Before Stephen Strasburg, I was a disaffected Orioles fan who grew up in Prince George's County, Maryland, living and dying with the Skins, Caps and Terps – and the Bullets/Wizards to a lesser extent. But baseball was my love, the only sport I was good at, and the O's were the only show in town. But with Peter Angelos' ineptitude, my appetite for that product had waned. I always identified much more with D.C. than Baltimore, culturally, and I was tentatively excited when the District got a team of its own following the 2004 season.
It's so easy to forget now, but Nationals fanhood was an active exercise initially, something you had to seek out. You couldn't watch them on TV. You didn't know if it was just a one-year experiment before they left town again. Taking the Metro from Greenbelt to RFK Stadium to watch a bunch of vagabonds at a sold-out, decrepit stadium amid sweltering D.C. humidity became intoxicating to me and very quickly the Orioles were a thing of the past.
And yet, emotionally I wasn't dialed in on the Nats just yet. Following that first-half surge in 2005, the team nosedived. Scandals followed, both serious and amusing, and there was a window in which local politics threatened the team's future in D.C. I needed the security of a stadium deal before I could commit. Fortunately, that worked out, but the team remained an absolute embarrassment on and off the field.
And then the 2008 season happened. There was a historic college pitcher becoming national news at little San Diego State University while the Nats remained among the dredges of Major League Baseball. Could this be the answer to all our problems?
There should be a book written about the final weekend of the 2008 season, perhaps a documentary film even. Hardcore fans remember, but many don't recall that the Strasburg dream was in real peril. Entering the final weekend of the season, the Nats were 59-100. The Mariners were 58-101. The Nats did their part, getting swept by a Phillies team en route to a World Series title. Amazingly, the Mariners swept a solid A's team. Final record: Nats 59-102, Mariners: 61-101. I was absolutely glued to the Mariners games all weekend and texted with buddies in exaltation when the No. 1 pick had been clinched. Stephen Strasburg was there for the taking, if the Nats had the guts to go get him.
This was another tense time. There were so many unknowns. The MLB Draft was not what you know it to be today. Teams didn't invest in the Draft like they do now. The bonus pool era was years away and the process was much more unpredictable. It was not uncommon for small-market teams to refuse to pay players with huge bonus demands. And Strasburg was a prospect unlike anything the sport had ever seen. It was a complete unknown. How much would he get? The Nats had never negotiated anything like this before. Based on the Nats' place in the grand scheme of things at the time, rumors abounded that the Nats wouldn't pay him or that Strasburg could pitch in independent ball. It was scary. All we could do was wait and hope.
The Nats took the first step and drafted Strasburg in June 2009. Sigh of relief. Now, would they sign him? You have to remember for context that the Nats did not sign first-round pick Aaron Crow the previous season. So, it was not an unfounded fear that the Nats would blow this. And for me, I drew a metaphorical line in the sand that I could not support them going forward if they didn't do everything it took to get Stephen Strasburg. There was no point in supporting a franchise that had no interest in winning. At the time, the negotiations were being handled by then-interim general manager Mike Rizzo. What a first test. No one knew how it would end.
And then it happened. Right at the deadline to sign Draft picks, they had done it. Rizzo and the Lerner family went above and beyond to get Strasburg to sign on the dotted line. The Nationals mattered. I was committed. The team was serious about building something. I bought merch from the team store the next day as a showing of solidarity with the team. Now, the fun could begin. It was OK to dream.
Strasburg's ascendance through the minors in 2010 only increased the hype. It was clear something special was happening. His Minor League starts were national news. Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post covered his Minor League starts in person. And it became a poorly kept secret that a June home series vs. the woeful Pirates would provide the perfect time to officially start the party.
I remember June 8, 2010 vividly. In the time between Strasburg being drafted and his MLB debut, I had moved out of the DMV. Going to the game was not an option. Fortunately, MLB Network was in its formative years and offered a national stage. I had a nervous energy all day. I took care of responsibilities early in the day. I went to the local butcher and bought expensive steak, a special dinner just for me was in store before first pitch. A last meal, of sorts, because the crappy Nationals as we had known them were facing a merciful death.
I remember trying to be realistic about what to expect. Yeah, the Pirates are bad, but it's the big leagues and you could forgive him for any nerves he may have. I was hoping for something along the lines of 6IP, 3R, 8K, 3BB. Game time finally came. Was Bob Costas really in Washington, D.C., for a sold-out baseball game? I couldn't even piece the reality together when it came.
Strasburg took the mound to a raucous ovation, everyone standing. At home, I stood alone in an otherwise empty room, pacing. This was unofficially the first postseason game in team history. He retired the first two batters but was clearly nervous and a little erratic. And then I will never forget the anticipation of him getting to two strikes against former National Lastings Milledge. Everyone knew it was coming. Milledge knew it was coming. Strasburg snapped off one of his gravity-eating curveballs and Milledge became victim No. 1. And it was off to the races.
This is not a story meant to rehash Stephen Strasburg's career from this point. We all lived it, the highs and the lows. There will be plenty of amazing retrospectives penned in the coming days. I will read all of them, of course. But for me, Strasburg's greatest contribution is that he made everything that would follow possible. I am a diehard Nationals fan because of Stephen Strasburg and so are many fans who don't even know it. Prior to Strasburg, I was a passive fan hoping for anything exciting. Now I'm a sicko with a website dedicated to player who aren’t even on the team yet. I'll rock the curly dub with pride until this world has had enough of me.
In time, Strasburg would become a key piece to many an excellent team. He was often the second-best pitcher on his own team and eventually became one of many star players, most of whom got more attention. As hyped as Strasburg was, he somehow became an underrated player of his era.
But everything the Nationals have accomplished is thanks to Stephen Strasburg. He made all things possible. Never lose sight of that. And I sure hope Strasburg himself understands as much. He is not a disappointment. He shouldn't feel like he let us down.
The 2019 World Series title was extra special because Strasburg had more to do with it than anyone. Despite all the bigger names that came and went, it was a nice reminder that he was still the guy all along. If he exhausted every ounce of baseball he had left in him for that run, then it was worth it to us. Hopefully it was for him.
Stephen Strasburg owes the Washington Nationals nothing. The Washington Nationals owe Stephen Strasburg everything.
Nothing but the best in retirement, Stephen. Please consider remaining a part of this franchise going forward. We'll all be better off for it.
Thank you for everything.