Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 3, 2010

Real Hope For My First Love

One of my earliest memories, from more years ago than I’d like to admit, was seeing my first major league game in an old concrete and steel edifice at the corner of Georgia Avenue and W Street in northwest D.C. Griffith Stadium is long since gone, razed in the mid-sixties. But that is where my love of the Great Game began, even though the team I was rooting for, after finishing at .500 the year I was born, couldn’t come close to that mark until they packed up and moved to the Midwest after the 1960 season.

The original Senators were immediately replaced by the expansion Senators, to whom I readily transferred my young affections. Every summer I would find my way to the new stadium out beyond the Capitol for a few games; first with a family member, and then, as I moved into my teen years, more often on my own. But in eleven seasons in D.C. the new nine finished with more wins than losses only once. To be sure, when that 86-76 record was finalized in 1969 it felt like we had won the World Series. Of course, the fact that my teenage joy was so unbounded over finishing fourth in the then six-team AL Eastern Division speaks volumes about the utter futility of all of the other annual campaigns. Then, in the same year I left town for college, this team followed in the footsteps of its predecessor and departed for Texas.

For more than three decades the long schedule unwound in cities all across North America, but not in the nation’s capital. Then at long last, in 2005, MLB awarded ownership of the Montreal Expos to the Lerner family, and for once a team was moving into, rather than out of, Washington. The newly named Nationals surprised many by going 81-81 in that first season. Sadly, that performance did not presage continued improvement. Instead even as they moved into a sparkling new stadium on South Capital Street, the Nats regressed badly, finally sinking into the abyss of a 103 loss season in 2009.

Three teams, three stadiums, one sad result. Since I was born, in all the years in which the game was played in Washington, the successive franchises have lost, on average, ninety-three games. With this legacy of losing and abandonment, is it any wonder that while still loving my local nine, at a young age I began to divide my loyalty? If part of the fan in me had to suffer through the agony of rooting for the Nats, then surely I could also reward myself by falling in love with the team that epitomized success. That’s how I came to bleed in pinstripes. But the annual wish for better days in D.C. has always remained.

As I’ve written before, spring is the season of hope for franchises both mighty and meek. But this spring, some real measure of hope may be justified for Nationals’ fans. No, not hope for a championship or even post-season play. But hope for genuine improvement over the horrid performances of the past two years, and hope for the beginning of a steady march towards building a winning tradition. The basis for this hope: pitching.

The Washington Nationals, whose staff ERA was last in the majors in 2009; open spring training with solid workhorses like the returning John Lannan and newly-signed Jason Marquis prepared to anchor a rotation that should also include the (hopefully) ageless Livan Hernandez. They see potential in the likes of Matt Chico and Jordan Zimmermann, both of whom are coming back from injury. But the two most prominent names, the two hurlers who most symbolize the hope that emerges when the calendar turns to March, are two pitchers who fans already know will definitely not be with the team when the season opens: Stephen Strasburg and Chien-Ming Wang.

Strasburg is the young phenom out of San Diego State, taken by the Nats with the first pick in the amateur draft and signed to a record $15.1 million contract last August. After catching Strasburg for the first time last week, veteran catcher Pudge Rodriguez was quick to compare him to Nolan Ryan. Don’t dismiss that as mere hype, because Rodriguez has been around long enough to have actually caught the legend. Given their massive investment, the Nationals will wisely treat Strasburg with kid gloves. He’ll start the season in the minors. But come the dog days of summer, perhaps around his twenty-second birthday in July, Strasburg will join the rotation. Once he does, if his performance matches his promise, he’ll become the face of the franchise.

Meanwhile Wang is rehabbing from shoulder surgery, and hopes to be ready to pitch by sometime in May. After debuting with the Yankees in 2005, Wang quickly became a dominant pitcher. In recording nineteen wins in both 2006 and 2007 he relied on a nasty sinker that he threw in the low-90’s. The extreme movement of the pitch consistently fooled hitters, who would top the ball and hit grounder after grounder when facing him. He recorded his fiftieth win in only his eight-fifth start, the fastest pace to that mark since Dwight Gooden more than twenty years earlier. Wang followed up his two banner years by reeling off five straight wins to begin the 2008 campaign, and it looked for all the world like he had become a true ace. But that June he tore a ligament in his right foot while running the bases in an inter-league game against Houston. Done for the year, Wang began 2009 pitching horribly, and there was concern that in compensating for his foot injury he had fundamentally altered his mechanics. Even as he was working to find his old motion, the July shoulder injury and subsequent surgery ended his time in New York. Now the Nats have made a $2 million bet that when he takes a major league mound again it will be the pre-injury ace wearing their uniform.

Will Strasburg live up to the hype? Can Wang, who at only twenty-nine could have many productive years left, find his old form? Major League history is replete with stories of phenoms who fizzled and of injuries that aborted once-promising careers. Springtime hopes all too often fade away through the daily grind of the long season. But if these two young hurlers can deliver, they will form the powerful core of a rotation that would be far, far more than merely adequate. The 2010 season will be well underway before either dons a D.C. uniform, so this season at best will merely show the promise of what is to come. But if that promise is kept, the fans who have suffered through all three incarnations of “laugh so you won’t cry” bad play in the District (a part of me included), will at last know that the future can finally be different than the past.

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Responses

  1. Very nice post. Personally, I hope Jordan Zimmerman comes back strong, if not this year, then certainly next. He will eventually team with Strasburg to form a very nice one-two punch at the top of a rotation. I don’t hold out too much hope for Wang, though. Even at his best, he never struck anyone out, so he would have to be virtually perfect to win any games in Washington. Remember, too, that wins are largely a matter of run support, so pitching for the Yankees can make a good pitcher appear great. But I love Ryan Zimmerman, and Adam Dunn is under-appreciated, too. This team could develop into a contender in a couple of years. As I said, nice post, Bill


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