WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 06: Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals pitches against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Nationals Park on September 6, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Stephen Strasburg's return to the majors happened in front of a half-full stadium of fans who came in the face of a horrible weather forecast. In a way, this is a metaphor of the Nationals' six-year history in D.C.
In a way, only a few people really deserve to see Stephen Strasburg pitch. Now, granted, it would be wrong to deny anyone the chance to see Strasburg pepper the strike zone with his array of beautiful high fastballs and sharp-breaking curveballs. I'm not trying to be the fan police here.
But I do think the crowd that populated Nationals Park for Strasburg's five-inning scoreless return to the majors following last year's Tommy John surgery provided a pretty apt metaphor for Washington Nationals fandom. As the weather forecast called for a gallon of rain to be dumped on Washington D.C., people made alternate plans, figuring it wasn't worth trudging to the ballpark to get wet. Only a select few fans had faith the seemingly dire situation would work out, and it did.
Full disclosure: I was one of those folks who had tickets, but didn't actually attend because I figured the weather wouldn't cooperate. I'm perfectly happy saying that I missed out big-time.
This wasn't like Strasburg's debut, when the entire city immediately jumped onto the bandwagon with each breathtaking strikeout. This was a game for the diehards whose faith over the years had been threatened by losing seasons, front-office failures, invasions of visiting fans to Nationals Park and untimely injuries. In both cases, there's only a select few fans remaining who had faith.
Sure, Washington hasn't experienced the kind of baseball failure fans in Pittsburgh and Baltimore have experienced in the past decade, but in a way, this failure was worse. Those fans at least have a backbone of winning that fans can reminisce as the present continues to stink. For Nationals fans, there's nothing. All you really have is that half-year of contention in 2005. After a while, you run out of nice memories to share involving Chad Cordero and Brad Wilkerson.
As the losing seasons piled up, apathy kicked in. The failures of the Jim Bowden era prevented the franchise from going forward. The best player of the early years was nearly traded (justifiably, I might add), then jettisoned in free agency with no replacement. A new ballpark was built in hopes of revitalizing a downtrodden area of the city, but the economy crashed and the fans didn't come. As zealous as the city was in bringing baseball back, it became just as apathetic when that team stopped succeeding.
Strasburg, along with Bryce Harper, are the two men who will ultimately save the city from its current baseball malaise. Those fans who jumped off board will adopt them as their own like less diehard Capitals fans did with Alex Ovechkin. But that's focusing on the silent majority. If we shift the focus to the minority -- the fans who have kept faith over the last six years and in the face of Tuesday's horrible weather forecast -- then Strasburg takes on a new meaning.
To those people, Strasburg is the reward for their faith. For those who kept faith over the years, Strasburg is the man who will provide a larger community of fans to call their own. For those who had tickets yesterday and kept them, seeing Strasburg retire the Dodgers with ruthless efficiency was a glimpse of the promise of Strasburg 2.0; a pitcher instead of merely a thrower. Either way, the reward they received is so much greater than the reward others soon will have when moments like Tuesday night become more common.
Sports are funny like this. It's easy to defend your decision to stop following a sports team when they fail, because you have many more important things going on in your life that require that energy. It's easy to jump back on the bandwagon when things go well, because then the energy you pour into your team feels like it's going to something good. The flip side, though, is you'll never experience the kind of joy those brave fans who came to Nationals Park to see Strasburg's return experienced.
The Nationals are going to eventually be a good team, assuming Strasburg stays healthy and Harper maintains his emotions. How good depends on the development of the other young players on the team, but as long as those two phenoms are healthy, the entire city will eventually be able to enjoy following them.
But for those who weathered all the losing of the first six years, the joy of following a winner will be much sweeter. Soon, they'll feel the exact same way feeling those fans who saw Strasburg pitch felt on Tuesday night: a sense that they deserve that happy feeling more than those of less faith.