WASHINGTON — — In 2005, Washington regained a lost piece of itself when baseball returned after a 33-season absence. Since, local fans have cheerfully endured losing records because they again had a team and stadium to call their own.
That mindset shifts Tuesday night with the major league debut of Stephen Strasburg, a 21-year-old prodigy-messiah hyped like no pitcher before him. The rookie's arrival, combined with other promising developments, has given area fans hope -- in some cases wild, outsize hope -- and drawn the attention and envy of Orioles fans, whose team is struggling.
National interest in Strasburg's first game dwarfs that of celebrated prospects such as Baltimore pitcher Ben McDonald in 1989 and catcher Matt Wieters last season. "Sportswise, nothing compares in Washington," said Phil Wood, an analyst for the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which televises Nationals and Orioles games. "Maybe the Beatles in '64. That's the closest thing I can think of."
For Washingtonians, this is the reward for their loyalty and patience through seasons such as 2009 -- when the Nationals lost 103 games -- or 2005, when gaps in television coverage prevented fans from seeing many of their team's games even as Orioles broadcasts were readily available.
For local fans, Strasburg is the prize waiting at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box. "He is going to be phenomenal," said season-ticket holder Allen Knott, 68, of Bowie, who attended Washington games at Griffith Stadium in the 1950s and said he's never seen hype like this. Neither has Nationals president Stan Kasten, who says the buildup to Strasburg's arrival has been a boon for the club and for MASN, which is owned primarily by the Orioles. The Nationals have a minority stake.
"The best thing for marketing has been this buildup," Kasten said. "The news stories every fifth day [when Strasburg pitched in the minor leagues] and the anticipation has been serendipitous."
Strasburg's debut guaranteed a sellout at Nationals Park, which has been about half-full this season until now. Eighty miles away, the Virginia town of Strasburg said it will consider a resolution Tuesday night inviting the player to visit and temporarily renaming the town "Stephen Strasburg." A rare Strasburg baseball card was fetching more than $16,000 in an online auction.
Fans at Tuesday night's game against the Pittsburgh Pirates are certain to include notable figures -- former Maryland basketball star Greivis Vasquez said he wouldn't miss it -- and even some Orioles fans. "I'm sure it'll be crazy," Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "It's a cool thing to be a part of."
In online message groups, Orioles fans have seemed torn about Strasburg. Some have said they will attend the game, some will watch it on television and others will skip it entirely out of pride or so they can see the Orioles-Yankees contest. "I'll watch the O's until the Yankees score a run," one fan wrote on the Orioles Hangout message board. "Since the game will be over at that point, I'll start watching Strasburg."
With the team off to its worst start since 1988, the Orioles fired manager Dave Trembley last week. "I feel sorry for the Baltimore fans," said Knott, the longtime Washington supporter.
Because of the Orioles' financial interest in MASN, team owner Peter Angelos said recently that "it's a very good thing" for his club that the Nats are generating excitement over their performance and Strasburg's debut. MASN said the Nationals are already seeing their highest ratings this season since arriving in Washington as the former Montreal Expos.
Advertisers have paid MASN a premium to be part of Tuesday's broadcast. "Because of the demand and interest and expectations of extremely high ratings, advertising rates have doubled for that game," MASN spokesman Todd Webster said. He said interest in Strasburg is "a huge boost to MASN and to the Nationals and the Orioles" and that advertisers are paying premium rates for Strasburg's next two starts as well.
If the pitching rotation remains the same, Strasburg likely would start against the Orioles during a three-game series at Camden Yards on June 25-27.
In the minor leagues, Strasburg has come off as earnest and humble, if slightly guarded. He is boyish-looking and even a little shy -- he is just 21 -- but is 6 feet 4, 220 pounds with a powerful lower body.
His most notable trait may be that he doesn't seem to feel entitled. He has seemed the refreshing antithesis of a self-promoter.
"To have all these kids watching you and everything, you know, hopefully someday they can be in my position. It's a lot of fun," said Strasburg, sporting a wispy, light-colored beard during a post-game news conference after enduring his only loss with the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs last month.
"There is a lot of hype going on. I'm still learning," he said. "I have a lot to learn, and I'm always going to have to pick up something new to improve my game."