I've found a singular pleasure in this 2006 baseball season. It's happened every five or six days since mid-May and though I rarely get to see it live, I feel a happy glow every time I realize it's come back around.
"It" is the burgeoning career of Minnesota Twins rookie Francisco Liriano.
The 22-year-old left-hander ranked among my most enthusiastic fantasy touts before this season. I said he could be bought on the cheap as a middle reliever but might turn into one of the American League's 10 best starters by season's end. As it turns out, he's perhaps the best now and we've only just passed the All-Star break.
But I'm not here to pat myself on the back (plenty of my preseason picks went awry). I'm instead positing that the rise of a great young pitcher is perhaps the most exciting motif in the game, fantasy or real. It has a certain momentum to it.
You see the promise in that first start this season, in Liriano's case, a 7-1 win over the Milwaukee Brewers. Then, he's just a little better the next few times out (two scoreless appearances against the Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Angels). Then, he hits a snag, the kind of outing that might derail a lesser specimen. Liriano's wasn't so bad. He gave up three runs in six innings and lost to the same Mariners he'd shut out 10 days before.
And finally, the key turn. Confronted with failure, the phenom races past it and enters a sublime run in which every start is a greater work of art than the one before it. Liriano is in the middle of such a stretch now, having allowed six earned runs in his past 44 innings. He's won all six starts, struck out 52 and allowed a mere 22 hits in that period.
Sheer magic. We've seen it before, of course, from Dwight Gooden and Fernando Valenzuela and Mark Fidrych and so on. If you sense a certain tragic element to that list, well, we'll get back to that in a few paragraphs.
Part of the joy of Liriano is that he's not a solo act. He's only the brightest star in a firmament of superior young pitchers. Maybe you prefer Justin Verlander, he of the 100-mph radar readings and 10-4 record for the best team in baseball, the Detroit Tigers. Or maybe you like the tragicomic aspect of Jered Weaver pushing his brother, Jeff, out of a job with a burst of 6-0, 1.12 ERA pitching. Or maybe you're a saves man and can't get past Jonathan Papelbon's insane 0.59 ERA.
And that doesn't account for quieter examples such as Josh Johnson, who's 8-4 with a 2.21 ERA for the Florida Marlins, or Felix Hernandez, the phenom who would be king but has instead struggled in his first full season for the Mariners.
Yes, it's been a great year for connoisseurs of the young arm. And Liriano, who sits in the rotations of three of my fantasy teams, is the prodigy of prodigies.
There's not a sour note in his statistical or real-world profiles. He strikes out hitters in bunches but has the control to avoid prolonged outings. He has the classic repertoire - 95-mph fastball, hard slider, feathery changeup. He wasn't overworked in the minor leagues.
Here's the somber note. We could've said many of the same things about Gooden in 1984 or Valenzuela in 1981. Jon Matlack had a 2.32 ERA as a Rookie of the Year for the 1972 New York Mets. Gary Peters went 19-8 with a 2.33 ERA for the 1963 Chicago White Sox. The average baseball fan may not remember them at all.
It's not that those guys had bad careers. We look back on Gooden as a wasted talent, but he had five more seasons as an elite pitcher (he was even better as a sophomore) and won 194 games. Valenzuela was also an effective workhorse for five more years in Los Angeles. Matlack and Peters had solid careers of more than a dozen years each. But none ever rediscovered the inspiration that touched their opening salvos.
A few of the pitchers in baseball's pantheon had remarkable first seasons. Grover Cleveland Alexander won 28 games on his way to 373. A 21-year-old Whitey Ford went 9-1 for the World Series champion New York Yankees. Tom Seaver won Rookie of the Year in 1967.
But many more, from Cy Young to Bob Gibson to Roger Clemens, took a few years to find their greatness. A brilliant opening does not signal the likelihood of an epic career.
Some might argue that managers become so smitten with the first-year wonders that they abuse their still-developing arms and, inevitably, shorten their careers. I can't marshal the science to support that notion in this space. And that's fine. I'm not looking for causes. What I'm saying is that pitching lovers are living through an inspired summer and they should cherish it. Because with guys who throw the ball hard for a living, the great times almost never last.