(Editor’s note: Dr. Golden wrote this story before Strasburg’s 2010 season was ended by an arm injury, requiring the dreaded Tommy John surgery. While we’re Mets fans and would normally cheer the news of an NL East opponent falling upon hard times, we feel baseball is much better off with Strasburg pitching every five days. We wish him nothing but the best and hope he returns to form in 2012.)
Us Nationals fans have so little to hope for. If it’s going to be over 90 degrees and stifling the entire month of July, let a cool breeze penetrate the sticky heat every couple of innings. If Teddy Roosevelt is going to win a mid-inning race, let it be a legitimate win against one of the other presidents, and not the Baltimore Oriole or the Geico Gecko. And if we’re going to suck, let us suck so exquisitely that we earn a first round draft pick who’s as good as we are bad. And let him actually sign with us.
And so hope has led us here. To the top of the 7th inning, with the entire sold-out stadium on its feet and chanting. “Ste-phen Stras-burg.” Clap, clap, clapclapclap. “Ste-phen Stras-burg” Clap, clap, clapclapclap. It was almost too much. Strike one! I wanted them to stop, to just be happy with what he had done so far. Strike two! To take some of the pressure off this kid and just let him—Strike three! And just like that, Stephen Strasburg had struck out the side. The last seven batters in fact. Fourteen in total. The stadium exploded into an ovation the whole city could hear. And as he walked back to the dugout, unlikely to return for the 8th inning with his pitch count at 94, we knew that Stephen Strasburg, last year’s stunning reward for our remarkable failure, had fulfilled our hopes. For tonight at least. And much more than a cool breeze ever could.
The major league debut of Stephen Strasburg was nothing less than a spectacle for Washington DC. The hype surrounding him since his first-round draft pick and eleventh hour signing could not have been more wonderfully over-the-top. Purported to be one of the sport’s best prospects ever (ever!), Strasburg was to be our very own superstar and the savior for whom we had been waiting to lead our team to greatness. As an All-American from San Diego State, his deeds were renowned. He accumulated a 0.63 conference ERA, struck out 23 batters in one game, and earned a bronze medal with two starts as the only collegiate player on the 2008 Olympic team.
And he once reversed the rotation of the earth to bring his girlfriend back from the dead.
When it finally came time for Strasburg’s major league debut, it was Christmas in June. It was Strasmas. The game sold out. Several times in fact. Every time the team released more seats, each with higher price tags and more strings attached. But the days-long dance of trying to catch the right announcement at the right time was completely worth it. Even the weather was in on it, dropping from a Code Red weekend of mid-90’s and high humidity to a crisp 75 and sunny by game time. Outside the stadium the streets swelled like no other Tuesday night. And inside the stadium, we lined up anxiously to get to our seats, and waited nervously as the National Anthem temporarily stopped the flow of traffic. A misdirected couple at the front of the line met the wrath of the masses when their hesitation slowed down our migration. Everyone wanted to be in position for the first pitch. We were here to witness the birth of an ace.
Though tonight he would finally make his major league debut, this was not the first time many of us had seen Stephen Strasburg pitch professional baseball. In an effort to prolong control of his rights, the Nats sent Strasburg on an early summer minor league tour. In a two-month span, he racked up a 7-2 record with a 1.30 ERA in 11 appearances. I saw him pitch for the Double A Harrisburg Senators in Pennsylvania after snatching up two of the last seats following the announcement of his start. Even before he threw a pitch, the one-hour rain delay (and subsequent 20-minute power outage) probably allowed Strasburg to generate enough revenue for that team to last the whole season—not a soul departed the stadium but instead drank beer, ate food, and bought t-shirts that we hoped would commemorate an historic wait. And when the grounds crew rolled the tarp back out after less than three innings of Stras-tainment, 95% of the crowd cleared out, knowing the object of their affection was unlikely to return to the mound.
But with his major league debut approaching, those bush league outings began to seem little more than diversions to distract us from the wait. So one month later back in DC, we held our collective breath, cameras poised, as Stephen Strasburg threw out his first big league pitch. For a ball. And then another ball. And then a line drive out by the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen. The crowd cheered in approval. Neil Walker stepped to the plate next. Ball one. OK, he’s just got the jitters. Ball two. The ump must need glasses! Ball three. Boooooo! Boo? BOO? Did we really boo? Thinking back now, it seems preposterous. Him being just negative 14 strikeouts from history at the time. And then, after a grounder to first for the second out, it came on the third batter, Lastings Milledge. Strike one - strike two - strike three swinging! We exhaled, so easily won over. We so wanted things to work out with this guy. We wanted him to go to prom with us, to take him home to meet our parents. We wanted him to be the real thing.
From that first strikeout, the rest of the evening flowed. Strasburg settled into a groove and the crowd reacted to his every pitch. The 100 mile per hour fast ball followed by the third strike curve clocked in at 83. After just three innings, I was already in love, if not quite ready to admit it. I leaned over to my friends, “This is really working out, huh?” As big of an understatement as has ever flowed from my lips. Strasburg even came close to a hit at his first at-bat, making his way to the plate to the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” (Swoon, even his batting music rocked!) But when Pirates shortstop Ronny Cedeno made a great play to rob him of a single, we found that we really didn’t mind. For we were already thinking that when not actively pitching, perhaps Stephen Strasburg should be packed in bubble wrap and placed behind protective glass. And transported to his starts in the Popemobile. Like the Presidential motorcade, we’d bristle with annoyance when the Strasmobile held up traffic, but strain with reverence to get a good look.
Despite the evening’s obsession with fastballs and sliders, what you won’t glean from the pitching line—and what made it truly a fan’s game—is that it was more than just a great performance by an individual, but an actual contest. It was a game of dueling homeruns that wasn’t decided until the end. Ryan Zimmerman, unwilling to be shown up by the new kid on the block, homered in his first at-bat to give the Nats a second inning advantage and assure the crowed that he would not so readily relinquish the title of hometown hero. Stras allowed the first two batters to reach base in the 4th, and ultimately lost the lead on a two-run homerun later in the inning. And we waited nervously until our team scored again in the 6th—and allowed our hero to have a shot at earning a W for his gem—on a two-run go-ahead shot by Adam Dunn. Josh Willingham rounded out the inning with yet another homerun in a rare showcase of Nats power, played out of a rare stage.
But Strasburg had the last word, maintaining the sluggers’ lead with no further signs of life from the opposition. Wrapped up in the emotion of the game, I found that by that 14th strikeout, I was no longer afraid to express my feelings. A bandwagon had arrived, and I needed to get on it. Finally willing to leave our seats with the certainty of a pitching change on the horizon, we made our way to a very long line at the team store, where the supply of Strasburg t-shirts had already been picked over and depleted. In fact, so many #37 shirts were sold that night that I was asked during the return trip home on the Metro if it had been free t-shirt night at the ballpark. The game ended in an efficient two hours and 19 minutes, with our man securing a new Nats single game strikeout record and gaining his first win on four hits, no walks, and two runs. But when the final out was recorded, nobody left. We stayed for the fireworks, for the interview, and for the pie in the face. We stayed for that tradition unique to DC, the donning of the silver Elvis wig. Outside the stadium, drivers honked their horns and friends randomly slapped each other on the back, “How great was that?” Rarely do things live up to the hype and expectation, and almost never do they exceed it.
It wouldn’t be until tomorrow that we would realize the rest of the world had been watching. Tomorrow there would be David Letterman and Sports Illustrated and personal reflection by every sports writer in the nation. There would be Strasburgers on the local menus and early debates about the All-Star game. But tonight it was still parking lot celebrations and lingering in the stands and extra-long walks to the metro and planning how we would retell it at the office in the morning. How would I retell it? I’d gather my coworkers, sit them down in a semi-circle, and retell it like this if I thought they’d listen. But in the interest of time, I’d tell people that it was better than Opening Day and the playoffs combined. And Obama throwing out the first pitch. It was anxiety replaced with joy, hope replaced with satisfaction. But that didn’t really capture it. For it was like nothing I’d experienced before. So much so that it required a whole new adjective to describe it. It was Strastastic. Wholly and uniquely Strastastic.
Dr. Nancy Golden spent part of her summer rescuing animals impacted by the BP oil spill. The editors of Zisk applaud her efforts—and are pretty sure than no one else on the staff has done something that noble this year.