By Steve Rushin
August 15, 2012

Until not very long ago, only steel plants, nuclear reactors, naval bases, filthy kitchens, piracy websites, governments and Chinese newspapers were routinely "shut down."

With the possible exception of you, asking that girl to the prom, humans were never said to be "shut down," as if they were a raided massage parlor or a malfunctioning ride at Six Flags.

All that has changed, of course, and the "things" most frequently shut down in 2012 are baseball pitchers, most prominent among them the Washington Nationals' ace Stephen Strasburg, who is about to be shut down, like an illegal bookmaking operation, out of preemptive concern for his surgically repaired right arm.

Because the Nationals have the best record in baseball, and a Washington team hasn't won the World Series since 1924, the "Strasburg Shutdown" has occasioned much local and national debate, not least among the Nationals themselves. First baseman Adam LaRoche told The Washington Post this week, "You don't want your best guy shut down," while skipper Davey Johnson has said: "Someone asked 'When we shut him down, can we keep his bat?' " Those for shutting Strasburg down, those opposed to shutting him down and those for something in between -- i.e., keeping his bat -- all agree on this much: That "shutting him down" is the operative phrase for preventing a pitcher from pitching.

In baseball in August, when arms begin to fall off, Venus de Milo-style, pitchers are frequently shut down for routine maintenance, as if they are expensive attractions at amusement parks, which is more or less what they are. Imagine the disappointment when a youngster arrives at Wrigley Field only to see in that day's paper: "Cubs righthander Matt Garza has been shut down." (As he has.) Or put another way: "Sorry, folks, park's closed. The moose out front shoulda told ya."

The world already views highly paid athletes as simultaneously superhuman and less than human, as gods and punchlines. So the notion of them as expensive and finely calibrated machines -- temperamental, buggy, soulless, but capable of greater work than mere man can do -- is perfect for our age.

And so the Rangers have "temporarily shut down" catcher Mike Napoli, as if he were an assembly line on which there had been an emergency, and a big red button was pushed to stop the gears before the whole machine whirs to life again -- no doubt in time for the postseason. As with machines or infants, we can talk about baseball players secure in the knowledge that they cannot hear or understand us. "Should the Mets shut down Johan Santana?" The Wall Street Journal asked on Monday, to which Newsday replied, in a headline: "Terry Collins Isn't Ready To Shut Down Johan Santana."

It's not just New Yorkers and Washingtonians concerned who are concerned with powering down their pitching machines. Philadelphians have debated shutting down Roy Halladay (and Vance Worley). The Indians temporarily shut down reliever Rafael Perez. The Twins shut down Matt Capps. The White Sox have opted not to shut down Chris Sale (though surely it would make more sense to "close out" Sale). And on and on, through every city in the big leagues.

For the first 110 years of professional baseball, it would appear that no pitcher was publicly said to have been "shut down." The earliest citation of the phrase I could find involved Tony LaRussa, then the White Sox manager, ordering Ed Farmer to get warm in the bullpen as Sox starter Rich Dotson clung to a 2-1 lead in the seventh inning of a game in 1980. The Sox scored four runs that inning, by which time it was too late to have Farmer stop throwing. "He was all cranked up," LaRussa said afterward, "and although I would have liked to have gone with Dotson longer, it was too late to shut [Farmer] down."

The phrase began to appear in print more frequently in the mid-1980s, usually uttered by Phillies pitching coach Claude Osteen, who shut down more athletes than Deion Sanders. Which reminds us: "Shut down" has long had a separate definition, "to physically dominate," accounting for football's "shutdown cornerback" position. In that regard, pitchers have long shut down -- and shut out -- opponents. It's the getting shut down that's more recent -- and more complicated, as Strasburg and the growing rank of National fans is discovering.

Strasburg has suggested that the only way Nats general manager Mike Rizzo can shut him down is by tearing the baseball from his right hand. But then most machines are incapable of turning themselves off, and so the countdown to the shutdown has begun. If this were a Beach Boys song, Strasburg would be the superstock Dodge with the 413, and Rizzo the fuel-injected Stingray. The former may be a well-oiled work of art, capable of wondrous things, but in the end it's the Stingray that always wins, telling the Dodge in five-part harmony: "Shut it off, shut it off, buddy now I shut you down."

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