CASSILO: Legendary ace pitchers close to extinction

David Cassilo

The starting pitcher was born the moment Abner Doubleday put the finishing touches on his first baseball diamond. Unlike any other position in sports, the starting pitcher was in control. He controlled when the batter would have a chance to swing. He decided how long the game would go. If he were at his best, he would essentially determine the winner. Nothing compared to being atop that hill, and almost always that starting pitcher would finish what he began. For in those days, he played three positions at once – starter, reliever and closer.

With the glory attached to the position of starting pitcher, soon baseball’s first aces were born. There is a reason the names Cy Young, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson are still spoken regularly today. They were the George Washington, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson of starting pitching, and they helped define both a position and a sport.

However, once baseball became popular enough to be known as America’s pastime, it was the hitters, not the pitchers, who were emulated every day on the street. Each kid wanted to hit with power like Babe Ruth, play as tough as Ty Cobb or run as fast as Jackie Robinson. Although these may have been the stars of their day, they all began to look as foolish as the kids who adored them when they stepped into the box against the true aces of the game.

It was soon realized that it was the pitching, and not the hitting, that led teams to World Series titles, thus the infatuation with the pitcher, more specifically the ace, had begun. It’s the reason Sandy Koufax is still considered one of the greatest players of all time, despite playing just 12 seasons and retiring 42 years ago. It’s the reason everyone gets so excited when they see a year like Doc Gooden in 1985, Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 and Mark Fidrych in 1976. The idea that something magical is happening before the spectator’s eyes, combined with the chance this just might be the next Bob Gibson, sends even the oldest of baseball fans into a childhood fantasy.

While great moments in baseball are seen at every position, those by the starting pitcher seem to always be the most memorable and sometimes the most inexplicable. How could Don Larsen throw a perfect game against the best team in the National League? Did a 23-year-old Roger Clemens really just strike out more batters in one game than anyone in the history of baseball? How is it possible that a 44-year-old Nolan Ryan just threw his seventh no-hitter?

The ace starting pitcher is revered and feared. He is the most sought after, yet the hardest to find. Often he is both the most valuable and the most likely to get hurt. Some general managers and managers lose their jobs over their performance, while others become rich because of them. To put it simply, the starting pitcher is perhaps the most enigmatic position in sports.

So what do we do when the concept of the ace dies? Who do we turn to when we have no one to compare to Tom Seaver? Who do we gawk over when no one throws like Steve Carlton anymore? It is a day that those in baseball fear, but at the same time, it is a day that those same people created. Like any other scarce resource, everyone does their best to protect starting pitching. However, the overprotection slowly leads to its death.

As we slowly progress into the future, many trends will continue in baseball that are already present today. The importance of pitch counts will grow. Complete games will become an almost extinct statistic and, perhaps, one of the more rare feats in baseball. The rise of middle relievers and closers will continue, and they will continue to get paid like starters. In our obsession to savor the talent of the top-of-the-rotation starter, we have limited their potential to achieve greatness.

So pay attention when you hear the stories of Greg Maddux, as everyone reminisces over his great career in response to his retirement. It is possible he will be the last to win 355. He may be the final pitcher to ever win four consecutive Cy Young awards. His back-to-back seasons with an ERA under 2.00 is perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of pitching when you take into account it occurred during the steroids era. One also cannot forget that Maddux did this all with intelligence rather than power. He is a living legend.

Similar accolades will be mentioned in the coming years, as Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez all throw their final pitches. Their retirement will perhaps mark the end of something that was thought to be always present in baseball: the dominant pitcher.

There is still hope in the arms of those such as Johan Santana, Jon Lester, Jake Peavy and Tim Lincecum, but a few great seasons do not make a legend. The days of an ERA under 2.00 could be behind us. The same may be true of 300 wins and 300 strikeouts. The game of baseball has changed, and it is no coincidence that the starting pitcher has changed along with it.

Thank you, Maddux, Glavine, Johnson and Martinez. It was from your arms that we once again saw what it meant to be an ace. We saw what it truly means to be a workhorse. You dominated not just for a few years but for over and beyond a decade. Your talent, coupled with your longevity, will have you remembered for what you are destined to become: the last of the aces.

———————-

David Cassilo is a junior communication major from Chatham, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected]