Wall raises D.C. fans' hopes, fears
Washington sports haunted by arrival of new stars followed by disappointment
I want to believe.
But when you're a Washington, D.C., sports fan, believing is really, really hard.
Here comes John Wall. He seems nice. Great dancer. Bright future written all over him. He could be the one. Or maybe that's Stephen Strasburg. Short of plugging the Gulf oil spill by diverting a Beltway traffic jam, the pitching phenom couldn't make a better first impression in the capital. And what about Alex Ovechkin? He's fun, exciting, just a bit of a bad boy, makes for a great night out. Then there are Donovan McNabb and Mike Shanahan -- both men a little older, sure, but established and reliable suitors, successful guys with proven track records.
Athletically secure, so to speak.
Heck, maybe they're all the ones. Maybe I'm looking at an embarrassment of riches, a sports fan buyer's market, with a half-dozen fulfilling relationships to choose from. Maybe I don't have to spend any more nights alone, curled up with a Bruce Smith Sack King T-shirt, tormented by a Kwame Brown bobblehead, suppressing traumatic memories of the Non-Brothers Jim (Zorn and Bowden), wondering why the word "Nationals" just has to be spelled with a stupid "O." Maybe I can cease placing ISO RIGGO personal ads and stop feeling so darn empty -- guilty, even -- for spending a couple of cheap evenings with the Washington Kastles, World Team Tennis' 2009 champions.
Like I said: I really want to believe.
I want to believe that things are getting better. That redemption is a No. 1 NBA draft pick away. That the mistakes and missteps of the past -- No. 26: everything Steve Spurrier that didn't happen in Osaka, Japan; No. 147: getting rid of tragically misunderstood Bullets mascot Hoops -- are just that. Buried in the past. Alongside Freddy Adu's D.C. United jersey. Only as a local fan, I've seen too much, for too long, to jump on the we're back! bandwagon.
We're not back. Can't be. Not when we failed to arrive in the first place.
Oh, sure. The first go-round with Joe Gibbs was a smash. But that was two decades ago. Gibbs II? Kinda like the time John Mayer and Jennifer Aniston got back together. I've lived in Washington for 16 years -- it only feels like 116 -- and like Gus Frerotte following his self-administered concussion, I'm woozy from a series of sports relationships gone sour. Jaded and cynical. Heart-heavy and gun-shy. I know this town is a swamp, literally and figuratively, the place where renewal and reform and good intentions come to die, publicly and painfully, usually after collecting a ginormous signing bonus before holding out from mandatory team minicamp.
To put things another way: Arrive in Washington promising hope and change, and you'll end up throwing out a ceremonial first pitch at a Nationals game wearing a Chicago White Sox cap.
As such, I expect the worst. Guilty until proven innocent. No matter any contrary evidence. Take the Redskins. They have a Super Bowl-winning coach and a seasoned, perennial All-Pro quarterback with something left in the tank. They have a rookie Pro Bowler in quarterback-crusher Brian Orakpo. They no longer have a bingo-caller running their offense, nor the man who hired him in former front-office honcho-cum-owner's racquetball foil Vinny Cerrato. Signs point to something better than 4-12 -- and maybe this season, they'll even be good enough to beat Detroit.
Still, I'm dubious. I've seen this before. Gibbs was a Super Bowl winner, too. He sputtered. Mark Brunell was similar to McNabb. He couldn't stay -- or even get -- healthy. I once was excited for Jeff George, for Spurrier, for -- embarrassingly -- Brandon Lloyd's incredible $10 million hands. Oops. More to the point, the team's same old systemic issues remain: no front-office personnel genius (Shanahan's Denver track record was mixed); a thin, unproven O-line; a lack of young, cheap depth; a habit of buying other clubs' aging stars on the dollar instead of developing homegrown talent on the dime; a dysfunctional chain of command that may or may not be rectified.
Overall, the Skins are like an ex with a drinking problem. Sober up and relapse. Rinse and repeat. Now they're at the front door, lucid and born again, and I want to let them inside only why do they have a flask in their pocket?
Could be it doesn't matter. Not with Strasburg around. Best first date ever. Fourteen strikeouts! Delicious eponymous cheeseburger! And he's easy to appreciate, even if you're not a seamhead, less a crafty Greg Maddux than a mas macho Nolan Ryan. Who needs the subtle, Elizabethan sonnet-like charms of painting the corners when you have a 100 mph heater, the pitching equivalent of the shirtless guy from "Twilight"? Good thing, too: This isn't much of a baseball town, especially in the city proper. Consequently, I'm not sure Washington can ever fully embrace Strasburg, the way New York fawns over Derek Jeter. And that's if the young pitcher does everything right -- like tossing a perfect World Series Game 7 by fanning 26 batters before No. 27 dissolves in a puddle of frightened tears.
Besides, I'm already worried sick about Strasburg's arm. I remember Kerry Wood. He wasn't local, but so what? If not for bad injury luck, Washington sports would have none: see Gilbert Arenas, or the time Ron Artest broke Michael Jordan's ribs in a pickup game, messing up his comeback exercise routine, leading to achy, swollen knees, resulting in zero Wizards playoff appearances and the lingering horror of No. 23 Bullets throwback jerseys.
Fact is, it's hard to open one's wounded heart to a guy on a strict pitch count.
What about Ovechkin? Great player. Maybe the best in his sport. Still on the rise. Skates for a first-class owner and a smart, stable franchise. His finest hours seem yet to come. Charismatic as heck, with reckless, hard-hitting abandon on the ice and charming swagger off it. A rebel who plays by his own rules. It's hard to imagine a future in which Ovi doesn't succeed. And that's the problem. I couldn't see the tunnel at the end of the light with all-everything Chamique Holdsclaw, either. Nor with Arenas.
Like Ovechkin, Arenas went his own way. He was zany and fun and refreshing, blogging and tossing jerseys into the stands, coining his own silly nicknames. Plus, he could score. Even won a playoff series. And then? His stubborn weirdness worked against him -- first when he botched his self-directed knee rehab, next when he mistook the Wizards' locker room for the inside of a SWAT van. What if Ovechkin follows a similar path? What if his aggressive style leaves him physically broken down? What if his admirable chippiness becomes something less appealing, like when he broke a fan's video camera at the Olympics?
As a fan myself, can I really afford to be burned the same way twice?
Perhaps Wall will be different. I sure wish I could hope so. The top pick in the draft has so much going for him. Speed. Hops. Personality. Not being Kwame. Seriously, the bar is limbo-low: So long as Wall doesn't try to park a Bradley Fighting Vehicle in the Verizon Center garage, everything else will be gravy. This is a Redskins city -- we have an ineffable thing for
maroon and black burgundy and gold -- but that also plays to Wall's advantage. There's room for him to breathe, to grow, without an angry chorus of talk radio call-in Monday morning quarterbacks savaging his first lousy game. (Adios, Jason Campbell!)
More importantly, Washington is also a basketball burg, a place that lives and breathes and plays hoops. We're not as self-aggrandizing about our roundball knowledge as New York fans -- then again, who is? -- but we recognize game. Show some and we'll fall. Hard. Wall will never be John Riggins, never surpass Darrell Green. But among the capital's nascent stars, he has a chance to become the people's choice, first among sporting equals.
Well, except with me. I want to believe. Really. But I can't just hand over my shell-shocked affections. Not yet. Not when Wall could eventually leave as a free agent, or be traded for Mitch Richmond's laundry, or be diagnosed with a freak degenerative wrist injury as a result of shaking hands with David Stern. Nothing against the kid. Honest. It's not him. It's me.
Besides, I've heard good things about Bryce Harper.
Patrick Hruby is a freelance writer and ESPN.com contributor. Contact him at PatrickHruby.net.
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