The Phantom Link Between Strasburg and RG III

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The connection between what the Nationals did with Stephen Strasburg in shutting him down at a preplanned innings limit and what the Redskins did with Robert Griffin III only exists in the minds of those desperately searching for one.

It was again mentioned in today’s New York Times in this piece by Harvey Araton. To Araton’s credit, he references that an “a-ha moment” was a “surface comparison” with the unsaid inference that RG III and Strasburg were in no way connected except as a lukewarm defense to what Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo did in shutting Strasburg down and as an indictment for what Redskins’ coach Mike Shanahan didn’t do in leaving Griffin in the team’s playoff game against the Seahawks only to see Griffin severely injure his knee, possibly costing him the entire 2013 season and a portion of the running ability that made him so special.

The equating of Griffin and Strasburg is ludicrous. Because the Nats chose to end Strasburg’s season, the old-school types considered it heresy. Bolstered by the Nats’ loss in the NLDS to the Cardinals, the ill-informed and agenda-driven arguments suggest that had Strasburg been available, the Nats would have blown past the Cardinals and possibly gone on to win the World Series; that Rizzo’s overprotectiveness cost the Nationals that rare opportunity to win a championship—one that is not guaranteed in the future regardless of teamwide talent levels.

The truth is that the Nationals should have won the series against the Cardinals and only blew it because of a mistake they made during the season and it wasn’t shutting Strasburg down. The mistake they made was reinstalling Drew Storen as the closer as if he was a veteran along the lines of Mariano Rivera who deserved to return to his job by status after having missed the majority of the season with an elbow problem. Tyler Clippard had done an admirable job in the role and should have been left alone at least for the remainder of the season. Manager Davey Johnson, however, chose to be his iconoclastic self and hand the ninth inning back to Storen. Storen blew the fifth game of the NLDS after being within a strike of ending the game and the series three separate times with what began as a 2-run, ninth inning lead. Storen was not a veteran who had earned his stripes and had the right to walk off the disabled list and right back into the ninth inning, especially with a team that was streaking toward the playoffs. In fact, Storen didn’t regain the closer’s role until the playoffs, making the choice all the more questionable. (Notice I said “regain” and not “reclaim.” The job was just handed back to Storen based on nothing other than him having been the closer before.)

To make matters worse, this off-season the Nats decided that Storen wasn’t even going to be their closer for the next two and probably three years by signing Rafael Soriano to take the job. So what was the purpose of naming Storen closer for the playoffs if: A) he hadn’t re-earned the role; and B) he’s not their long-term solution?

The Strasburg shutdown was based on paranoia and out-of-context “guidelines” that gave Rizzo the impetus to do what he wanted to do all along: protect himself rather than protect his pitcher. Innings limits and pitch counts are tantamount to the architect of the parameters saying, “If he gets hurt, don’t blame me.” It’s selfishness, not protecting an investment.

Strasburg had already blown out his elbow once while functioning within the constraints of innings limits and pitch counts that went all the way back to his days under Tony Gwynn at San Diego State. The object of this style protectiveness is to keep the player healthy, but nothing is said when the player gets hurt anyway. Compounding matters, they continued down the road of self-interested and random limits based on whatever advice and statistics supported their decision.

If Strasburg gets hurt again, the shutdown will be seen as useless; if he stays healthy, it will be seen as the “why” when it had just as much chance of having nothing to do with it as it did in him needing Tommy John surgery in the first place.

As for the RG III-Strasburg link, no common bond exists other than that Shanahan made a mistake in leaving RG III in the game to get hurt and the Nats yanked Strasburg from the rotation in the interest of “saving” him.

In retrospect, as a guardian of his young, star-level quarterback, Shanahan should have taken RG III from the game, but he didn’t. That’s separate from what the Nats did with Strasburg because retrospect hasn’t come yet and if it does, there won’t be the aforementioned “a-ha” moment in either direction. Both players play for teams based in Washington; both are once-a-decade talents; and both had injuries. Apart from that, there’s nothing that places them in the same category except for those looking for a reason to justify or malign, and that’s not the basis for a viable argument.

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ESPN Is To Blame For Rob Parker

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Rob Parker is a symptom, not the disease. In spite of ESPN’s decision to suspend him for his absurd comments about Robert Griffin III, Parker’s presence or absence from the network is not going to cure the malady that infects any sports fan who has no choice but to use ESPN because it has such a wide-ranging hand in every sport.

Is Parker to blame for pushing the envelope with comments that were designed to provoke? Isn’t that the ESPN mandate? To get people to pay attention to them not with legitimate sports news and analysis, but by doing the equivalent of screaming “FIRE” in a crowded theater with impunity? So entwined with every aspect of sports, there’s no escaping ESPN. This makes Parker and his inept ilk in their employ all the more galling. They get away with this silliness, so why couldn’t they get away with deciding not to partake in this fire-stoking, and chose to provide quality and substance instead of resorting to antics like a bad Madonna outfit?

Parker maintains the inexplicable combination of knowing nothing about sports and writing in an amateurish, clumsy fashion. Yet he’s employed by ESPN and treated as one of their “signature” voices with a prominent platform. It’s just easier to find a stable of Rob Parkers than it is to find people who will be able to express themselves in a manner befitting such a pulpit.

Of course Parker’s responsible for what he says, but those claiming he should be fired for his offensive and borderline incoherent statements are missing the point of the entire Parker package: Why is he employed by ESPN in the first place? How can it be that the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports” is so incapable of hiring talented, intelligent, knowledgeable people who can draw an audience without having the content secondary to numbers they’re able to accumulate through cheap tactics.

ESPN need only look at the foundation of today’s NFL to understand the narrow difference between “look at me!!!” to accrue a brief burst of activity like staring at a train crash, and attracting a consistent viewer/readership.

The late Hall of Fame NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was a public relations man and knew how to create a business that would provide thrills and watchable sports action without turning it into a circularly ridiculous entity doomed to fail. Tex Schramm was also in publicity (in fact, he hired Rozelle with the Rams) and knew that in order to succeed, he also had to sell. With the Cowboys, that’s what he did: he sold an image. Tom Landry was the football guru; Gil Brandt the personnel “genius”; the Cowboys, with their space-age uniforms, unique style implemented by the religious, stoic Landry and moniker of “America’s Team” wouldn’t have gone anywhere if the product wasn’t high quality. In addition to creating an image and making money, the team won, so Schramm wasn’t tricking anyone with trash. There’s a fine line between sale and scam and ESPN crossed that line long ago. Whether or not they’re aware of it is the important question.

ESPN could learn the separation between entertainment and rubbernecking by examining how the NFL became what it is today in large part because of Schramm and Rozelle.

Rather than emulate the NFL, ESPN has chosen to copy the doomed Vince McMahon project the XFL in which pro wrestling announcers were shoved into a “professional” football broadcast booth and Jesse “The Body” Ventura (then Governor of Minnesota) tried to start a pro wrestling style feud with Rusty Tillman, one of the head coaches who wanted to coach football and not undertake a starring role in McMahon’s carnival. It didn’t work. There has to be something to cling to for the fans to stay and watch. Like McMahon’s main moneymaking venture, the WWE, you know what it is when watching it and if the viewer chooses to suspend disbelief and become invested in the canned nature of professional wrestling, it’s a wink-and-a-nod contract made with the show itself. There’s something dirtier about ESPN when they’re hiring the likes of Parker and encouraging these types of comments, then hanging Parker out to dry when the comments are deemed as “offensive.”

The difference between what Schramm and Rozelle built in the NFL is that if you pull back the curtain behind all the hype, there’s substance for the old-school football fan to still watch the game if they’re not interested in the sideshow. Is that the case with ESPN? Do they have anything substantive—from their intentions to their implementation—left? What is their long-term purpose apart from ratings, webhits, and the higher advertising rates that come along with it?

For every quality person ESPN has working for them, there are ten who shouldn’t be allowed to write a personal blog, let along have a forum on ESPN. Parker is one of those people. The only time people care about what he says is when he says what he said yesterday; they’re certainly not going to him for sports insight because he doesn’t have any, nor does he have the skills to present his non-existent knowledge in an engaging way. If he was able to do that, he’d be due a certain begrudging credit for being able to write. But he can’t, so there’s no reason whatsoever for him to be there.

Firing him will placate the masses who are calling for his dismissal as if it would accomplish something, but Parker isn’t the problem. ESPN is. If they fire Parker, they’ll simply replace him with someone else. I’d say whomever it is that replaces Parker couldn’t possibly be worse, but this is ESPN and if any company has the skills and history of discovering the newest-latest in lowest common denominator, it’s them.

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