The Pros of Strasburg-Mania, and One Tiny Con

strasburg.jpgStephen Strasburg’s major league debut was everything (almost) everyone hoped it would be. I’ll admit there was a part of me that wanted Strasburg to, if not fail, then perform in a middling fashion. There was no way (I thought) the hype could possibly match the reality. But it did, and then some. After seeing how lights out he was, and ignoring the fact that the Mets will have to face this guy a couple of times a season for at least the next few years, I had to admit he was something awesome to behold.

Of course, some people pointed out that Strasburg’s start came against the lowly Pirates (like this jerk did). But with some time to think about my dumb tweet, I’ve changed my mind and would like to echo the sentiments expressed by Walkoff Walk. The Pirates are still a major league team. They have some decent hitters, like Andrew McCutchen, Delwyn Young, and, okay, why not, Lastings Milledge. Even the worst teams in baseball do not strike out 14 times in one game very often. Any time a pitcher racks up that many Ks, no matter who the opponent is, it’s amazing. Especially when he fans the last seven batters to face him and is still throwing 99 mph as he does it.

Almost as impressive as the 14 strikeouts: Strasburg did not walk a single batter. I bet you’d have to look long and hard to find the last time a pitcher made his first major league start and didn’t issue a single free pass. And if you did find such a start, it was probably because that rookie gave up seven straight hits and was yanked before recording an out.

I also heard/read some people mocking Nats fans for never showing up to games before now, and leaving when Strasburg left the game. That last act is, admittedly, a little shabby. But up to this point, you can’t say the Nationals had much to cheer for, save Ryan Zimmerman and the occasional anomalous hot streak. I don’t blame people from staying away from the ballpark. Going to games is expensive. If you’re going to invest that amount of money and time, the on-field product better be worth it, and up to this point, it hasn’t been.

It reminds me of 2008, when the Rays made the playoffs and lots of fans (particularly of the Red Sox stripe) mocked the folkways of a fanbase that had no experience with packed stadiums and postseason baseball. Such criticism is totally unfair, because all fandom starts somewhere. Just because the Sox had almost a century’s head start to build its mythos doesn’t make their fandom any more evolved or righteous.

In 1905, some handlebar-mustachioed gentleman decided to take in the Boston nine and see what all the fuss was about; now 100 years later, his descendents are Sox fans. If this person had grown up in Tampa Bay, he wouldn’t have had an opportunity to see a major league baseball team in his hometown for 90 years. Whose fault would that be? Nobody’s.

I’m sure there’s kids in Florida who got hooked on baseball for the first time because of the excitement of that first postseason in Tampa. Now they’re fans for life, and they’ll pass that passion along to their kids. Likewise, people from DC who had only a middling interest in the Nationals could get caught along the tide of Strasburg-mania, and in the process, become real fans. And the people who’ve been “real fans” all along get to look down their noses at the newcomers and boast that they liked the Nats before it was cool. Win-win!

My only objection, and it has little to do with the second coming of Koufax himself: I’ve heard more than one person say that Strasburg’s debut was a great tonic for “long suffering” Nats fans. Here I must raise a hand and object. The Nationals have only been around for six seasons. They have not existed for a sufficient amount of time to have a long suffering fanbase. For that, look at the team from Pittsburgh they just defeated. Or Indians fans. Or Royals fans.

Better yet, look to the dispossessed Expos fans, who were left without a team when the now-Nationals left Montreal. There’s no better definition of a long-suffering fanbase than one whose team split town and ain’t never coming back. Particularly since Expos fans must have seen the execution coming from miles away, as MLB did everything in its power to drain the Expos of what little life they had. They moved “home” games to Puerto Rico. They let Jeff Loria run the team into the ground. And they took over the franchise but didn’t allow it to improve in any way.

Just consider that, Nats fans. Your team may have been a doormat up until this point, but least it still exists.