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Stephen Strasburg Beat the Cubs and a Horde of Fake Baseball Tough Guys

Guess what. Baseball players are allowed to call in sick, too.

Stephen Strasburg during the Washington Nationals vs. Chicago Cubs game Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

When rain forced Game 4 of the NLDS to be moved back a day, it set off a faint but constant and piercing high-pitched whine that drove everyone involved to madness. The extra day off allowed the Nats, facing elimination, to bring back Game 1 starter Stephen Strasburg on normal rest. Strasburg, who posted a 10.5 K/9 ratio and a 176 ERA+ in 175.1 innings this year, kicked off the series with 5.2 no-hit innings before the Cubs broke through in the seventh and won. The scheduled Game 4 starter, Tanner Roark, is fine, but Strasburg’s been groomed for a game like this. He’s had unprecedented protection—which kept him out of the 2012 playoffs—to keep him healthy enough to start Game 4.

2017 MLB Playoffs

So it was to universal shock that the Nationals announced that Roark would start Game 4 as planned. Strasburg, it was said, had taken ill because of exposure to mold in the team hotel.

By Wednesday morning, the Nats had reversed course, and Strasburg’s mold sensitivity was revealed to be something far more serious.

But Strasburg strode forth from his sickbed and into the pouring rain to throw seven scoreless innings, in which he threw 72 strikes out of 106 pitches, with 12 strikeouts against just two walks and three hits in a 5-0 victory.

Strasburg threw 32 changeups and got 15 whiffs, which is just a hilarious number. The Cubs could not have been more sick of looking at Strasburg’s changeup than if they’d literally been watching the 2011 comedy film The Change-Up, starring Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds, which earned a measly 25 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Speaking of rotten things, it’s worth discussing the conditions under which Strasburg took the mound. What we should have here is a magnificent athletic performance under difficult circumstances from a pitcher who’s struggled at times to deliver on the enormous hype in his youth. The combination of illness, Chicago, and the playoffs recalls the famous Michael Jordan Flu Game of 1997.

In any normal job, if you’re so sick you need IV fluids and the magical wonder drug from The Andromeda Strain to get out of bed, you stay home. Even conceding that baseball is not a normal job, there’s evidence—as well as, you know, common sense—that pitchers don’t perform as well when they’re sick. Clearly Strasburg felt better by game time, or at least well enough to strike out 12 Cubs in seven innings, but if he’d woken up on Thursday and still felt like the patient of the week on House, the Nationals should’ve started Roark.

Not that you’d know it from talking to Baseball People.

A few Cubs fans showed up to Wrigley Field wearing dust masks to poke fun at the mold issue. USA Today’s Bob Nightengale all but accused Strasburg of malingering to avoid having to pitch in a high-pressure situation, using a one-word paragraph—this kind of column always seems to have a one-word paragraph in there somewhere—to call it “Unbelievable” that Strasburg would say he’s too sick to pitch.

Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post collected some particularly unsympathetic comments from former athletes. Wade Boggs, perhaps confused as to the difference between playing in Fenway Park and taking Guadalcanal, used the phrase “Not in my fox hole!” Danny Kanell, a former two-sport star at Florida State who’s gained notoriety in recent years as frontman of a Clay Travis cover band, invoked Strasburg’s $175 million contract. Personal wealth impacts the quality of healthcare a person receives in this country, but it does not make Strasburg immune to the flu.

Dancing With the Stars contestant David Ross also mentioned the contract, and said he’d have trouble making eye contact with Strasburg if he were his teammate. “I mean, this is as bad as it gets for me as a teammate,” said Ross. “This is as bad as it gets.”

Here’s a partial list of people David Ross played with during his 15-year big league career:

  • Melky Cabrera, who took a PED suspension that kept him out of the playoffs in 2012, while he was hitting .346/.390/.516
  • Jonathan Papelbon, who choked Bryce Harper in the dugout during a game
  • Yunel Escobar, who was suspended for writing a homophobic slur on his eye black during a game
  • Aroldis Chapman and Addison Russell, both accused of domestic violence
  • Milton Bradley, who’s currently serving a prison term for a years-long campaign of cruelty against his late wife that is so horrifying as to defy description

At least none of those guys got sick at an inconvenient time.

If you’re ever wondering what toxic masculinity looks like, this is it—the “man up” culture that says injury and illness can be overcome by trying real hard. Strasburg’s case is trivial—sports are both objectively trivial and subjectively deadly serious, so a situation like this would lend itself to hyperbole.

It’s not like Strasburg’s illness could impact his future within the game or outside it, though this “tough it out” mentality often dictates how we talk about that kind of injury, too. College baseball coaches let unpaid student-athletes shred their UCLs because “he’s a competitor and he wants the ball.” Football players try to dodge sideline concussion tests or hide injuries to avoid getting cut or labeled “injury-prone.” Hockey players gut out the Stanley Cup playoffs with torn muscles and broken bones, all left undisclosed so opponents won’t target a player’s wounds during the postseason, then announced all at once in a grim ritual that’s turned into a point of pride for the Official Sport of Being Tougher Than Basketball Players.

Playing hurt often hurts the team; it’s a puzzling but fervently held belief in sports that as long as the name on the jersey stays the same, so does the quality of play. And I want to know what Roark thinks of all this, after spending 18 hours listening to outrage that he, a pretty good MLB pitcher, was possibly starting a do-or-die game, instead of a hacking and wheezing Strasburg.

Nevertheless, it’s enticing for people who work in sports to demand that athletes play hurt and play sick. Not only does it reinforce the macho physicality of the athlete, but in order to criticize Strasburg for not pitching, you have to believe that baseball is much more important than it is. Strasburg didn’t go to war or rescue a child from a burning building today—baseball is a game. Actually, it’s not even a game, it’s a job.

But like so many of the ugliest parts of sports dialogue, what’s fine in the pros gets troubling when it gets translated into youth sports, or outside the sports world altogether.

The language used to deride Strasburg before Game 4 is also used to stop people from voicing serious concerns about their work conditions, living conditions, or the state of personal relationships. It’s part of a values system that thinks being too sick to pitch is the worst thing a teammate can do, and it is informed by the idea that suffering is redemptive, and that it’s something to be overcome rather than avoided if possible. Not to get all “but what about the kids” here, but how many young boys will see this discussion and infer that suffering silently is part of manhood, then be too ashamed to seek help when faced with difficult but soluble physical, social, or—most dangerously—mental health issues?

It turns out, much to the Cubs’ dismay, that Strasburg wasn’t that sick after all. I wish I could say the same for a culture that accepts people talking about him the way they did.