I live in the most cynical and craven city in America: Washington, D.C. It’s a place where expectations are never met, people are disappointed by every new wave of politicians, and promises are never kept. It wears you down after a while, and you just hope that maybe one day, just once, something will happen in this city that gives you hope, something that not only lives up to the hype and promise, but exceeds it.
Well, that’s never going to happen. Not in politics, anyway. For magic and hope in the nation’s capital, we have to turn to baseball, in particular one Stephen Strasburg, a.k.a. Baseball Jesus, a.k.a. Mr. Precedent, a.k.a. Stratosphere, a.k.a. I have never seen anything like this kid in my life! I don’t enjoy having to use an exclamation point there, because I’m generally against them, but he is why they were invented. At least for one game, anyway.
Last night, I sat in my usual box seats at Nationals Park with my buddy Greg to witness firsthand the debut of the Nats’ 21-year-old rookie fireballer against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Even before he pitched a pitch, the hype was over the top. Not far from the stadium, the Tortilla Coast restaurant introduced the inevitable Stephen Strasburger. There’s a Facebook campaign to change the name of the Shenandoah Valley town of Strasburg, Va., to Stephen Strasburg, Va. Even the dirt from the mound that he pitched from last night is being sold online.
Well, it’s rare in life that you experience a night that exceeds all of your expectations. I’m 49 years old, but watching him pitch, I felt like I was transported back into the body of the 12-year-old me the first time I saw a major-league baseball game in Cincinnati, a star-struck country boy staring down from the upper deck at my heroes Johnny Bench and Pete Rose.
Phenom is a word that gets thrown around a lot in sports. But in his first game, Stephen Strasburg struck out 14 Pittsburgh batters in seven innings, including the last seven men he faced. He struck out every starting Pirate at least one time. His line at the end of the night was seven innings pitched, four hits, no walks, two earned runs. He threw 36 pitches 98 miles per hour or higher. Not only that, he worked so fast, the game was over in two hours and 19 minutes.
In the second inning, I noticed the crowd buzzing and staring up at the scoreboard, and it was because Strasburg hit 100 on the radar gun for the first time as a major leaguer. Thousands of flashes went off as fans took photos of the milestone, just as seemingly every one of the 40,315 in attendance had on his first pitch. (Later he hit 101.) The average speed of his fastball was 97.8.
I’ve seen a lot of major leaguers pitch live in my lifetime, including Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson, Roger Clemens, and Nolan Ryan. And Strasburg—for one game anyway—is right there. Already. Seriously. I thought pitcher Curt Schilling was off his rocker when he said Strasburg would potentially be the best pitcher in the majors the day he was called up, but now that seems totally reasonable. (Ubaldo Jimenez and Roy Halladay might disagree.)
After strikeout No. 14 to end the seventh, the Nationals ran off the field, and from my seats behind the dugout I could see veteran first baseman Adam Dunn mouth the words, “Oh, my God.” Ryan Zimmerman and Nyjer Morgan ran up next to him and they were laughing and shaking their heads—almost giggling—and the whole crowd was doing the same thing. People just stared at each other dumbfounded in the stands, yelling and slapping high fives and caught up in the joyous revelry. I had goosebumps chasing each other up and down the backs of both arms, and I almost couldn’t believe what I was seeing. After the game, the 6-foot-6, 285-pound Dunn said Strasburg “looked like a man amongst boys.”
After the game ended, the 200 credentialed press people who attended had to sit down in front of their laptops and try to come up with the right words to describe what they saw at Nationals Park that night. I haven’t read all 200 of those stories, but my advice would have been to embrace the exclamation point. Don’t hold back. After all, when Walter Johnson debuted for the Senators in 1907, The Washington Post called him a “real phenom.” And his Hall of Fame career turned out OK.
When it was all over, Strasburg hopped on the top dugout step, surrounded by cameras and reporters. Soon after, the rookie was hit in the face with the traditional shaving-cream pies, and then donned the not-so-traditional silver Elvis wig, which the Nats player of the day wears in postgame interviews. It was a great way to end the night.
So yes, Virginia—and D.C. and Maryland—there is a Santa Claus, and his name is Stephen Strasburg. Merry Strasmus, the holiday that lasts all summer. And even though the city hasn’t won a World Series since 1924, now you can at least imagine it a couple of years hence, when fellow No. 1 pick Bryce Harper teams up with Stras-o-matic and the rest of the Nationals. But in the meantime, every fifth day, we can all gather in that ugly gray stadium down by the Anacostia and watch Strasburg mow down the opposition and forget the rest of the world for a couple of hours. No pressure, kid.