- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 23, 2009

They planted Stephen Strasburg on a makeshift stage along the third-base line, shot off fireworks and basked in the sense that the bad, old days were behind them.

The Nationals unveiled their 21-year-old pitching sensation to the public on Friday with big smiles and unabashed enthusiasm. They tried to temper the expectations and bring a modicum of perspective to an event intended to fan the flames of passion. This was their riddle, not easily resolved after awarding Strasburg a record-breaking contract and putting on this big show.

This was a defining moment of the franchise, a much-needed break from the present and the 100-plus losses in the offing.

“I’m just coming here to keep doing what I did at San Diego State, which is win games,” Strasburg said.

If Strasburg found all the attention a tad unsettling and worrisome, he tried not to let it show.

He was gracious, even-tempered and respectful of those who one day would be his teammates. He expressed the idea to ingratiate himself with those around him through hard work and perspiration. He tossed around the word “fortunate” and cited the wisdom of Tony Gwynn, the one-time big league star who is the head coach at San Diego State.

“The game is the same,” Strasburg said of the transition from college to the professional ranks.

Strasburg becomes the face of the franchise, fair or not, because of the contract, the hype and a fastball said to break 100 mph.

This development speaks more to a franchise’s ineptness than what Strasburg may be in a season or two.

He came before the city on an oppressively humid afternoon before storm clouds descended over the ballpark and a blast of cool air provided a measure of relief. The several hundred fans in attendance would try not to take that as a bad omen.

Strasburg stepped off the stage in jersey No. 37 and mingled with those around them. He posed for pictures, conducted interviews and signed what was pushed in front of him.

He did not necessarily cut an intimidating presence, as power pitchers often do. He is listed as 6-foot-4 in the San Diego State media guide, which seems generous. His hands did not appear overly large for a fastball pitcher either. Yet he came across as dutiful, if not eager to please.

It was his first time in the nation’s capital since his days as an elementary school student. And he said it is where he wanted to be along despite the protracted negotiations that stretched almost to the deadline.

Stan Kasten, the team president, insisted that “we always thought that this would happen.” And Kasten made it clear that the signing of Strasburg was not a start but “a continuation of what has been done” by the front office.

You could have fooled those who attended the feting. The only accessory missing from Strasburg was a crown of jewels.

Strasburg, idle since the conclusion of the college season, is in no position to help the Nationals this season. He is being shipped to Florida to strengthen his precious right arm in the next four or five weeks before making his professional debut in the Florida Instructional League.

“The big thing is not to rush things,” he said. “It’s their decision, and I understand it completely.”

Mike Rizzo, the team’s newly anointed general manager, wants to be cautious with Strasburg’s development because of the genuine fear of a young power pitcher compromising his arm.

In the end, that was a concern for another day. This was all feel-good stuff, the syrup put on extra thick.

Rizzo and Kasten moved to a pair of seats in front of the third-base stands to field questions from the diehards and to keep hope alive through this slog of a season.

That benumbing reality is out of Strasburg’s hands.

Later in the evening, from his spot in a ballpark suite, he could do nothing more than watch the Nationals lose their fourth consecutive game.

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