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. 


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.


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 and follow him on Twitter.


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