Nationals team president Stan Kasten slipped out of the interview room at Nationals Park on Monday night, and by happenstance, general manager Mike Rizzo was there to meet him. The two men had been holed up in a conference room 295 days earlier, trading counterproposals with agent Scott Boras as the window dwindled to mere minutes for them to sign what they thought could be the ace of a generation. Now, Stephen Strasburg was here, packing their stadium and putting the first steps of their dream into motion. Kasten and Rizzo stopped, looked at each other briefly, and exchanged a bear hug.
Tony Gwynn had been wrestling for months about whether or not he should attend Strasburg's debut in Washington. For one, there was the scheduling conflict; the San Diego Padres legend could be coaching San Diego State in the NCAA tournament when the pitcher he'd coached for three years was making his major league debut. But more important to Gwynn were the less-concrete factors: This was Strasburg's night, and Gwynn was keenly aware of how his own celebrity might detract from it.
"I didn't want to intrude on his day," Gwynn said. "Greg Booker, the pitching coach in Syracuse, called me Sunday morning, and was, you know, 'This guy's unbelievable, blah, blah, blah.' And he handed the phone to Stephen, and I talked to Stephen. He's done a lot for us at San Diego State. Even though he's a National, he's still an Aztec. I just felt like I needed to be here. My wife packed my bag, and here I am."
In Ivan Rodriguez's second major league game, back in 1991, he caught Nolan Ryan. In his 17th, Ryan took a no-hitter into the ninth inning. He's caught a perfect game, another no-hitter, played in two World Series and won one. And here was the future Hall of Famer, rushing a quick trip down to Single-A Potomac for a rehab start to prove his strained lower back was healthy so he could catch Strasburg's big-league debut.
On Strasburg's one mistake of the night, Rodriguez put the blame on himself for calling the changeup Delwyn Young hit for a homer. Mostly, in their joint press conference, he leaned back in his chair, looked at Strasburg and nodded knowingly.
"I'm proud of him. I'm proud of the organization," Rodriguez said. "The city of Washington, I mean, the fans came to see what they wanted to see. There's nothing better to that. Fourteen strikeouts. The kid pitched seven innings. Good show."
Leaning against a pillar on the right side of the room during Strasburg and Rodriguez's press conference, Boras watched his two clients trade smiles and toss compliments back and forth. The superagent - cast so many times as a villain - smiled through the whole thing like a proud father.
"In baseball, it's the obvious that sells in life," Boras said before the game. "The Picassos, the Chagalls, everyone knows what they look like. When you see power in baseball, when you see power pitchers, when you see power hitters, fans of any realm or any depth significantly note the difference."
What is it about Strasburg, this 21-year-old whose personality is dwarfed multiple times over by his outsized repertoire, which has even the most hardened baseball men acting like they're seeing something for the first time? Rizzo, Kasten and Rodriguez all have World Series rings; Gwynn has played in one. And Boras has negotiated the biggest contracts in the history of the game.
Yet they all betray a sense of wonder around Strasburg, who needed all of two hours to set a team record in his first major league start. He struck out 14 batters in the Nationals' 5-2 win over the Pirates, breaking John Patterson's record for strikeouts in a game and tying Chris Schroder's record by fanning seven consecutive batters. He came one strikeout short of tying the big-league record for strikeouts in a debut, and he became the first pitcher in major-league history to strike out 14 batters in less than 96 pitches.
And he talked about all of it with the confident monotone of a man who's been there before, even as he took men who have been in baseball longer than he's been alive to a new place.
"I thought I was going to be a lot more nervous than I was," Strasburg said. "You've just got to trust your stuff, and try and hit his glove. Things got a lot better as the game went on. I just started clicking."
It's difficult to find events in sports that are as hyped as Strasburg's debut was, and manage to exceed the billing. Yet with 40,315 fans and nearly 200 media members in attendance, not to mention dignitaries like Gwynn, Frank Robinson, John Smoltz and Orel Hershiser, Strasburg did exactly that.
He struck out the final seven batters he faced, pumping 99-mph heat until the very end. On his first strikeout, he made former Nationals outfielder Lastings Milledge look silly on a slider - what pitching coach Steve McCatty called the baseball equivalent of getting dunked on by Michael Jordan, "except you don't end up on a poster."
And Strasburg took it all in stride, like this was what he was supposed to do all along. He talked of learning not to give hitters too much credit and realizing his stuff is good enough to play in the majors. The Nationals withheld scouting reports from him, preferring not to cloud his mind with too much information. What he did on Tuesday night was pure talent, simply overwhelming the Pirates with the sheer force of his sublime stuff.
"When he was a sophomore in college, you knew - he's got it," Gwynn said. "And 'it' is a hard thing to kind of point your finger at, but I think you saw that tonight. Tonight, of any night, would be the night where nerves would be a problem. And it wasn't. He just did what he does, which is pitch."
It's difficult to quantify what the debut means to the Nationals. Immediately, it means an increase in ticket sales and attention, a healthier bottom line and a wider reach. In the long-term, it might mean playoff appearances and world championships, though everyone around Strasburg was groping for ways to keep the night in perspective.
"We have a lot of heavy lifting ahead," Kasten said. "We know that. We're not going to be satisfied hanging around .500. It's not good, but it's awfully encouraging, because we think there's a lot better in store for us."
Perspective was tough to come by, though, when the faces of these grizzled vets, these men who had seen it all, said different.
"It's been an emotional couple days," Kasten said. "Last year's draft was so good for us. We think this year's draft has been so good for us. Both of us, Mike and I, are so determined to build a team through player development and scouting. To have these good things happen is really rewarding."
Said Gwynn: "A year later, I'm just sitting here, proud as hell. Because he's done exactly what I thought he would do."