UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

After just one start, Nats' Stephen Strasburg is game's biggest draw

With one start Stephen Strasburg gave baseball something it has needed for years: a national drawing card.

Until Strasburg on Tuesday became a sporting rarity -- a rookie even better than the hype -- baseball had no transcendent player who could pack a ballpark. Its most marketable and popular player, Derek Jeter, is a Yankees icon, but he doesn't have the individual game to sell tickets to casual fans. Its best players, Joe Mauer and Albert Pujols, are known for their Midwestern quiet reliability, not for provoking anybody to call sports talk radio. Its best pitchers, Roy Halladay and Ubaldo Jimenez, could walk down Broadway unimpeded.

Think about the vacuum into which Strasburg entered. Barry Bonds has been out of the game for three seasons; he was a lightning rod, packing houses because of his pursuit of home run records and his PED-related notoriety. Even the biggest money-making machine in baseball, the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, lost its edge and TV viewers because of the personalities that left New York and Boston: Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, David Wells, etc. Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez, dirtied by post-PED revelations and slowed by age, don't excite any crowds. Combined, they have 13 home runs this year -- as many as Ty Wigginton and five fewer than Jose Bautista. No one is hitting 50 home runs for a third straight year.

Ask yourself this question: what player would move you to buy a ticket to a ballgame (especially a visiting player) or adjust your TV viewing schedule? There is only one obvious answer right now: Strasburg.

It is about the wonder of his pitches and the magnetism of a phenom, the idea that someone so young and inexperienced could be so good. And we want in on it early, like a high-flying stock, so we feel a sense of ownership.

The appeal of Strasburg starts with the gift of throwing a baseball 100 miles an hour, which is to pitching what 768 mph, the speed of sound, is to aeronautics. It is so much faster in our imagination than 99 mph. (The communal gasp at Nationals Park was audible the first time the scoreboard blazed with triple digits.) And it's the wickedness of that curveball, 82 miles an hour and 2,200 rpms of fiendish fun. It's the best hammer since Thor's.

Strasburg makes greatness accessible. Nike made a big score when it made its shoe technology visible; "windows" onto pockets of air. You didn't have to be sold on the science; you could see it yourself. And that's the appeal of Strasburg: his pitches move so fast and break so boldly that the genius of him is obvious. Nothing needs to be decoded or translated to even the most casual fan. It is blunt force.

He is a perfect pitching template. He has the height and long levers to create a whip-like effect with his arm (velocity), the athleticism to repeat a balanced delivery (control) and the long fingers to generate astounding spin rates on the baseball (movement). He is going to dominate with plenty more high-strikeout games this year.

He needs no assistance, but the Nationals are providing it with his pitching schedule: his first three starts are against the Pirates, Indians and Royals -- the 30th, 25th and 22nd ranked offenses in baseball -- and all are scheduled for national television. And so the momentum is going to build from what already is a national phenomenon:

• The Indians sold 4,000 tickets for his start Sunday in the first 12 hours after his 14-strikeout game against Pittsburgh.

• TBS ditched a Phillies-Red Sox game (normally ratings gold) to show Strasburg's start Sunday, adding two more slow motion cameras to capture the greatness.

• MASN, the Nationals regional network, drew an audience of 165,000 households for his debut -- more than 10 times greater than the average audience last year of 14,000 households.

• The Nationals drew a sellout of 40,315 for his start -- 24,247 more people than their average Tuesday night crowd this year. That's about $725,000 in added revenue, meaning if Strasburg makes eight home starts this year he will generate an extra $5.8 million for the Nats.

• The Hall of Fame asked for his hat and a game ball.

David Letterman asked him to read his Top Ten list.

• Restaurants are naming burgers after him -- Strasburgers.

Pitchers such as Mark Fidyrch and Fernando Valenzuela became drawing cards as rookies, though we tend to forget how phenomenal were Dwight Gooden in 1984 and Kerry Wood in 1998. Gooden was only 19 -- two years younger than Strasburg is now -- and pitching in New York when he dominated big league hitters with just two pitches. While the Nats plan to limit Strasburg to about 100 major league innings this year, Gooden threw 218 as a teenager -- and led the league with 276 strikeouts.

Likewise, Wood was a major attraction in his rookie year with the Cubs. He struck out 20 batters in his fifth start. Only 15,758 were at Wrigley Field that day. But for his nine home starts thereafter, Wood drew crowds that averaged 36,205, a 13 percent boost to the average Cubs crowd that year.

In his first 10 starts, Wood was 6-2 with a 2.79 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 61 1/3 innings. He also exceeded 120 pitches eight times that year before he was shut down with arm problems. His manager? Jim Riggelman, who is Strasburg's manager.

Little about Wood, Gooden, Valenzuela or Fidrych really applies here because of how much the game and the media have evolved. All four of those phenoms were, as we look back with the information we have today, overworked at a young age. Strasburg faces strict limits on his pitches and innings. And the coverage of the latest phenom is unlike anything any baseball rookie has ever seen, if only because of the advances in technology that allow news and gossip to travel faster and across more avenues than ever before.

So hold on tight and enjoy the ride. It may be a long time before we see something like this again. Strasburg is the real deal. The strikeouts and the crowds are going to keep coming. For Major League Baseball, not just the Nats, he is the right man at the right time.

Of all the players who lasted long enough with the Seattle Mariners to get 2,000 at-bats, Yuniesky Betancourt was worse at getting on base (.302) than everybody else except Jim Presley and Jose Lopez. But it wasn't enough for Yuni to be bad to haunt Seattle fans. The one time he happened to actually be good also will haunt them. He helped cost the Mariners Strasburg.

Seattle had Strasburg nearly locked up on the penultimate day of the 2008 season. At 59-101, the Mariners held a half-game lead over Washington (59-100) for the worst record in baseball and the right to pick Strasburg the next June. They controlled their fate. With a magic number of two, any combination of Seattle losses or Nationals wins totaling two would bring Strasburg to Seattle.

That's when Yuni decided to hit like a young Ken Griffey Jr.. He went 5-for-7 with a walk, two runs and two RBI to lead the Mariners to 7-3 and 4-3 wins over Oakland. The Nationals clinched the Strasburg sweepstakes by losing two games to Philadelphia.

Those two otherwise meaningless Seattle wins changed baseball history. It could be one of the most costly "collapses" ever to end a season. The Mariners would be looking at a rotation today with Felix Hernandez, Cliff Lee and Strasburg. Instead, with the second pick of the 2009 draft, they took Dustin Ackley, thought to be the best college bat in the draft. Ackley, 22, has hit one home run in Double-A, though he does have a .402 OBP.

Betancourt has gone on to be even worse for Kansas City (.288 OBP).

With his next home run, number 129 with Tampa Bay, Carlos Pena will break a tie with Aubrey Huff as the all-time home run leader in franchise history. Likewise, with 10 more dingers, Dan Uggla will supplant Mike Lowell as the Marlins' all-time home run king. And Adrian Gonzalez needs 21 to replace Nate Colbert as the home run leader of the Padres.

Franchise home run king; it's actually one of the cooler and more underappreciated honorifics in baseball. And so here is all you need to know, and then some, about the 30 franchise leaders:

• Only six of the leaders are active: Pena and Huff, Lowell, Jim Thome (for Cleveland), Todd Helton (Colorado) and Vladimir Guerrero (Montreal/Washington).

• The leading totals for the Rays (128), Marlins (143) and Padres (163) -- all in jeopardy -- are the three lowest such marks among the 30 teams.

• The longest-standing franchise record belongs to the Yankees and Babe Ruth, who hit his last home run for New York in 1934. The next oldest records belong to the Red Sox (Ted Williams, since 1960), Dodgers (Duke Snider, 1962), Cardinals (Stan Musial, 1963), Giants (Willie Mays, 1971) and, in an odd four-way tie, the Braves (Hank Aaron), Tigers (Al Kaline), Twins (Harmon Killebrew) and Padres (Colbert), all of whom saw their franchise king go deep for the last time in 1974.