Entry from June 15, 2010

There was a bit of a fuss in Washington last weekend about the fact that the Washington Post was giving away posters depicting Stephen Strasburg, the pitching phenom on the city’s National League baseball team, the, er, Nationals, in the act of throwing his first major-league pitch — but only to those who bought the paper at retail outlets. Home delivery subscribers have to e-mail the paper requesting the poster and wait two to three weeks for delivery. They feel dissed and resentful at the “greed” of the Post’s management in seeking to boost circulation for a day with Mr Strasburg’s image as a premium. But I think the more interesting thing about this ad hoc marketing ploy is that it presupposes a high demand for the photo of a man at the moment not of any great achievement but that of his first pitch, when the hopes that he brings with him to the hitherto hopeless and nearly hapless Nationals seem unlimited.

Does this remind you of anything else that has happened in Washington in recent years? In fact, the Post tried something similar with its special commemorative issue on the inauguration of President Obama — another occasion on which the “historic” nature of the event being commemorated had everything to do with high, indeed Himalayan, hopes and nothing at all with anything that had actually been done, for good or ill. But by the time the Strasburg poster was issued, the young man had already, in the course of winning his first major league game, recorded 14 strikeouts, which really was a historic achievement. For not only did this set a Nationals record, but, according to the Post’s reporter, Adam Kilgore, “no pitcher in baseball history had ever struck out 14 or more batters while using fewer than 96 pitches. Strasburg needed 94.”

Still, the poster was an image not of the 94th pitch but of the first, and the celebration it occasioned reminded at least one Post reader, Sim Pace of Arlington, Virginia, of last year’s hooplah regarding President Obama enough to suggest that Mr Strasburg be immediately inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Some may argue that one game does not a career make. I make this submission, however, under the recently evolved “Obama rule,” by which President Obama was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize after just two weeks in office. If Mr. Obama can be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, surely Mr. Strasburg can be inducted into Cooperstown. And while there may be similarities between the Obama and Strasburg cases, remember, Mr. Strasburg actually did something to justify this nomination.

This is, I’m guessing, satirical in intent, but it is no less true for that that people really do want to enshrine the moment when hope is at its zenith, before disappointment has had a chance to set in. There is of course also the hope of having one’s hopes on record if they are ever realized. Those who, in twenty years, will be able to say that they knew that Mr Strasburg was going to be one of the greats from the moment of his first pitch may not be few in number, unless he isn’t one of the greats, but there will presumably be some bragging rights for those with a Post poster as evidence of their prescience.

Yet I wonder if there isn’t in the choice of this golden moment also some indication of our preference for fantasy over reality, like those who reported feelings of “depression and despondency after seeing the movie” Avatar because of the inability of reality to live up to the computer-generated fantasy world of the planet Pandora. Mr Obama’s political career certainly owes a lot to this preference of the media, and many others beside, for fantasy over reality, but with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, fantasy has turned upon its one-time darling. Now the fantasy appears to be one of a superhero who can make the oil stop flowing, perhaps with his X-ray vision, and the President is getting the blame for not being him. Hence his ridiculous descent into tough talk of ass-kicking. You can sympathize with his dilemma, as it is a bit late in the day for him to say, “Hey, get real, folks. I’m only a man.” Real, huh? That’s not what we voted for.

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