By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010; A01
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."
Strasburg, a 21-year-old San Diego native, arrived at Nationals Park 364 days after being selected with the first overall pick of the 2009 draft, nearly 10 months after signing the most lucrative contract in the history of baseball's draft -- $15.1 million -- and 58 days after making his professional debut as a member of the Class AA Harrisburg Senators in Altoona, Pa. Those 58 days, as Strasburg abused minor league batters at two different levels across New York and Pennsylvania, only served to grow his legend and heighten anticipation among Nationals fans.
"It's a red-letter day for the franchise," Mark Lerner, the team's principal owner, said Tuesday. "I think that fans one day will look back and say, 'I was here the day the franchise took the next step.' "
On Tuesday, four teenage fans from Southbury, Conn. -- more Strasburg fans than Nationals fans, they said -- drove six hours south to Nationals Park, carrying a sign that read, "Strasburg Is Our Savior." It was merely the latest biblical reference to a pitcher dubbed "Jesus" by awestruck teammates during spring training.
"It's a prophecy," one of the teenagers, Cody Herr, explained.
"Back home," said his friend, Zack Ulrich, "we call him Saint Stephen."
Strasburg himself is as grounded and humble as they come. He arrived at the stadium Tuesday in mid-afternoon with his wife, Rachel, with team officials escorting them in through an entrance to the ballpark out of public sight.
At 3:30 p.m., as the media were allowed into the Nationals' clubhouse, Strasburg sat in a brown recliner looking up at a flat-screen television. Every other TV in the clubhouse was turned to ESPN, which featured wall-to-wall Strasburg coverage, but the phenom himself, decked out in a red T-shirt, navy blue mesh shorts and black flip-flops, was watching "Cash Cab" on the Discovery Channel.
While Rachel was making an early run on the Nationals' Team Store -- coming away with a bagful of limited-edition Strasburg 37 jerseys, and paying full price -- her husband was taking batting practice in an indoor cage, with a tin of dip tobacco in his back pocket and a pinch between his gum and lower lip.
Shortly after 6 p.m., Strasburg put on his gleaming white game uniform top -- No. 37, size 52 -- and laced up his spikes, size 15. As he walked to the outfield alongside pitching coach Steve McCatty to begin his pre-game stretching routine, the crowd along the right field line rose and cheered. The sections of seats around the Nationals' bullpen swelled with fans as he threw his warmup pitches.
Once the game started, Strasburg's exceptional ability, which had led many observers to call him the best pitching prospect in the game's history, revealed itself immediately. The first inning ended with a strikeout on a physics-defying curveball, and the second inning saw Strasburg's fastball reach 100 mph on the stadium radar readout, drawing gasps and cheers from the crowd.
"The only thing I really remember is the first pitch -- a ball inside," Strasburg said. "Everything else is kind of a blur."
When Strasburg, protecting a 1-0 lead, gave up a two-run homer to Pirates right fielder Delwyn Young with two outs in the fourth inning, the crowd seemed almost confused -- Wait, that wasn't supposed to happen, was it? -- but went right back to cheering when Strasburg jogged back to the mound for the fifth.
His best was still to come: seven consecutive strikeouts to end his night, another team record. By the end, Pirates batters were showing up at home plate, looking down at Rodríguez in his catcher's crouch and saying, according to Rodríguez, "This kid is unbelievable."
As the sun began to set beyond the dome of the Capitol, and Strasburg toed the pitching rubber at the start of another inning, reality began to set in, and it wasn't too bad at all: This was going to be the start of a long, beautiful relationship -- a city and its ace -- and it wasn't always going to be perfect, but it was going to be something to behold.
Staff writers, Zach Berman, Adam Kilgore, Dan Steinberg, Barry Svrluga and Steve Yanda contributed to this report.
More Stephen Strasburg news:
Strasburg's fastest pitch of the night was over 100 mph.
A discussion of Strasburg after the historic start.
Looking at what's up next for Strasburg and the Nationals.
A pitch-by-pitch breakdown of Strasburg's first start.