Washington Nationals hope spotlight on Stephen Strasburg reflects on whole team

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010; D01

CLEVELAND -- Once cast aside by national media and fans, the Washington Nationals, because of Stephen Strasburg's expectation-defying first two starts, have become an attraction. The Nationals asserted their competence even before Strasburg's breathlessly awaited call-up. His arrival and the subsequent crush of widespread attention have made the sports world take notice.

"It kind of puts into focus the other really good players that we have," General Manager Mike Rizzo said. "The attention on his national stage gives everybody a bigger platform to shine. We think we have a good product, a lot of good stories, good personalities on the team. If it takes Stephen to bring it into the national focus, then I'm fine with that."

Their ascension in cachet seems sudden, but "it wasn't overnight," team President Stan Kasten said. The Nationals endured two seasons of either being overlooked or worse. Over the past two seasons, the Nationals played on national television five times -- twice against the Phillies during Philadelphia's late-season playoff push, once as Randy Johnson pitched for his 300th win.

Their losing pushed people away and became the butt of jokes, which the Nationals' hovering around .500 this season did not put an end to entirely. During the opening moments of Strasburg's debut, comedian Seth Meyers joked on his Twitter account, "Washington has a baseball team? When did this happen?"

When the night ended, Meyers wrote, "I'm jealous of Nats fans. This is incredible."

In Strasburg's first road start Sunday, the Indians drew more than 32,000 fans, double their season average. Strasburg's first two starts were broadcast on national television, and MLB Network will air his third. Fox chose to schedule this Saturday's Nationals-White Sox game for telecast merely hoping Strasburg would pitch.

"He's right now the catalyst to get people to come out to the ballpark," said Bill Sutton, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida's DeVos Sport Business Management program. "This is the guy that's going to bring credibility to the other guys. This guy is going to put it over the top. Eventually, there will be the transference."

Sutton compared Strasburg's potential impact on the Nationals to Michael Jordan's on the Chicago Bulls. Across the country, fans adored Jordan first and then adopted the Bulls. Before Jordan arrived, "they weren't basketball fans in Chicago," Sutton said. "Michael Jordan taught people how to be basketball fans and then how to be Bulls fans."

Two starts into his career, a Jordan comparison might be premature. And Strasburg's impact, of course, is less direct than Jordan's -- not only is he one of nine players rather than one of five, he only plays every fifth day. Still, "it could happen," Sutton said. "People may come to watch him and say, 'Wow, we need to get involved with this team.' "

Across the country, people who would not typically watch a Nationals game have been glued to their televisions. On Sunday afternoon at Yankee Stadium in New York, while Strasburg faced the Cleveland Indians in the Midwest, the visiting Houston Astros made a pitching change. The public address announcer bellowed, "Now pitching for Cleveland" before correcting himself.

On Sunday morning, Nationals pitchers Drew Storen, John Lannan and Tyler Clippard stood in the Progressive Field outfield during batting practice. They looked around and saw an unfamiliar sight: Fans in an opposing stadium wearing Nationals T-shirts and jerseys.

"You're not used to seeing that," Storen said. "To get that sort of support, that fanfare, when we're on the road? When they watch him, they're going to see the other young guys on the team. And they're going to see the other guys on the team that are proven winners and become Nationals fans."

On days he pitches, Strasburg's spotlight lands on his teammates, too. Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham form the only trio of hitters from the same team in the National League that all rank in the top 11 in on-base percentage plus slugging percentage. And yet, none of them ranked even in the top five of their position in the most recent all-star fan balloting.

"There are top-notch players here that aren't getting the media attention they need," rookie shortstop Ian Desmond said.

In Strasburg's first outing, which drew the highest television ratings in Nationals history, Zimmerman, Dunn and Willingham all hit home runs. Everyone who wanted to glimpse the phenom pitcher also watched one of the sport's best young players and two top-tier sluggers on display.

"A lot of people came to see him, and they were able to see a good baseball game played by 24 other guys as well," closer Matt Capps said. "There's no reason why people shouldn't come out and watch him -- he's a special player. That being said, we've got a good ballclub."

Even before Strasburg threw his first pitch in the major leagues, he enhanced the viability of the Nationals. Strasburg "changed the marquee of a franchise, changed the perception of the franchise," Scott Boras, the super-agent who represents Strasburg, said before his first start.

Kasten believes that if the Nationals implement their plan to become a winning team, the national attention on Strasburg eventually will transfer to the rest of the team. He spoke of achieving benchmarks: reaching .500, then contending, then consistently vying for titles.

"Those could come fast once you have your base established," Kasten said. "We think we have our base established."

If someday -- and maybe someday soon -- the Nationals complete a transformation from afterthought to idols, the change will have sprung from what Strasburg did the past six days.

"People have to believe," Sutton said. "He's part of the belief. He's the first miracle, if you will."

Nationals note: Strasburg added to his unparalleled first week in the major leagues this afternoon when Major League Baseball named him the National League player of the week. In the first two starts of his career, Strasburg went 2-0 and allowed three runs on six hits with 22 strikeouts and five walks in 12 1/3 innings.

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