Get To Know Your Phenoms

Slate's Culture Blog
June 10 2010 9:56 AM

Get To Know Your Phenoms

Stephen Strasburg was spectacular in his Major League debut Tuesday night, striking out 14 batters in a 5-2 Washington Nationals victory. The sports media have settled on a single word to describe the rookie pitcher: phenom . A Lexis-Nexis search spanning the last seven days turned up around 200 phenom mentions, two-thirds of them in reference to Strasburg or Washington Nationals draftee Bryce Harper, who was 16 when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated last June. 

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Why is Strasburg a phenom and not some other superlative? The term has actually been used to describe baseball players since the 1880s. According to The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary , the term was also used to describe 19 th -century boxers and racehorses, but phenom s have mostly been found on the baseball diamond. In his 1911 tome Base Ball: America's National Game , Albert G. Spalding explains that the baseball phenom "came into the game from Keokuk, Kankakee, Kokomo, and Kalamazoo. He was heralded always as a 'discovery.' His achievements were 'simply phenomenal.' Once in a while he 'made good.' Usually he proved to be a flat and unmitigated failure." On one hand, it's fitting that Strasburg, who grew up in a small city in Southern California, is being called a phenom . On the other, his debut made it seem unlikely that we'll have to worry about unmitigated failure.

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Strasburg and Harper are not the only inhabitants of planet phenom. Along with baseball, the word is also tossed around in golf a fair bit, having been used in reference to youngsters Jennifer Song , Ryo Ishikawa , and Rory McIlroy in recent days.

Lexis-Nexis also brings news of other, more obscure luminaries. Take, for example, Trinidadian soca phenom Machel Montano . According to his official Web site , Montano was the first soca artist to sell out two back-to-back shows at Madison Square Garden. His latest album features Lil Jon and Shaggy .

Banjo and fiddle phenom Frank Fairfield also makes music, the kind that LA Weekly's Jeff Weiss thinks belongs in a Faulkner novel , not present-day Los Angeles. "It's difficult to imagine Frank Fairfield living in an apartment, let alone using e-mail or a cell phone," Weiss wrote. "It's much easier to picture him ... camped by the bank of some slow-moving tributary, fiddling forgotten Appalachian murder ballads, surrounded by hobos chomping cold beans."

If banjo isn't your thing, there's also Pop-a-Shot phenom Ricardo Reyes . The 5-foot-7 Jimmy Kimmel Live! guest beat LeBron James and Charles Barkley in the arcade basketball game. Reyes, like James and Barkley, has never won an NBA championship.

Alan Siegel is a writer in Washington, D.C. You can reach him at asiegel05@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.