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.

Everybody wants to win. And the Nats think they are on the way. With two international signings this year, including pitcher Yunesky Maya for $6.5 million, as well as the $13.7-million they shelled out Monday for Harper, plus four - that's f-o-u-r - "above slot" signings of high draft picks, the Nats continued a 20-month pattern of spending sufficiently, though judiciously, to build a winner. The Nats are way past "cheap" and on the way to "smart."

However, while the path to the playoffs is vague, the arrival of Harper and Strasburg is as obvious as a thunderclap. Such players, especially when they arrive young, change the way a city bonds to a team and joins in nurturing its development.

"For fans, there is nothing better than growing up with a team, watching young players arrive and adopting them," said team President Stan Kasten.

"Could we have done things quicker and won more games sooner? Probably," he admitted. Then he shrugged: "But if it had been done quicker, we wouldn't have either Strasburg or Harper."

Cliches stand the test of time because they are true at the core. For example: It's better to be lucky than good.

The original Nats "plan" was to be very bad in '07 and lose enough games to get the No. 1 overall draft pick in '08. But they blew it and went 73-89. Then, in '08 and '09, when they entered a new publicly-funded park and wanted to show progress, they were awful - the worst team in baseball.

Even then, they needed ironic good luck. In '08, with Strasburg up for grabs, Seattle had the lead for Worst Record. But the Mariners hired an interim manager, Jim Riggleman, who rallied Seattle just enough late in the season so the Nats could be worst. The baseball gods know how to laugh: Riggleman ended up managing in his own home town with Strasburg as his ace.

So, now the Double No. 1 Drama begins. Now they are linked, Harper and Strasburg, in baseball lore. "It's never happened before," said GM Mike Rizzo. "No one has ever had two No. 1 overall picks back-to-back ... with this vast talent. It's just extraordinary.

"And there have never been two who arrived in the sport with this kind of full-blown national persona."

Together, this National pair will go through baseball history together, linked, perhaps, as future Hall of Famers, like Ken Griffey, Jr. and Randy Johnson in their decade together in Seattle. Or, perhaps, a rung lower, where we find "might-have-been" dreams, they will be like Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden who took the '80s Mets from laughing stock to perennial contender. Rehab, not Cooperstown, will be their final linkage.

Or perhaps they will be more like Herb Score and Rocky Colavito in Cleveland in the '50s when many thought the fire-balling left-hander and the handsome slugger would win a World Series, or a few, for the Indians? One got hurt, the other traded. And Cleveland still hasn't won another World Series.

Every scenario is now open, plus plenty we can't imagine. One thing is certain, however. After Monday night, with its pie-in-the-face and an Elvis wig for Rizzo, only one town is going to be able to take that dizzy ride and find out the answers: Washington.

For those who saw baseball arrive in '05, there were core questions. Would the Nationals product ever be worth the wait, worth the expense, worth the decades of frustration affection?

The answer hasn't arrived. But it's starting to take clear shape. With Harper now joining Strasburg, it sure looks like, "Yes."

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