After Years of Pain, Washington Gets Its Baseball Moment

Mike Rizzo, acting GM of the Washington Nationals, talks about last night's record-breaking rookie contract with Stephen Strasburg and the expectations for the new player. Video by Comcast SportsNet
By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Few teams have ever needed a watershed event more than the Nationals. And no town in baseball has needed a validation and a fresh start more than Washington. On Monday night, at 11:58:43 p.m., both the team and the town got their wish.

Just 77 seconds before a witching midnight deadline, the franchise that so often gets kicked when it is down and the town that is constantly accused of baseball's original sin (being Washington) proved that it could do something big and difficult and right.

The Nats signed Stephen Strasburg, probably the most heralded young pitcher of the last 50 years. Who knows what portion of his collegiate and Olympic fame will prove justified. But not only did the Nats sign him for a fair price of $15.1 million, plus incentives, despite the howls of his crusading agent Scott Boras, but Strasburg also did what has been unthinkable in baseball until now.

He chose here.

No 21-year-old deserves such responsibility, but Strasburg has put the Nats squarely on baseball's map, on the list of can't-miss attractions in the game that must be seen. Does he really throw 100 to 102 mph with command? Or is that partly scouts' mythology? Is his 93-mph slider really his best pitch, so sharp it actually seems to hit something in midair and deflect? And is Mike Rizzo, the Nats acting general manager, correct when he says what sets Strasburg apart is not just his stuff but "a fierceness"?

Those who, after nearly two years, have not yet found an excuse to visit Nationals Park will now have to discover a reason not to come. I meet such people all the time. Where is the park exactly? What about the parking? Well, the team is terrible, right? Why take the trouble? The owners, aren't they cheap? Why not punish them with indifference until they prove themselves with a World Series? Then, maybe, find South Capitol Street.

Soon, in much less than a year, that may change. Strasburg will come to spring training next year with a spot in the rotation waiting for him, his to lose. How can you live here and not see Alex Ovechkin play hockey? You can't. So it may be with Strasburg and the Nats by sometime next year. A winning team? Someday. But with luck and health, every fifth day, the Strasburg phenomenon may beckon.

At least it is possible. And that makes a world of difference. Right now, for a town that is deeply unsure whether it wants to fall for baseball, something special is required. Adam Dunn, Ryan Zimmerman and Josh Willingham will probably hit 100 homers and drive in 300 runs this year in the heart of a Nats order that is in the top half in the National League. That would be sufficient attraction, even in a last-place season, in some old-line baseball towns. Nyjer Morgan, a new leadoff man hitting .310, on pace for 52 stolen bases and with as much range as almost any center fielder in the game, would add spice. Even a crafty kid such as southpaw John Lannan would have a following.

But in Washington, where baseball is concerned, it is still better never to have loved at all; then you can't lose. Will the Strasburg seduction change that? Surely it was worth more than $15 million to find out. In a front-running, big-event town, he could be a fine fit.

Sorry, kid, did they tell you about all this? Welcome to town. You're the gallant who just proposed to the old maid; you might collide with considerable gratitude.

For 33 years, baseball did not choose Washington. The town had to bribe the game back with a billion-dollar dowry of ballpark funding and Lerner family money to buy the ravaged Expos franchise. Once here, the sport has grudgingly acknowledged the town as a new/old dot on its map, but with a kind of invisible asterisk above the city's name, as if to say, "Lost two franchises. On probation."

Even the town's own internal cynics have guarded themselves against mockery by assuming failure as the city's baseball default setting. Now, for a day, let's mock mockers.

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