Pitcher Stephen Strasburg makes his major league debut for Washington Nationals
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
They drove to work with baseball talk on the radio, tweeted breathlessly from their office cubicles, checked their favorite blogs for updates, sneaked glances at the handy countdown ticker that ran all day on ESPN, wished each other "Merry Strasmas." And finally, at 7:06 p.m., they rose as one from every corner of Nationals Park, with cameras and camcorders held aloft for posterity, to glimpse the most significant moment in the history of the Washington Nationals.
It was the first major league pitch of Stephen Strasburg's career -- 97 mph fastball, inside, ball one -- the dawning of a new era for the Nationals franchise, and the spectacular collision of two of the most powerful forces today: a once-in-a-generation baseball phenom and the assembled might of the media hype machine in the Internet age.
If it was possible to live up to that hype, the tall, sturdy kid with lightning in his right arm and the hopes of a beleaguered fan base in his hands did it, pitching magnificently for seven innings in a 5-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates in his major league debut. The strikeouts piled up -- 14 of them in all, a Nationals team record, each raising the electricity level in the stadium -- and the innings rolled by. Only one slip-up, a two-run homer in the fourth inning, marred the scorecard.
"Everybody is impressed with what this kid did today," said Iván Rodríguez, the Nationals' veteran catcher and a presumed future Hall-of-Famer. "He completely dominated."
When the team announced in the middle of the seventh inning that Strasburg had set a Nationals team record for strikeouts, the sell-out crowd of 40,315 demanded a curtain call, and Strasburg obliged, climbing the dugout steps and doffing his cap to all sides, his buzzcut hair glistening with sweat.
"It was a great atmosphere," Strasburg said later. "I definitely felt everyone pulling for me."
Never had the nation's capital, or perhaps the nation itself, seen a professional athlete debut with so much hype and media saturation. The team handed out more than 200 media credentials -- equivalent to a late-October playoff game -- as an otherwise pedestrian early-June game was transformed into the most singular sort of Washington event.
Longtime District residents were comparing the anticipation for Strasburg's debut to that of a presidential inauguration. Longtime sports fans were searching their memories for comparable events: Perhaps Michael Jordan's debut with the Washington Wizards in 2001? The return of Coach Joe Gibbs to the Redskins in 2004? Maybe even the Redskins' last Super Bowl team in 1991?
"The attention rivals anything I've ever seen in sports," said Nationals team president Stan Kasten, who has been running sports franchises since 1979. "For us, this is as big as it gets. We've got a World Series-sized media contingent here for a Tuesday game against the Pirates."
Area baseball fans of newer vintage would compare the night to the April 2005 arrival of the Nationals franchise from Montreal -- which ended the city's 37-year drought without major league baseball -- while a handful of old-timers might be compelled to reach back to the 1933 World Series, the final one for the old Washington Senators, for the last baseball moment this big in the District.
"The 2005 season opener was definitely a bigger deal because we hadn't had baseball here for 37 years. This [is] a close second," said Johnnie Hooks, 62, of Takoma Park, a peanut and beer vendor at the stadium. "We've been having a hard time getting somebody to win something in this city, you know, since the Redskins ain't doing nothing right now. And we're trying to get a new team doing something."