to the injury.
Davis was a great guy to be around. “There’s been a plot afoot for four years to make him mad,” Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote in 1964. “The theory is that if Tommy Davis acquires the characteristics of Count Dracula he may make the world forget Ty Cobb… Tommy just smiles… Tommy likes people. Even pitchers.” He had his own way of doing things, which may have alienated some managers and general managers, but there was always another team willing to give him a try. After the Dodgers traded him to the Mets in November 1966 he would change teams almost annually, lingering only in Baltimore. He would retire having worn 10 different uniforms.
With Stephen Strasburg signed through 2026 his donning even one uniform without the Nationals “W” on it seems unlikely. Nevertheless he stands at the same crossroads Davis inhabited after 1963. We can root for one of the best pitchers of his era to have more moment at the top, but neither he nor we will know if it’s already too late until some time in the future. Even if it is, he’ll keep battling to prove that it isn’t true. His contract will require it. Pride will require it. His humanity will require it. It’s what we all do—bite and claw after it’s too late.
Of course, the great thing about most athletes is that they bite and claw all along. That’s the nature of competition. “I left it all on the field,” they’ll say. Davis certainly did, making his way through five teams that didn’t even exist when he first reached the majors. Strasburg, with his ring and his three top-10 Cy Young Award finishes, has no apologies to make. If it’s over, he did what he was capable of doing and no less.
The rest of us may not be so fortunate when it’s time to acknowledge that we’re over the hill. Right until that moment we tell ourselves, “Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it in God’s name! ‘Tis the utmost thou hast in thee; out with it then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called To-day, for the Night cometh wherein no man can work.” That was Thomas Carlyle, and yeah, he was borrowing heavily from the New Testament, but at least in getting the thought down he was walking the walk. In the final accounting that may be more than a cyclops can say, and many of the two-eyed as well.
See, we were like Davis and Strasburg too, but with one key exception. When we came to the crossroads we could only say, “If it’s over, he did what he was capable of doing and no more.”
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