A month ago, Major League pitching legend Curt Schilling told ESPN that Stephen Strasburg would “immediately potentially be the best pitcher in the game.” What seemed like hyperbole at the time became reality on June 8 as Strasburg put on one of the best debut performances in Major League Baseball history.

“I can’t put it into words any better than what you saw there,” said Washington Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “With everything that was on him…for him to respond that way it was just a great night for Washington.”

How great was it for the District in reality? For a city that loves the Redskins and local college basketball favorites like Georgetown, can the Nationals begin to carve their own niche? Looking at recent history may help answer that question.

Like a whirling dervish, professional hockey star Alexander Ovechkin has made the Verizon Center the place to be in the winter. Not to see the Georgetown Hoyas or the Washington Wizards, but to see the Washington Capitals.

Though the season ended in disappointing fashion, Ovechkin and the Caps had the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area in full Stanley Cup fever. The Nats aren’t quite there yet. However, the potential for a Caps-like effect on Washington is palpable.

About 40,315 fans showed up to Nationals Park to see Strasburg, proving that the city, which people don’t equate with great sports, is starving for a star. “The energy in that stadium last night, I’ve experienced nothing like it,” said Largo resident Adrian McQueen. “That was indeed D.C. history.”

McQueen brought his father to the game and said he had the time of his life.
“I will hear about this game forever, probably,” McQueen said. “He’s already started calling his old baseball buddies.” Even Strasburg’s teammates realize the effect he has on the fans. Ryan Zimmerman, the 2009 all-star and unquestioned face of the franchise, even knows that Strasburg has talent that transcends the sport of baseball.

“It’s pretty impressive in the sport of baseball for something like that to happen for one guy,” Zimmerman said. “It’s something I’ve never seen before. Usually you see it in basketball with the NBA or something like that, but never really in baseball.”

The onus now falls on Nats’ management to continue to improve the franchise. It’s one thing to have a superstar pitcher to fill the stadium once a week; it’s another to turn this franchise, which was downtrodden since its former days in Montreal, into a winner.

Nationals’ President Stan Kasten is excited about Strasburg just as the fans are, but he knows the front office still has work to do to make sure Washington fans are talking about the Nats in July and August and not Redskins training camp.

“Last year’s draft was so good for us. We think this year’s draft was so good for us,” Kasten said. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves; we have a lot of heavy lifting. We’re not going to be satisfied hanging around .500. We think there’s a lot better in store for us.” If Strasburg keeps pitching this way, there’s a lot better in store for everyone.


George Barnette

Special to the AFRO