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.
Now, the engines of acceptability -- ESPN highlights, chatter about K's, an alliterative name and a radar gun that flashes "101" as if it were "007" -- should work for the Nats, at least for a while. Maybe it's shallow, not the real hard-core fan's kind of thing. Perhaps it'll put too much burden on Strasburg. But that pressure is there already.
Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson confronted it. They each needed several years, full of nagging, to find their final form. Roger Clemens, Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden arrived fully formed. Ben McDonald, David Clyde and Pete Broberg, the Senators' flame-throwing No. 1 overall pick in the secondary draft in '71, fell fairly fast.
Strasburg will find his place somewhere along that arc. Watching his progress will take at least a few years. For just $15 million, the Nats finally have everyone's attention.
The Nats should be forgiven if, at least temporarily, they seem relieved of an enormous burden, some monstrous thing on their shoulders that weighs roughly as much as the combined weights of Jim Bowden, Jose Rijo, Manny Acta, Smiley González, Mark Teixeira, Lastings Milledge, Joel Hanrahan, Daniel Cabrera and every other organizational symbol of incompetence, malfeasance or just buzzard bad luck.
Oh, and add owner Ted Lerner to the pileup. Remember, the cheap billionaire? Now, in the last eight months, he has bid $188 million for Teixeira, signed Zimmerman to a $45 million contract, gotten a 40-homer free agent in Dunn for $20 million, added Willingham and lefty Scott Olsen for a $6 million payroll bump, eaten some of Nick Johnson's salary in order to trade him and now broken the record contract for a draft pick by 50 percent. And, 10 days ago, the 83-year-old flew cross-country to court the 21-year-old Strasburg personally.
So, get off his case. (Forget that I'm the one who has been on his case.) Well, at least until the offseason when, at a minimum, he needs to buy his last-place bunch a free agent starter and a quality reliever. For now, just say, "Thanks, Ted." Since he bought the team, he has barely heard the words. Maybe the novelty will spur more spending.
For now, the Nats are exhausted and at rest. Give credit, they read the Strasburg negotiations perfectly. Boras wanted a crusade to blow up baseball's slotting system for draft picks. That meant at least a $20 million contract for Strasburg, with threats he'd go play in an independent league for a year, then sign with somebody else -- as other Boras clients have done. The Nats were never playing that game. If Strasburg signed on for that battle, they were cooked. However, he wanted to start his career and made it clear that, at the end of the negotiating tussle, he wanted a contract finished.
"He's an independent thinker," Rizzo, the Nats' lead negotiator, said of Strasburg. "This guy is going to make his own decisions. . . . He wanted to play, to win Cy Young Awards, to win titles. . . . That makes the signing process work. . . . The money was a nice perk."
Some Boras guys, such as Teixeira, go for the last dollar in every negotiation of their careers. But some don't, such as Matt Wieters of the Orioles and Strasburg. To his credit, Boras seems willing to represent some of both kinds, though he likes to get out his big-bucks bazooka more often. This time he fought for Strasburg, until 77 seconds were left.
"Scott was pretty darn good, very professional," said Nationals President Stan Kasten, who has used Boras's name in sentences that would've made George Carlin blush.
"Wow," murmured Rizzo in disbelief, fresh from days of negotiations, including a shouting match between him and Boras filled with words that always get you ejected. Kasten simply listened to that one in awe: "A classic confrontation. I felt like a proud papa."
Now, the fray has ended.
"All's well that ends well," Kasten said. "But this proves you probably don't want to watch the process of a hot dog being made. Only the end result matters. We never want to get the overall number one draft pick again [for having the game's worst record]. I never, ever want to go through that again."
In the final minutes, contrary to consensus, it was the Nats who were stalling.
"We didn't need it done earlier than that. It would have cost us more," Kasten said. "But I did not need it much later than that. I looked at the [official] clock and saw '11:58:43.' Never forget it."
That's when the Nats signed Stephen Strasburg. Because he wanted to pitch, wanted to get into the fire, more than he wanted the last dollar. Because he chose here. Sometime, when he gets knocked out (if he ever does), remember that. Maybe give the kid a hand.