With Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals now have three franchise players

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; 3:08 AM

Baseball fans can win two ways. Their team can be great. Or a player can be so sublime that his performance, year after year, almost every day for six months at a time, gives so much accumulated pleasure that his individual art actually rivals victory.

On average in a 30-team sport, a town gets to celebrate a world title about once a generation. So, what binds us to the game, the team and the ritual enjoyments of a season if our highest celebrations arrive so rarely? Usually, it's our favorite individual players, especially those who amaze or even inspire us.

A franchise and a town are lucky if they have one such player a generation. Washington had only one glimpse of one Hall of Fame player - Harmon Killebrew for a few years - between the '30s and the day the last version of the Senators left town in '71.

Now, after a $9.9-million deal with less than a minute to go before a midnight signing deadline, the Nationals have added Bryce Harper to Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman. A team that, little more than a year ago, seemed almost hopeless, now has three players with face-of-franchise talent, ages 17, 22 and 25, spaced out to anchor a franchise for a decade.

Within 364 days, the Nationals have signed two young players who, according to almost every independent judge of talent in the sport (not just Nats publicists) have the potential to become as great as the very best power pitchers and sluggers who ever lived.

The first to sign, Strasburg, has in less than a year already delivered a partial verdict: Exceeded initial expectations.

It's not smoke. It's happening. Just five years after getting a team back after a 33-year absence, Washington fans are getting a reward that, while perhaps not as cherished as a World Series, ranks enormously high. If you believe in the wheel of karma, you must be tempted to spinning 'round to "Washington" again.

Few franchises ever have a moment even remotely similar to what the Nats are experiencing. Strasburg will be under team control through the 2016 season and Harper, if he becomes a regular at 21, would be an indentured Nats employee until 2020.

If you can't build on that foundation, what are you waiting for?

Maybe, in time, both of these No. 1 overall draft picks will become historic players. Or one will. Or neither. But only Washington will get to watch up close, hometown style, for a fat juicy handful of seasons at the very least.

Just as exciting, the Nats possess the formative years for Harper and Strasburg when the mystery of potential unfolds or fails.

In an extra twist, if Zimmerman, already a winner of a gold glove and a Silver Slugger, keeps improving as he has again this year, the day may come when his entire career is one of those that a whole town never forgets.

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