Of the big 4 sports, Baseball would easily be the one I follow the least. I never really grew up as a baseball fan, since there was no team in Washington DC growing up. I followed the Orioles through friends who were fans, but they never felt like “my team.”
By the time the Expos moved to DC and became the Nationals, my formative years of fandom had already passed, and my allegiances to the Redskins, Capitals, and (to a lesser extent) the Wizards were already well established.
I took to the Nationals the way you’d take to your wife, whom you’d love unconditionally, rescuing a morbidly obese and painfully unfriendly cat (when you’ve grown up with dogs your whole life), who has never been potty trained, and thus poops all over the house (or is annually in contention for losing 100+ games): you’re supposed to like it, you want to try and like it, you try your best to like it, you go out of your way to try and like it, but in the end, it’s just really hard to like it
But being a DC guy through and through, I still want to like it.
So when your (new) hometown team has a player being hailed as a “once in a generation” pitching prospect with some unprecedentedly nasty stuff for his age, it re-energizes an entire fan base, and sucks back in those fans who want a team to root for but were tired of throwing their hands up in disgust over.
And as proven by the likely record ratings that the Nationals got for his first spring training start, so does the rest of this city. I’m sure plenty of DC baseball fans, starving for a hometown winner, made time out of their schedule to watch Strasburg’s first start, just in case this guy, one day, lives up to the hype. You want the chance to say “I was there at the beginning.” I personally never got to see Nolan Ryan or Roger Clemens in their prime, and I was a bit too young (and disinterested in baseball) to really appreciate the mastery of Pedro Martinez, so this is also my chance for redemption.
Strasburg wasn’t up long, but he didn’t disappoint. The flashes of brilliance and displays of his tantalizing abilities were certainly there, if only a little tease of what could be yet to come. He retired the first three Tigers batters in about 4 minutes and 8 pitches (no hits). He struck out Miguel Cabrera on a sick pitch to start the 2nd inning (Cabrera later about Strasburg: “When he throws the ball, it’s like an explosion”). He showed his grit by climbing out of a 3-0 hole to Brent Dlugach and striking him out with a wicked breaking ball, after allowing hits to the previous two batters and appearing to be a bit frazzled. As ESPN’s Jayson Stark tweeted: “One scout’s instant review of Strasburg: “Makes [Tigers pitcher Rick] Porcello look like he’s playing catch with his sister.'”
But more importantly, he rekindled for many baseball fans (and attempted born-again fans, such as myself) the quintessential human emotion known as hope. Hope that Stephen Strasburg will be the savior of this franchise, the lynchpin for turning this band of lovable losers into a winning team that this city so desperately craves.
Look about two miles north of the Southeast Waterfront, at what Alexander Ovechkin did for the Washington Capitals. 5 years ago, Capitals’ tickets were like a cheap pair of sunglasses: you couldn’t get rid of them, no matter how hard you try. Now? Try getting a ticket, even in the nosebleed seats, for less than 50 bucks. The Capitals are the best team in the NHL, and you have some of the most popular players on the Redskins – the franchise this lives and dies with the most, without question – openly stating that Ovechkin is the most popular player in this city.
Yet in the end, hockey can never hold the appeal for Washington residents the way baseball could. Washington DC isn’t Buffalo or Minneapolis. The Capitals are the hottest ticket in town because the city is starved for a winner and they’re a damn entertaining team, but a baseball team that even flirts with playoff contention would easily steal a ton of that traffic.
The Nationals have a beautiful new ballpark in a not-so-great part of town, after getting it built by twisting the collective arms of the (uber-corrupt) DC city council into approving the public funding, hoping it would revitalize the Southeast waterfront the way the Verizon Center (although in my heart, it will always be the MCI Center) did with Gallery Place and Chinatown. Yet, attendance figures are paltry (if not downright embarrassing) as the team is coming off back-to-back 100-loss season. It got so bad that Stan Kasten actually went on Philadelphia radio stations and explained how Phillies fans could come see their team play in Washington for cheaper than it would be to go see the defending world champions in their home park.
Strasburg, single-handedly, can change that. If nothing else, he can help establish that, at least three or four times a month, baseball will matter in this town. Bill Simmons always said there was a buzz in the air in Boston during the late 90’s/early 2000’s, when it was a night that Pedro Martinez was going to take the mound; given the hype surrounding him, and the stuff that we’ve been told he’s got, if Strasburg plays well, fans will come in flocks to go see him.
DC is a city of big names, and in the sports world, we embrace the chance to go see superstars. Alexander Ovechkin, a Russian hockey player, is the most popular athlete in town, and gushed over by fans who never watched a single hockey game before 2006. The only time(s) that Wizards games sell out these days is when LeBron James is in town. Even while many DC residents have turned on the Orioles (or more specifically, Peter Angelos) Cal Ripken Jr.’s name still holds reverence among them. And even despite his so-so second stint, Joe Gibbs is STILL more popular than Barack Obama (circa late 2008).
Factor in the revolving door of big-name free-agent acquisition busts that the Redskins have gone through over the past 10 years – and our patience growing increasingly thin with Clinton Portis – the city is itching for another player to join the Pantheon of elite DC athletes.
Strasburg can be the foundational block of something special. The Nationals again own the #1 overall pick in the upcoming draft, and have the chance to draft Catcher Bryce Harper, a 17 year old collegiate player (who should be a junior in High School) who has only been referred to as “the LeBron James of baseball.” Like Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin of the Capitals, Harper and all-star Ryan Zimmerman will have the chance to play Batman and Robin to Strasburg’s Superman.
In the end, Strasburg will spend a few months in the minors to start off the season, but everyone in DC and the baseball world knows that the Nationals need to have Strasburg pitching for them sooner rather than later. Whenever it is that he makes his first start in the majors, it will be much more than just how he looked or whether the Nationals won. It will be about whether he can revitalize baseball in the Nations Capital.