He cannot fail. Good is unacceptable. Anything short of transcendence and he's just another mistake on the Washington Nationals' log that, this year alone, reads like the Dead Franchise Scrolls.
By handing Strasburg the largest contract ever for a player selected in the amateur draft – $15.1 million over four years, with a $7.5 million signing bonus, agreed to 77 seconds before the signing deadline Monday night – the Nationals wedded themselves to the 21-year-old just as Seattle did two decades ago with Griffey. Both were No. 1 overall picks. Each came encased in hype, Griffey owner of a swing sweeter than sugar cane and Strasburg armed with a fastball that scouts swear tickled 103 mph on their radar guns.
San Diego State's Stephen Strasburg pitched a no-hitter against Air Force in May with
Stephen Strasburg led the nation in 2009 in ERA and strikeouts.
July 20, 1988
Source: San Diego State
Junior rescued his franchise. Strasburg can only hope to do the same.
"We don't view Stephen Strasburg as the savior of the organization," acting Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said early Tuesday morning, the euphoria of the night trumping the reality of the situation. Strasburg can save the Nationals, if only in image alone. While baseball isn't a sport that lends itself to a player single-handedly carrying a team, it is one in which one person can define a franchise.
And that's what Griffey did when he arrived at 19 years old to a Seattle team that for its first 12 years hadn't finished above .500. In Griffey's third year, the Mariners cracked that barrier. By 1995, they made the playoffs. Junior turned baseball into a must-see event in Seattle and along with a new and dedicated owner – one certainly intrigued by having the game's biggest star under his umbrella – saved the city from losing baseball for the second time.
The Nationals are the only thing in Washington more screwed up than health-care reform. Their general manager, Jim Bowden, resigned this spring amid an FBI investigation into his alleged skimming money from bonuses of Latin American players. One young Dominican in the Nationals' organization, 19-year-old bonus baby Esmailyn Gonzalez, turned out to be Carlos Alvarez, who was 23 and must've known an excellent document forger. The team's owners, Ted Lerner and his son Mark, rarely speak in public, a shame seeing as the Nationals are the worst team in baseball for the second straight year, playing in a $611 million boondoggle of a publicly funded ballpark that hosts far more empty seats each night than it does full, which would make a little more sense if the TV and radio ratings weren't the worst in baseball, too.
Yeah. That team doesn't need a new face or anything.
Enough on the Nationals' troubles. They celebrated a rare triumph Monday, staring down agent Scott Boras, who had made it clear he wanted $22 million for Strasburg, and capping their offer at nearly one-third of that. Because the contract begins this season, Strasburg could well recoup all $15.1 million before he heads straight to arbitration. Most players, in their first three seasons, make something in the neighborhood of $1.3 million.
Strasburg, of course, isn't most. Negotiations ticked to the final minutes because Boras understood that no matter how much leverage the Nationals held, they simply couldn't swallow a hit the size of not signing Strasburg. Everything he represented – hope and excellence and potential, the future, really, when the present is so inescapably bad – would have meant nuclear winter without an agreement.
Here are the top five guaranteed money deals for first-year draft players, in millions:
Now comes the fun part, when Boras knocks on the door of the fallout shelter or wherever he's hidden Strasburg for the past two months and they fly cross-country to greet the city ripe for an embrace. In the moment leading up to the deadline, Twitter went bonkers with Washington fans desperate for any news on Strasburg. They cursed Boras, flayed the Nationals, accepted doom only for 65 characters to send them into a tizzy.
For more than a year now, they anticipated this moment. Ever since Strasburg struck out 23 hitters against Utah his sophomore season, his selection No. 1 overall has been foregone barring an injury. Even then the Nationals may have taken him, that high is Strasburg's ceiling, a 1.32 earned-run average and 195-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio evidence to support Boras' contention that he's the best college pitcher ever.
Such plaudits matter not anymore. Now it's about performance, about Strasburg breaking the streak of pitchers selected No. 1 flaming out, or at least going dim without distinction. There have been no Joe Mauers or Chipper Joneses or Alex Rodriguezes, all No. 1s and all undeniable superstars.
Certainly no Juniors, either. He had the advantage of playing daily, whereas Strasburg will make at most 35 starts a year. He hit home runs, the yin with no yang from a pitcher's perspective. He oozed charisma, something Strasburg has hidden knowing that one slipup here or there could have cost him millions.
So how, then, can he be like Griffey? Perform to expectations, no matter how high and unfair, and do so with the grace and class so few possess. Accomplish that, and $15.1 million will look like a bargain. Strasburg's starts will become events. Washingtonians will see it's worth traveling to the southeast for games. Tickets will sell, jerseys as well. No. 1 pitchers are hard to find and bank-breaking when found, and Washington will have its for a while.
"We just want him to develop normally," Rizzo said, "naturally and become the impactful pitcher we hope he's going to be."
He also wants a billion dollars and unlimited supplies of Thin Mints. None of the three is happening. The Strasburg buildup is already in full force. Rizzo wouldn't even rule out the possibility of him pitching for Washington this season, promising to test Strasburg's arm after nearly three months off and "see where he's at."
Chances are, Strasburg takes off the remainder of 2009 and begins to conquer the world next spring. He'll have an entire offseason to repeat his mantra. Failure isn't an option. Good is for losers. Greatness beckons.
And do the Nationals ever need it.