Page last updated at 10:53 GMT, Saturday, 12 June 2010 11:53 UK

Pitching for success in a Washington baseball game

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Washington

In many sports, how a team performs depends on every member, but in the case of baseball, the fate of the team might rest on the shoulders of just one man.

It cannot be easy living with the knowledge that you might be "The One".

Garrett Williams pitches at the United States semi-final game of the Little League World Series in 2007
Scouts comb junior leagues for the baseball stars of the future

It would have started back in elementary school. Some sharp-eyed teacher spotted how quickly your eye read the flight of a ball and how perfectly your body adjusted its balance as you moved to gather it.

Baseball pitching is a wearing, tearing process that begins with your ball-carrying hand stretched out far behind your back and your leading leg cocked like the firing pin of a rifle.

As you throw, huge amounts of force are transmitted through your body - the way energy is transmitted through a whip when it is cracked.

Other sportsmen have stadiums and trophies named after them. It is no coincidence that baseball pitchers have a type of elbow operation - Tommy John surgery - named after one of their own.

To you it is just the skill on which your providential gifts of speed and strength, co-ordination and timing are focused.

One day they will make you the best ping-pong player in your retirement home and the terror of its shuffle-board tournament, but for now, they just make you "The One."

And if you have what it takes, then you can be sure that baseball will find you.

Armies of coaches and scouts and tipsters comb the little leagues and high-school tournaments of America looking for the spark of talent that might take you first to college baseball and ultimately to the major leagues - to the show.

Curve balls

And that, or something very like it, will have been the life story of Stephen Strasburg, right up to the moment when he stepped onto the field at Nationals Park a few nights back to make his Major League debut.

Stephen Strasburg
Stephen Strasburg was born in 1988 in San Diego, California

We were about to find out if he was "The One".

He certainly might be.

Strasburg has a 100mph (160km/h) fastball - something of a rarity even at the top of the game.

That gives a batter - standing 20m (66ft) from the pitcher's mound - much less than half a second to spot the ball against the swirling colours of the stadium and try to hit it.

He has a disguised ball, a change-up, which looks like it is going to be a fast ball but arrives more slowly and is thus even more difficult to hit.

He can make the ball curve, and slide and swing in the air.

These are not cheap skills. He signed a four-year, $15m (£10m) contract before he even made his debut.

That is not a fortune in a sport where the best player is currently earning $33m a year. But let us face it, not bad for your first job out of college.

'Strasburg-mania'

With that great big salary, of course, come great expectations. It is routinely assumed that he will transform the fortunes of the hopeless team he has joined - my team, as it happens, the Washington Nationals.

For it is one of the little perversities of American sport that its annual recruitment round - the draft - seeks to match the top players emerging from college sport with the weakest professional teams.

It is an odd quasi-communist way to do business in a country that prides itself on the vigour and rigour of the market, but it is good news if you happen to support a team of eternal losers of course.

And it does make the way in which wealthy and powerful European football clubs are allowed to use their wealth and power to monopolise success, seem dull by comparison.

So, on the big night, being "The One" cannot have been easy. Even supporting "The One" had its trials.

Losing baseball teams normally play in more or less empty stadiums.

Washington National fans celebrate after the Nationals beat the Pittsburgh Pirates
Strasburg helped the Washington Nationals to a win on his debut

Where British football fans regard going to see their team when it is playing badly as a noble statement of a shared identity, Americans regard it as a costly way of rewarding failure. When the team starts losing, they stop going.

But Strasburg-mania ensured a sell-out crowd, with all the minor irritations that means for the regular supporter used to a plentiful choice of seats.

It means higher ticket prices for a start of course.

And it meant more of a sense of occasion. Not always a good thing.

Instead of hiring a local singer to belt out America's stirring anthem, a well-known sax player was recruited to turn it into a series of bluesy meanderings, punctuated by melodramatic squeaks.

And above all, it meant more commerce.

The need to pay back that huge salary made it a busy night for the vendors who race up and down the terracing with crates of food and drink for sale.

These guys appear to be hired for their uncanny ability to penetrate the collective silence before every critical play with a carefully-timed cry of "peanuts" but they too, of course, are a part of the show.

And the star of that show did well too. The skills he had honed in the deserted parks of high school and college ball did not, in the end desert him on his first appearance in the big time.

If you do not like sport and consider any words written about it are like pieces of dead wiring that fail to conduct an electrical charge of meaning, then think of this as one man's journey to a distant future appointment with immortality.

A journey he will make weighed down with the expectations of millions. The first step on that journey has now been safely taken. Maybe he really is "The One".

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