Commentary

Stephen Strasburg is creating a fan base

Originally Published: June 9, 2010
By Toby Mergler | Special to Page 2

WASHINGTON -- On a typical June day in our nation's capital, the air is heavy with oppressive humidity. Traffic grinds to a halt as the masses try to escape the city. Countless flocks of schoolchildren, ostensibly visiting the city's museums, hang out in large mobs on sidewalks, obstructing the path of hapless pedestrians.

It's a perfect recipe to make D.C. residents feel uncomfortable, angry and trapped -- pretty much the same way they feel about the local sports landscape.

  • The Nationals self-destructed so often in 2009, they should have been sponsored by Acme.
  • The Redskins hired a bingo caller to run their offense and temporarily banned fans' signs at FedEx Field. Worst of all, they lost to the Lions.
  • [+] EnlargeNationals fans
    Toby Mergler for ESPN.com A full house in Washington means a new era for the Nationals.
  • The Wizards went from wondering how much time will Gilbert Arenas spend on the court to how much time will Gilbert Arenas spend in court.
  • The Caps choked their way out of the first round of the playoffs after running away with the Presidents' Trophy.

    But Tuesday was no typical June day in this city. The sun was shining, a breeze was blowing and the air was heavy with excitement. The city grinded to a halt in anticipation of an inauguration. And the crowd at Nationals Park -- a glorious, seldom-seen sellout crowd -- brought U2-level energy to what is usually a karaoke bar atmosphere.

    Strasmas had arrived.

    The national hype surrounding this soon-to-be international holiday reached unprecedented levels. If it's to be believed, Strasburg's first pitch in 3-D will actually break through the fourth dimension, travel back in time and strike out Babe Ruth. Before long, world peace will be brokered when global leaders agree they are too terrified of Strasburg's fastball to act in aggression again.

    But what about the local impact? Even with the excitement and buzz in the air, are Washingtonians buying it? Or are they too scarred to love again? Page 2 conducted a completely unscientific, anecdotal survey of fans at Nationals Park on Tuesday to unearth these unquestioned facts.

    • Fans tempered their expectations. When asked what they wanted to see out of Strasburg in his debut, responses ranged from "just last four innings and not get completely shelled" to "six innings and give the Nats at least a chance to win." It's probably safe to say those people left the park happy.
    • Future expectations are quite different. When asked to take a side on the following predictions, here is how the crowd responded:

      Will Strasburg win at least two career Cy Young Awards?
      Yes: 75 percent. No: 25 percent

      Will Strasburg win a World Series with the Nats?
      Yes: 80 percent. No: 20 percent

      Will Strasburg win an MVP award?
      Yes: 20 percent. No: 80 percent

      Will Strasburg throw at least two career no-hitters?
      Yes: 60 percent. No: 40 percent

      Will Strasburg win a Grammy?
      Confused by the question: 100 percent

    • In the Charlie Browniest of all responses, only about half of those surveyed thought Strasburg would be pitching for the Nats in 2020 (although 100 percent "hope so"). Before Strasburg even stepped on the field, Nats fans were already at threat-level pinstripes.
    • Not surprisingly, Strasburg's debut brought lots of new fans to the ballpark, including an extremely enthusiastic female amateur boxing champion from Norway who had never seen a baseball game before. If she returns for Wednesday's Pirates-Nats game, she surely would be stunned to find nothing but an abandoned, littered field destroyed by the carnival leaving town.
    • Some Nats fans aren't quite as afraid of Strasburg as they should be. We asked fans how much they would have to be paid to get beaned by one of his fastballs. Some said they would do it for free, just to be able to tell the story. Others said $1,000. One fan wanted the minimum major league salary, which is $400,000. One petite blond woman said she would do it for free if Strasburg signed the ball -- if she picked up the ball and it wasn't autographed, she planned to charge the mound.
    • Washington is undeniably a Redskins town. Because the team wins fans over while they are young, it has a stranglehold on the city's affections. The region's passion for the Redskins infects people and takes deep roots in their lives.

      In contrast, the Nats have almost no history. After one start, Strasburg arguably joins Ryan Zimmerman and Alfonso Soriano as the best players ever to suit up for the team. No one grew up watching them, and Cristian Guzman doesn't exactly have the drawing power of Cal Ripken.

      That could all change in the Strasburg era.

      Suddenly, fans are heading to the stadium to root for the Nationals -- and not their opponents. Suddenly, the team is appointment television every fifth day. Suddenly, winning a championship can possibly be trumped by something greater -- the joy of witnessing breathtaking greatness for the next 15 years and becoming infected by it.

      Seeing lines form at ticket windows immediately after Tuesday's game made it clear why Strasburg's debut was so important for this city.

      Baseball returned to D.C. five years ago, but it wasn't until Tuesday that a fan base was born. Washington fans are ready to love again.

      Toby Mergler is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C., who has previously written for MLB.com, Fanball and the Virginia Law Weekly. He can be reached at tobymergler@gmail.com.


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