Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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No DiMaggio

Q: Stephen Strasburg blew away even the loftiest expectations in his major-league debut, breaking a Nats record with 14 strikeouts and drawing comparisons to Koufax and Clemens. Is it possible to kill -- or injure -- the "golden goose" by expecting too much, or is it a vote of confidence? Can one player really change the fortunes of a whole team -- and its fans?

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you...

When Simon and Garfunkel first sang those lyrics in the chaotic days of 1968, they used the metaphor of the baseball legend, larger than life, to connote America's search for heroes.

Joe DiMaggio was a man from another time -- a time when the sports hero epitomized values of dignity and hard work, personal restraint and discipline. Fathers wanted their sons to be like DiMaggio or Lou Gehrig or Robin Roberts -- dignified gentlemen who knew how to compete well while living exemplary lives. (Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth were also baseball icons, but not necessarily role models for life.)

Our relentless quest for heroes continues unabated, made even more difficult by the equally relentless drive to tear down anyone who begins to get comfortable on the pedestal -- or the stunning tendency of too many prematurely crowned "heroes" to self-destruct (see: Tiger Woods, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Kobe Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger, etc.).

Our latest "hero" is the impressive Stephen Strasburg, hurling 100-mph pitches one after the other, striking out 14 batters in his major league debut. Wow. But, folks, get a grip! He's just a young man, and his claim to fame, for goodness sakes, is that he can throw balls that other guys can't hit. Useful skills for professional pitchers, of course -- but it's hardly a complete life story.

When Joe DiMaggio died in 1999, Paul Simon wrote this in an op-ed piece in the New York Times:

"Why do we do this even as we know the attribution of heroic characteristics is almost always a distortion? Deconstructed and scrutinized, the hero turns out to be as petty and ego-driven as you and I. We know, but still we anoint. We deify, though we know the deification often kills, as in the cases of Elvis Presley, Princess Diana and John Lennon. Even when the recipient's life is spared, the fame and idolatry poison and injure. There is no doubt in my mind that DiMaggio suffered for being DiMaggio."

I wish nothing more than a long, happy and scandal-free career for Stephen Strasburg. But the odds against that are immense. His greatest challenge is not sustaining his phenom status and keeping his arm injury-free, but holding fast to his sense of integrity and ethics, proportion and humanity.

He can't do it alone. The Nats' owner and leaders, manager and teammates all owe it to him to help him to keep it real. We fans, too, need to help him stay grounded by tempering our expectations with respect for his youth and need to grow. We need to set him free from the ills of hero worship, allowing him to be excellent at the game while also remaining a decent human being. He needs to remain himself, genuine and grounded in real life.

He is not the cipher of Walter Johnson or the modern echo of Joe DiMaggio. "Joltin' Joe has left and gone away," and he's not coming back.

By Patricia McGuire  |  June 14, 2010; 12:31 PM ET  | Category:  Sustaining success Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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It's also time to stop referring to sports figures et al as "heroes." They are "idols." Big difference.

Idol: any person or thing regarded with blind admiration, adoration, or devotion (dictionary.com)

Hero: a person of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his/her brave deeds and noble qualities.

The people who overcame the terrorists on Flight 93 were heroes. The firefighters and LEOs et al who responded on 9/11 are heroes. Every military member who's been sent into battle is a hero because they go when ordered by their gov/fellow citizens.

Please, media, you can stop the foolishness by referring to idols as heroes. Let me caveat this by saying that in this instance, pitcher and umpire were in a sense heroes because they behaved nobly. On the same hand, how pathetic that we have to label either a hero for behaving maturely. It's pretty sad when we have to single out these "odd" acts and showcase them when they should be de rigueur.

Posted by: itsagreatday1 | June 14, 2010 8:25 AM
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