Friday, July 30, 2010

Let's Talk Strasburg

We can all blame this need to talk baseball on Marc Johnson of the Johnson Post. He was at Nationals Park this week to catch Stephen Strasburg, who was scratched from the lineup less than an hour before the Nats took the field with the division-leading Braves in town, and his post sparked my own baseball musings. (Note to Marc: Consensus is the Braves didn't actually show up to play. In the event you were wondering if they're really not as good as the hype...)

As I mentioned in my Cooperstown post Sunday, I had been reading Paul Dickson's Hidden Language of Baseball and since have picked up a book I've had on my radar for several years and never had time to read--Hardball on the Hill by James Roberts. Now, it was published prior to the Expos move to Washington and does a decent job at making the case for returning a major league team to the capital, but what it doesn't do because of the publication date is make the case for returning top tier players to the Nats and therefore to the nation's capital. Johnson's piece today does a nice job of illustrating what top tier players on the Nationals' roster is for the nation's capital.

Since the Expos moved to D.C., they have not been a contender in their division, the National League East. More than anything they have played spoiler to the hopes of the Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves and New York Mets. Until this season, the highest-profile players to suit up for the Nationals have been Adam Dunn, Miguel Batista, Vinny Castilla, José Guillén, and Liván Hernández. Add Pudge Rodriguez to the list this season and now rookie phenom Stephen Strasburg. Assuming they can sign him, another first round draft pick out of Las Vegas, Bryce Harper, may turn out to be one of the highest-profile Nats as well. Harper could turn out to be the best hitter in franchise history as well. Sure the recent incarnation of the D.C. franchise may only be five years old, but even among other young franchises (think Tampa Bay Rays, Colorado Rockies, Florida Marlins, and Arizona Diamondbacks) they have failed to prove comparable to other National League teams.

The reason I mention Strasburg is because the Washington Post is treating his recent move to the 15-day disabled list apocalyptically. The same shoulder inflammation that required Batista to step in for Strasburg has landed him on the disabled list and has all but smashed the hopes of Nationals fans. Nats fans, unlike Cubs fans, don't have too much patience for all the losing their doing. In fact, Nats fans were insulted by the lack of trades the franchise had been participating in prior to the Adam Dunn deal. And now, to add insult to injury, the Nats are shopping Adam Dunn around to teams looking to add a bat before tomorrow's trade deadline.

What does a first round draft pick mean to Washington? For the Nationals it may mean building a young team around last year's Strasburg and this year's Harper. For the nation's capital it means real, competitive baseball in coming years. Despite the nation's capital having a great tradition of baseball dating back to the days of Walter Johnson, the recent incarnation of baseball inside the beltway is lacking pizazz. That's all changing with Strasburg in town--the President of the United States went out to Nationals Park to see the kid pitch, on any given night a who's who of all things politic may show up at the park, and stadiums across the country are selling out when the Nats are in town and there is even a slight possibility that Strasburg might take the mound.

Sure, he's a hurler who rivals the likes of Sandy Koufax. Sure, he's young and incredibly talented with a great, and hopefully long tenure in the game to come. But what Strasburg is for the game and the team is even more important than just what he does when he takes the mound--which is a whole lot, don't get me wrong. Strasburg is the new, young face of a team that has needed someone other than just third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to step up. Strasburg has brought excitement back into a game that has too easily lost the excitement when an entire roster of millionaires and businessmen pulling the strings can buy a world championship. Strasburg is the face of this year's rookie class, he's the face of the franchise and most importantly he will be the face of Major League Baseball in the post-steroid era.

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