“Nobody likes to be drafting first or second or third.” –Actually said by Pittsburgh Pirates president Frank Coonelly
The novelty of a perpetually losing team wears off after a while. You can forgive the errors, the empty bleachers, and the unfamiliar logos on Baseball Tonight, because you think, “Aw, hell. Just give ‘um a chance.”
Then, the year is over, and the team quietly collects their 45 wins and deserts the ramshackle stadium they barely deserve until opening day of the next year, when their disgruntled starter who has played for 13 different teams in the past five years and their star player, a former slugger in the twilight of his career, once again take to the dirt and attempt to forge something out of the inevitable nothing.
And the next few years are a cacophony of unavoidable noise as purposeless boos from both joke fans and real fans alike pollute the air, ESPN commentators offer piteous chuckles as more and more plays from the team in question hit the Not Top Ten, and Tim Kurkjian is the only one to find some sort of positive outlook in their future, and that’s just because of his natural inclination to be a stalker, but instead of his local weather lady, he chose Major League Baseball.
They are a 25-man punchline. And for five years, the Washington Nationals have been that team.
Eventually, the jokes stopped. The Nationals weren’t funny anymore. It’s not that they picked up any amount of certifiable steam, though the effort was there. It was more like… everyone had heard the joke enough times that it wasn’t funny anymore. How many times can a priest and a rabbi really walk into a bar?
Even indifferent baseball fans the world over knew this just wasn’t funny anymore. It was time to accept the fact that the NL East was made up of four teams clamoring for a division title, and one stray franchise probing with increasing ferocity for that one man in the known universe who could be their salvation; in whom they could dig their claws and pull themselves up out of the violent din of a team noisily losing more and more games every season.
They got two.
Playing in a game of the Western district finals of the 2010National Junior College Athletic Association World Series, Bryce Harper went 6-for-6 and hit four home runs, a triple, and a double. He was too good to be kept at first base. Last night, human corpse and commissioner of Major League Baseball Bud Selig informed us that with the first pick in the draft, Harper would be headed to the nation’s capital.
They say he’s like Mantle. They say he’s a “baseball rat.” They say “He’s just a bad, bad guy… basically the anti-Joe Mauer.”
So, maybe the Nationals unavoidably have the most talented, spoiled teenager the world has seen in years in their grasps. Maybe he’ll be producing voluptuous offense in Washington for years to come, despite drawing lines in the dirt and applying the makeup of a gothic preteen before game time. Just look at his numbers and be happy for them.
But the truth is, the rebirth of baseball in Washington has already begun. And while hype for a savior takes its share of the credit as it does for teams struggling in every sport, one particular 21-year-old took the mound in a Nats uniform tonight and redefined the notion of “hype” entirely.
The new definition was “fact.”
Tonight, Stephen James Strasburg struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates. He K’d the last seven batters he faced. It wasn’t even fair. It was like the Pirates woke up in an airless vacuum and were expected to play decent baseball. In what was easily the most watched debut in Major League history, Stephen Strasburg came out throwing and blew minds across the country with exactly the caliber performance that got him where he is today.
While the Nationals’ past, even as Montreal Expos, wasn’t exceptionally attractive, the future now stands tall, like an armored behemoth, holding an explosive bat in one hand, and on the other side, a nightmare for an arm. There’s nothing funny about a kid who gets to The Show and instantly shatters Major League records from the mound. There’s noting deniable about the team that’s got him locked up. And you can’t plug your ears and scream when it’s said that the Washington Nationals could soon no longer be the also-rans of the National League.
It is probably most fitting that Strasburg’s original assault on hitting came against the Pirates. Maybe somewhere, Frank Coonelly sat watching as his players walked to the plate and back to the dugout, in what was pretty much all but a 2-run HR away from a locked door standing between the batter’s box and first base. Perhaps he sipped his drink and clutched a framed photo of his newest draft pick, Jameson Taillon, in his hands, his grip tightening with such intensity that he cracked the glass.
Maybe the stress gets to some people in the upper echelons of the draft. Maybe some people falter in the face of building for the future. Maybe some organizations don’t see talented newcomers as eventual price tags.
For at least June 8, 2010, baseball resurfaced from one of its more desolate landscapes. And you’ve got to wonder why nobody would like that.