There are certain moments when you walk out of an event and say very simply: I’m glad I was there. Last night, at Nationals Park, was one of those nights.
Stephen Strasburg’s debut with The Washington Nationals was one of the most hyped events in Washington sports history. It was such a big deal that the guys on sports talk radio stations actually stopped talking about the Redskins for more than 15 minutes. In a town where getting anyone other than the core 15 to 20,000 fans to pay attention to the Nationals, everyone was talking about them for a solid week leading up to Strasburg’s ballyhooed arrival.
I have become one of those people who actually prefers quiet nights when the ballpark is half full and the press box is two-thirds empty. I’d rather not deal with the hassles that come with sellout crowds or major media events. (I guess this is a sign of getting old). But there are some things you have to go see if you have the chance to do so and this was one of those things.
So I went. I’m really glad I did.
It was absolutely impossible for the kid to live up to the hype that has followed him since he was drafted by the Nats a year ago. Every step on his road to DC has been chronicled in almost agonizing detail from the soap opera contract negotiations (with Scott Boras as your agent all negotiations are going to be drawn out soap operas) to the progression through extended spring training, the Arizona Fall League, spring training, Double-A Harrisburg and finally Syracuse in Triple-A before making the most anticipated arrival Washington has seen since Barack Obama showed up on January 20th, 2009.
And yet, he DID live up to the hype—and more. He threw one bad pitch, and it really wasn’t THAT bad, a change-up that Delwyn Young hit into the rightfield bleachers for a two-run home run in the fourth inning. After that, he completely shut the Pirates down the rest of the way, retiring the last 10 batters he faced, EIGHT on strikeouts. He struck out the last seven hitters in a row and came out to a standing ovation after throwing 94 pitches in seven innings.
His fastball hit 100 a couple of times and he was consistently between 97 and 99. His off-speed stuff was dazzling. But here’s what was really amazing: He walked NONE. He’s 21, he can throw four pitches and he has extraordinary control. Wow. Even some of the skeptical old baseball writers I was sitting with were open-mouthed by the time he was finished. I was too—and I’m usually one of those guys who pulls for the underdog, not the guy with the $15 million contract and Scott Boras as an agent.
What’s more, I’ve been hearing about Strasburg’s aversion to the media almost since day one. On his first day at extended spring training, Strasburg whined about having to talk to the media. I wrote a column for The Washington Post saying he better get over the notion that he was too big or too good to talk to the media because it was now part of his job.
I got a phone call the next day from Stan Kasten, the president of the Nats. I’ve known Stan a long time and we give each other a hard time frequently but I like him. He’s smart and he’s funny and he always returns a phone call.
“You’re wrong about Strasburg,” he said. “He’s a good kid. He doesn’t think he’s too big to talk to the media. He’s just shy.”
I was skeptical. That’s the way I am, especially when I sense guys are being coached to not say anything (often true of Boras players) or want the perks of stardom but not the responsibility. During the run-up to Strasburg’s arrival, The Washington Post covered everything he did. Dave Sheinen, The Post’s superb baseball writer, chronicled every game he pitched, every move he made. It wasn’t easy for Sheinen since he had no real access to Strasburg and had to get most of his insights into him from others. If you put me in a situation like that, where you can’t walk up to a guy in the clubhouse and chat with him casually, I’d get frustrated.
Sheinen’s a lot more patient than I am. What’s more, he told me that in spite of that, he liked the kid, that he really WAS shy and a little bit embarrassed by all the attention. What’s more, his teammates seemed to genuinely like him, which is always an important test for a star. Eddie Murray was never media-friendly but everyone in the Orioles clubhouse always swore by him as a teammate. You had to respect that about him even when he was growling at you.
My guess, based on last night, is that Strasburg isn’t a growler—although clearly talking to the media is never going to be his favorite sport. Kasten said before the game that as time goes on and the media requests go down—there were more than 200 accredited media at last night’s game making it feel like a postseason game on the field and in the clubhouses beforehand—the team will sit down with Strasburg and explain to him that the time has come to loosen the reins. It is a long baseball season. My guess is he’ll come to know the beat writers and a few other people and loosen up a little. He comes across as genuinely shy.
That aside, he is very clearly the real deal. You can talk about how lousy the Pirates are—and they are, especially with Ryan Doumit out of the lineup as he was last night—but Strasburg is going to pitch well against anyone and everyone. Sure, he’ll have some bad nights the way every pitcher does, and he’s not going to go 16-0 (I don’t think) the rest of the season.
But there is no question he has everything it takes to be a truly great pitcher as long as he stays healthy. Just as important he can give life to a franchise that has desperately needed some life the last four years. The Nationals do have some other pieces in place: Ryan Zimmerman is an All-Star; Adam Dunn and Nyjer Morgan are solid players; Pudge Rodriguez can still call a game as well as anyone and Ian Desmond has a chance to be an outstanding shortstop. There are some other young pitchers in the organization, notably starters John Lannan and Jordan Zimmermann (who has been injured but is close to coming back) and Drew Storen, the future closer, who was drafted the same day as Strasburg and arrived in the big leagues a couple of weeks before Strasburg.
Storen is the son of Mark Patrick, a very talented sports-talk show host in Indianapolis who I’ve known for years. Storen is the complete opposite of Strasburg when it comes to the media and hoopla. Before the game last night I was talking to him in the clubhouse and I said, “I guess you’ll be glad to get tonight behind you, huh?”
Storen laughed. “I love this stuff,” he said. “To me it’s all fun. The more the merrier.”
That’s another reason I think Strasburg is going to do very well. He’s got great talent, he’s part of an improving young team and he not only has a designated closer coming along with him but a designated spokesman.
Washington may actually be a fun place to be in the coming weeks, months and even years. When it comes to baseball, like Storen said, the more the merrier.
A note here to Gordon who has been a dedicated and well-worth-reading poster almost since the blog began: With all due respect, there was one reason I wrote the blog on Monday about Coach Wooden and Red Auerbach and Morgan Wootten: I’d already written a column strictly on Coach Wooden that was there to be ready by everyone. Believe me it had nothing to do with book sales especially since I wrote the Red book seven years ago. It’s still in print and it might sell a couple hundred copies a year—I honestly don’t know the numbers—but believe me, bringing it up had nothing to do with trying to sell any books, it had to do with trying to tell a story.
John recently appeared on The Jim Rome Show (www.jimrome.com) to discuss 'Moment of Glory.' Click here to download, or listen in the player below:
John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases
The Golf Channel will be airing a documentary based on the book "Caddy for Life: The Bruce Edwards Story," with the premiere showing Monday, June 14 at 9 p.m. ET.