• Marc Johnson

The Understudy


Everyone showed up last night at National’s Park in the center of our political universe – Washington, D.C. – to see a star perform, but the understudy got the call and ended up taking the bows.

Talk about a no-win situation. It was like the hot and sticky sell-out crowd of 40,043 bought standing room only tickets to see a Broadway show with a big name star. Instead they got the kid from summer stock. The fickle faithful were expecting something magical; think Yul Brenner strutting his stuff in The King and I. Instead they got a skinny, ex-Mariner who has rarely strutted much stuff and has often had to slink off the stage under fire.

Its not very generous to boo a guy, as many of the Stephen Strasburg-crazed D.C. baseball fans did last night, who scattered three singles, struck out six and didn’t gave up a run in five innings, while shutting down the division leader. Understudies get no respect.

When Miguel Batista took the mound for his on-field warm-up last night, the guy next to me said what 40,042 other baseball fans were thinking: “where’s the kid, where’s Strasburg?”

Strasburg, who has been the talk of baseball since joining the Nationals earlier this season “couldn’t get loose” before the game and the general manager nixed his appearance. His understudy was ready.

Batista, having gotten the call fifteen minutes before game time, obviously knew his part.

“Imagine, if you go there to see Miss Universe,” he said after the game, “and you end up having Miss Iowa, you might get those kind of boos. But it’s OK. They had to understand that as an organization we have to make sure the kid is fine.”

Miss Iowa showed some class, got a 3-0 win and, after an MRI, it looks like the kid is fine. One of the great things about sports is the “on any given day” factor. Last night was Miguel Batista’s given day. I admit to being one of the 40,000-plus who panted into the ball yard last night yearning to marvel at the 98 mile an hour fastball and the devastating curve of the young guy who has captivated the baseball world since the Nationals brought him up to the show earlier this season. Instead, I witnessed something even better, a 39-year old pitcher in the twilight of a mediocre career rising to the moment.

Strasburg has been getting more ink – and hype – inside the Beltway than a ban on earmarks and maybe he deserves it. (The Beltway’s “must read” political writer, Mike Allen of Politico, featured the Strasburg Scratch in his morning email along with the news that White House stars Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod where among the disappointed 40,043.)

But last night, at least for a few precious innings, a guy who hadn’t won a game since George W. Bush was in the White House made a statement.

I know, I know, the last minute substitution was no doubt a prudent precaution to protect a franchise player with a long career ahead of him, but who can’t get loose in 90 degree weather with 85 percent humidity? That guy next to me, even with a couple of beers, could have gone three innings in that heat. With water – or was it beer – dripping down my forehead, I had to wonder if a 17-year-old Bob Feller ever had trouble “getting loose?”

The 40,043 were reminded last night that “baseball is a business” and there is no effective liability reform that can protect against a young and sore arm. Still, I hope someone bought Miguel Batista a steak and a beer after the game. I have a feeling he was pretty lose last night.

The understudy pulled it off. And, you gotta love that.

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson