I remember being in Nats Park the night Stephen Strasburg was drafted in June 2009. The team was terrible back then, 16-40 to be exact. There weren’t a lot of fans in attendance that day; the newness of a baseball team in DC had long since worn off. The road to baseball relevance looked very, very long. When the Nationals put Strasburg’s image in the big screen that night–effectively introducing him to the DC fans for the first time–I remember thinking if Nats ever become a winning baseball team, this guy will be a big reason why.
It was not surprising, then, when I found myself again at Nats Park a little over one year later for Strasburg’s first major league start. It’s hard to explain “Strasmas” to anyone who wasn’t there in June 2010. It was the strangest sporting event I ever attended. Strasburg received a standing ovation when he walked from the bullpen to the dugout before the game. Fans stood and applauded for every Strasburg pitch. It was a playoff atmosphere for a meaningless June game. It was the first time baseball in DC felt like big league baseball.
Ryan Zimmerman is often thought of as the face of the Nationals franchise. He was their first ever draft pick and their first legitimate star player. Zimmerman signed two contract extensions to stay in DC, and he’ll probably be a National his entire career. It’s fitting, then, that Strasburg signed a contract extension too. If Zim is the Face of the Franchise, Strasburg is the Face of the Turnaround. He, too, now has the potential to be a National for life.
Soon we’ll learn why Strasburg decided to forego the free agent market this winter. Almost everyone expected it. To be honest, I was shocked when I heard the news about the contract extension last night. Almost every Scott Boras client goes to free agency, and we had no reason to expect Strasburg to be any different. For some reason, he decided to stay here.
Perhaps Boras did a full survey of the market and concluded Strasburg was unlikely to get a 7-year deal anywhere else. Maybe Boras had concerns about Strasburg’s health, and concluded it was wise to grab $175 million while it was still on the table. After all, no Tommy John pitcher has ever come close to that kind of contract (the previous record was Jordan Zimmerman this past offseason for $105 million). When you’re one ligament tear away from getting no contract extension whatsoever, $175 million has to very tempting.
But I’m going to lie to myself and conclude Strasburg signed with the Nats the same reason the fans wanted him to stay here. I’m going to think Strasburg values his role in the Nationals franchise turnaround. In my mind, I imagine a conversation between Strasburg and Tony Gwynn, his college coach, back in 2008. Tony Gwynn was the rare star player to stay with one team and one city his entire career. Somewhere along the line, maybe Strasburg picked up the value in that.
Too often we think of baseball as a business. To the fans, it’s not. There’s an emotional element to keeping Strasburg in a Nationals uniform. If you don’t understand it, there’s probably no way I can explain it to you.