We all have our favorite ways to escape from the pressures of life. Hobbies serve a grand purpose, focusing all our attention when engaged, and thus erasing for a while the irritations, stresses, disappointments and fears that pile up as we go about living. They're better at that than, say, drinking alcohol, since gardening, woodworking and contract bridge don't cause liver damage and shouldn't hinder ones' ability to drive safely.
(As an aside, I get a kick out of the oft-heard plea, "He's really a nice guy when he isn't drunk." No, he's not. He's just able to disguise his nastiness before the booze loosens the restraint on his natural self. An ornery drunk is an ornery person.)
My own favorite escapes are reading, playing golf and — the one the most time is devoted to — watching sports on TV. You may think the latter is a huge waste of time if you're not a sports fan, and I understand. But for me, baseball, football and basketball games are the ultimate in reality television. Golf fits the bill, too. They are unscripted efforts toward an end that is not predetermined. They feature players who have taken a natural talent and developed it to a level we mortals can only dream of attaining. Athletic excellence is wonderful to behold. To see it unfold or explode in a contest is thrilling.
Which brings us to this past Tuesday night and the baseball game between the Washington Nationals and the Pittsburgh Pirates featuring the much-ballyhooed debut in the major leagues of a 21-year-old kid named Stephen Strasburg, a right-handed pitcher considered by many to be the best pitching prospect to come on the scene in, well, forever. Signed to a record $15.1 million bonus as the No. 1 draft pick last year, the youngster was said to have an unparalleled skill set in the art and science of throwing a baseball. So much so that former star pitcher Curt Schilling said he could potentially be the best pitcher in baseball right from the start.
There was so much hype that as Mr. Strasburg's brief minor league stay sped toward its end, ESPN started televising highlights from those games. This was more than ordinary hype; it was super-hype, hyper-hype, hype that nobody would likely live up to. Yet he not only lived up to it in front of a sold-out crowd at Nationals Park, he exceeded it. Strasburg displayed a 100-mph fastball, a 96-mph slider, a change-up faster than most hurlers' fastballs, and a knee-buckling curveball that had Pirates hitters doing the old dipsy-doo. He struck out 14 in seven innings, didn't walk anyone and got better after giving up a two-run homer, striking out the last seven batters he faced before leaving the game.
This is the pitch-count era, after all, and with what the Nationals have invested in him, 94 pitches were all he was allowed. The Nats won the game, 5-2. It was enough to make believers out of any but the most skeptical baseball fan. Some point to the Pirates weak-hitting lineup — similar to the sad sack Orioles — and say, wait until he faces a better team before anointing him the second coming of Walter Johnson. OK, fair enough; but his arsenal of pitches, his control and his preternatural poise will probably translate into a lot of tough plate appearances even for the better hitters.
The baseball world is agog. His next start will come at Cleveland on Sunday. The attendance-starved Indians have already sold several thousand additional tickets for that game and are expecting the second-largest crowd of the season. A Washington, D.C. restaurant has created a new sandwich called the "Strasburger," a burger topped with a hot dog and covered in aged Vermont cheddar cheese.
Orioles owner Peter Angelos has to be happy with this "Strasburgmania," being the majority owner of MASN, the cable network that carries both Orioles and Nationals games. Ad rates were doubled for the Strasburg debut. The network announced that initial Nielsen ratings show a record 7.1 rating, meaning more than 165,000 homes in the region were tuned in for the game. To put that in perspective, two years ago the Nationals were the least-viewed team in the big leagues, averaging just 8,000 homes per game. Peter knows how to make money, just not how to build a winning team. I wonder if he has any other hobbies.
Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL.com. His column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.