While Stephen Strasburg served up strikes, the announcers were all over the place

By Leonard Shapiro
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

So now we know the Stephen Strasburg hype clearly was no tripe, despite the occasional wretched excess on the local and national airwaves before, during and after the widely anticipated and stunningly successful major league debut of the Washington Nationals' $15 million rookie pitcher on Tuesday night.

At one point early in the MASN telecast, Rob Dibble, the team's yappy analyst/cheerleader, was not at all happy after the home plate umpire dared to call an apparent strike a ball, moaning that "I knew these umpires would not call those early breaking balls [as strikes] because they've never seen one that good."

A few minutes later, he was in full gush mode: "I've never seen anything like it." And it was only the second inning.

And yet that sort of adoring attention on baseball has been missing in the nation's capital since Day One of the Nationals first home game at RFK Stadium in 2005.

Tim Kurkjian, ESPN's widely respected lead baseball reporter, was both entertaining and effusive during a midday radio interview with Kevin Sheehan on WTEM (980 AM). Rarely prone to fan-boy hyperbole, Kurkjian, a native Washingtonian, said that in 30 years covering the game he'd never before seen more excitement and anticipation over the arrival of a young player in the major leagues.

I also had to laugh out loud when my Post colleague David Sheinin described the big fella with the please-shave-it-off scruffy beard as a "debutante pitcher" during an earlier interview on Tony Kornheiser's show on the same all-Strasburg, all-the-time station.

And yet after a year-long build-up since last June's draft, the kid with the smoking heater and break-your-heart curveball clearly lived up to his marquee billing. In seven spectacular innings in Tuesday night's 5-2 Washington victory, he merely struck out a Nationals-record 14 Pirates, including six of the first nine batters he faced, and mowed down the last 10 in a row, eight of them on Ks, before reaching his preset pitch count limit of 94 and taking a well-deserved seat in the dugout as a capacity crowd roared its approval.

MASN surely had to post one of the highest single-game ratings in its relatively brief history (apparently, it did), though the regional network did manage to occasionally drop the ball both in its hour-long pregame Nats Xtra "special" that was not particularly special at all, as well as the game telecast itself.

Just as an example, when Strasburg came out of the dugout and headed to the mound in the opening inning of his first major league game, where was MASN? Inexplicably in a commercial break, ultimately forced to show what very well may have been a historic franchise moment on tape delay 30 seconds after it happened.

When Strasburg walked back to the dugout after completing his seventh and final inning, it was another quick out of the action and into another commercial. MASN clearly should have stayed focused on the rousing reception he received in the dugout, as a sell-out crowd in a clearly amped ballpark rose and gave him a stirring ovation that surely had to be one of the great goose-bump moments since the team moved south from Montreal. Again, we saw it on tape delay, but viewers watching at home deserved far better.

The so-called pregame special was essentially a series of talking-head interviews conducted by hosts Johnny Holliday and Ray Knight and sideline reporter Debbi Taylor. They put all the right people in front of the camera -- GM Mike Rizzo, team president Stan Kasten, owner Mark Lerner, even hardball agent Scott Boras -- each one extolling the kid's considerable virtues.

They all waxed poetic about his calm demeanor, his parental upbringing, his work ethic, his fierce competitive nature, his discomfort with most things media -- most of which no doubt is true. Still, after a while it got a tad tiresome, as did the adoring softball questions. The show could have used a lot more action -- perhaps some taped highlights of his impressive work in the minor leagues over the last two months or pictures from his San Diego State days -- and a lot less yakkety-yak blah-blah-blah, considering a 2 1/2 -hour game was soon to follow.

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