Posted Thursday, June 10, 2010, at 9:56 AM
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.
Why is Strasburg a
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
-century boxers and racehorses, but
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
in Southern California, is being called a
. On the other, his debut made it seem unlikely that we'll have to worry about unmitigated failure.
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
in recent days.
Lexis-Nexis also brings news of other, more obscure luminaries. Take, for example, Trinidadian soca
. 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
features Lil Jon and
Banjo and fiddle
also makes music, the kind that
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."