Okay. Stephen Strasburg is officially a major league pitcher. This means it's okay to fawn over him.
While the hype-to-substance ratio may never be calculated with human utensils, actual useful real numbers before his start included attendance (40,000-plus), press credentials (over 200), and stories written about him in the last two days (fifty-twelve jillion). With a little patience (and a little broadcaster), some more real numbers formed when he hit the showers: seven innings, two runs, 14 strikeouts, and zero walks.
So there. The 21-year-old Washington Nationals rookie can dominate a major league lineup (even though, hahaha, it's the Pittsburgh Pirates so it's technically not true) but when you think about it, the numbers aren't necessarily relevant. Ubaldo Jimenez has great, great, GREAT numbers, but the buzz around him? That's just feedback from Coors Field's PA system.
The guy who really sold me on the Strasburg Effect was another Stephen: Steve Grilli. Yes, that Steve Grilli. The one who e-mailed me out of the blue five years ago because I said mean, vile things about his son Jason on the Internet. The color commentator for the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs (one of Strasburg's minor league stops) was interviewed in a fantastic article about the Strasburg phenomenon. He also demonstrated street cred regarding larger-than-life pitchers, since he was teammates with Mark Fidrych back in the '70s.
Grilli told the story of a Tigers series in Minnesota in the summer of 1976. July 19 was 10-cent beer night, and attendance was 5,005. For cheap beer.
The next night, Fidrych started. And with beers back at full price, 30,425 showed up.
Grilli might be one of the only men qualified to serve as acolytes to both pitchers. And not wanting to get another stern e-mail from him, I'll err on the side of his judgment. Notice we're not talking about whether or not Strasburg will become the best pitcher of our generation. Fidrych wasn't, and neither was Fernando Valenzuela, Dwight Gooden, or Mark Prior. But they all captivated fanbases in dire need of a pick-me-up.
From what it seems, D.C. likes baseball — they've just never had a good team of their own. Two franchises known as the Senators relocated to Texas and Minnesota. The team they were gift-wrapped by MLB in 2005 was the itinerant Montreal/San Juan Expos, the team nobody wanted. They were FINE with this. Hell, they even built them a new stadium, mostly because they didn't skip town and head for Portland or Vegas or Birmingham or anywhere but Washington.
But mere baseball isn't enough. A fanbase needs a catalyst, someone to excite even the casual fan. Your purists might appreciate the commitment to winning by signing Adam Dunn, veterans Pudge Rodriguez and Livan Hernandez, and locking up infield captain Ryan Zimmerman to a long-term deal, but a "commitment to winning" doesn't translate to the more important fan's "commitment to giving a shit."
As Grilli mentioned, Fidrych's magical 1976 season was otherwise miserable for his Detroit Tigers. He had a record of 19-9. His teammates were 55-78. The team finished 24 games out of first place. But nobody remembers any of that. The summer of '76 was the summer of The Bird. And '10 may be Strasburg's Summer, although the National League East may go to the Phillies or Braves. But 30 years from now, who shall look back on that division title?
In the end, baseball memories that traverse generations may not be measured in Major League Baseball's annual revenue report or Strasburg's career numbers, but they're equally real.