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Stephen Strasburg Looks Like Washington’s Latest Failed Sports Messiah

But Washington fans are used to the feeling.
Photograph by Flickr user slgckgc.

Washington sports fans suffer from star worship that, too often, ends in dissapointment. It’s the perpetual outcome of a warped religion, one rooted in false hopes that the latest flashy draft pick will be their favorite team’s savior.

Remember the hype when the Nationals drafted Stephen Strasburg with their No. 1 pick in 2009? Twenty team officials held a press conference at Nationals Park. Washington Post sports writer Chico Harlan hyperventilated that Strasburg “might just save the franchise.”

The hometown press whipped Strasburg into a fine froth that made him out to be the second coming of Greg Maddux. He came with a pinpoint fastball and a knee-bucking sinker. His agent, Scott Boras, negotiated a contract that’ll pay him $7.4 million this year and set him up for a windfall signing once he hits free agency. But once Strasburg took the mound, he revealed himself to be merely mortal. Through five seasons he’s pitched very well and very badly. He needed elbow surgery. A season after leading the National Leage in strikeouts, Strasburg this year has stumbled from Opening Day.

He went three-and-a-half innings May 23 before the woeful Phillies chased him off the mound with six runs. The last time out he threw 16 pitches, complained of a stiff neck and handed the ball over to manager Matt Williams. Now he’s on the 15-day disabled list with a mysterious back injury.

“Something’s causing him discomfort in his upper back,” Williams told reporters. “The fact that it switched sides wouldn’t point to anything structural. We’ve got to figure it out.”

The Nationals might be a young team, but perpetually broken heroes are old hat in Washington sports. The local NFL franchise is staked for at least one more season to shaky-kneeed quarterback Robert Griffin, III. Like Strasburg, Griffin came with a great pedigree: He won the Heisman Trophy at Baylor. When the team traded away six future draft selections for the rights to take Griffin with the second pick in 2012, reporters pumped him up to be the savior of the befuddled Dan Snyder era.

“After years of trying,” Mark Maske wrote in the Post, “the Redskins hope they finally have landed a dynamic player at the sport’s most important position who can help rekindle the franchise’s past success.”

We all know what happened to Griffin. He had a great rookie year. But thanks to then-coach Mike Shanahan playing him on a gimpy knee, Griffin needed massive surgery and missed nearly the whole of the next two seasons without ever show a flash of his first-year mastery. RGIII is still the starter going into the 2015 season, but barring an unexpected return to excellence, he’ll be suiting up in a different color scheme next year.

The most truly religious moment in DC sports’ last decade might have come on the sidelines when Snyder brought back Joe Gibbs, who guided Washington to three Super Bowl victories in the 1980s and 1990s, to lead his team “back to championship glory.” It was the old man’s “second coming,” to many fans.

Of course Gibbs fizzled. He rang up some decent seasons, and his teams reached the playoffs twice, but they never made it past the first round. At least Snyder let him retire with a bit of dignity, rather than toss another body into the FedEx Field parking lot.

High expectations, especially those molded around a single player or coach, often lead to major disappointment. Sports Illustrated joined the nattering sports prognosticators and picked the Nationals to win the 2015 World Series. Several players responded by promptly breaking down. Anthony Rendon, who led the National League in runs last year, remains on an extended rehabilitation assignment that may finally end this month. Jayson Werth broke his wrist and will be gone until August. Strasburg joined starter Doug Fister on the disabled list. But even with these momentary losses, the Nats have surged to first place because they’re a well structured team, rather than one that hinges on a single player. Yunel Escobar, brought in to cover third base, will almost certainly stay in the everyday lineup when Rendon gets back; the outfield is adequately covered by a platoon of Tyler Moore, Michael Taylor, Denard Span (who appears to be in fine form after missing the first two weeks), and Bryce Harper, who is finally surpassing the hype that greeted his own No. 1 selection the year after Strasburg’s. And while Strasburg has been frustrating, the Nationals’ latest prize Boras client, Max Scherzer, has not.

But it’s the surprising successes that are the sweetest. Not many picked the Washington Wizards to make a deep run NBA playoffs, yet they almost made it to the Eastern Conference finals. Who knew Paul Pierce would find his third or fourth wind?

Take it from a Philadelphia Phillies fan. Hype leads to heartbreak. Losing builds strength, like rooting for a franchise that’s lost more than 10,000 games. The path to a World Series championship requires healthy players, unexpected heroes, and teams that get hot at the right time. No team can make it on the back of one pitcher (see Hamels, Cole), especially one that comes up stiff too often.

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