I met my man Ryan Sonner years ago when he had the misfortune to attend a seminar discussion I was leading. We've stayed in touch over the years.
We're a lot alike, unfortunately for him. Both ugly. Both former newspaper guys. Both married up (way, way up in his case).
Ryan headed to Alabama for a while, working in Josh Willingham's hometown while finishing school. He came back to the D.C. area and got a job near the stadium. He also got a season-ticket package and curses me pretty regularly for dragging him into the abyss of Nats fandom.
But we need to be clear here: HE is the one who trucked it to Altoona, not me. I'm glad he did. He's been officially annointed as the Nationals Fanboy Looser Network and I appreciate his efforts in filing the following report:
Sunday started with cautious optimism. It ended with a smile so big, it couldn’t be wiped away with a catcher’s mitt.
Simply put, The Man was everything I thought he’d be. And then some. It was well worth the six-hour roundtrip drive from Alexandria to Altoona, Pa., on Sunday. Well worth missing what I’ve been told was an incredible final round at the Masters. And well worth the minor sunburn on my poor head.
I’ve boiled Sunday down to three key parts, and I’ll start with the most obvious.
*Stephen Strasburg: Dude was straight dealing. A minor hiccup in the first and a couple errors behind him in the fourth notwithstanding, no self-respecting Nats fan could walk away Sunday feeling anything but good about Strasburg’s professional debut.
After that first inning, in which he gave up a couple of two-out hits that allowed his only earned run of the game to score, he settled down nicely and started to mix in some off-speed stuff, which was just as effective as his heater. About that heater… it reportedly topped out at a cool 100 mph and was consistently in the 97-99 range all afternoon. Really, it was enough to make a grown man cry. Strasburg retired eight straight Altoona batters before his defense let him down, allowing the Curve (one of the coolest names in minor league baseball) to take a 4-0 lead.
Strasburg gave up four hits, struck out eight and walked two before the offense came around in Harrisburg’s 6-4 win. He even helped himself out in the bottom of the fourth with a hard-hit RBI double to right. That may have been his proudest moment Sunday, although he’ll never publicly say so. Here’s why: as he was taking his cuts in the on-deck circle, a few inebriated fans about 30 feet away started heckling him. Big time. They played all the hits, too – “You’re overrated Strasburg!”, “You ain’t worth all that money, kid!”, “You’re getting rocked, Strasburg. Go back to San Diego!”, “Fifteen million? Pfft. Too bad you can’t hit!” They just wouldn’t quit.
When Strasburg pulled into second base after crushing the ball into right field, he kind of glared back in the hecklers’ general direction. We didn’t hear another peep from those knuckleheads the rest of the day. Point is, Strasburg seems fully capable of dealing with knuckleheads. And pressure.
*The park: Absolutely beautiful, especially when it’s 70 and sunny and filled with Nationals fans. The facade, with its gorgeous brickwork, reminded me of Camden Yards. Inside, the price tags reminded me of 1985, which is a good thing. You know those 12 oz. beers they sell for $8 at Nats Park? Try $6 for a 32 ouncer. And on Thirsty Thursdays, you can buy a 16 oz. draft beer for -- wait for it, wait for it -- $1.50.
Also, on Tuesdays, you can buy two tickets, two hot dogs and two popcorns for the backbreaking price of a buck. My wife, Summer, and I each had a hot dog, split an order of chili cheese fries and split a large coke. For $12!! So yeah, that was pretty nice.
Fortunately, I ordered our tickets for the game about 2.3 seconds after the Nats announced the date of The Man’s debut. We sat just left of home plate, five rows up on the aisle. Two tickets, plus the service charge, for $24. Perfect.
It really didn’t matter, though. From the looks of it, there’s not a bad seat in the house. And just about every one of those seats was filled Sunday. I can’t imagine that happens too often in Altoona. One of the coolest things about the park is the gianormous roller coaster behind the rightfield fence. Doesn’t look all that safe, but apparently, it’s part of a neighboring amusement park. I’m still not sure about Altoona’s mascot, though. At various points, we saw a pitbull-looking thing, a fish (named Al Tuna. Ha!) and something that reminded me of Gunston, the former George Mason University mascot. Weird, but whatever.
*The fans: Remember how angry everyone felt when the Phillies fans invaded Nats Park last week? Sunday was just like that – on a much smaller scale, obviously. Oh, and the Nats fans were way nicer than those donks from Philly. I swear the Nats fans in attendance outnumbered the home fans 25-1. Maybe more. The lines to get in snaked around into the adjacent parking lots, and some of the locals seemed downright freaked out by all the visitors. It was nice to be on the other side of that deal for once. Even the Curve fans were awestruck by The Man. Every time he stepped into the on-deck circle, a few of them scurried down as close as they could get and had someone take their picture with Strasburg in the background. My wife wanted me to do that, but I passed.
All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon. The weather rocked. The stadium rocked. And The Man rocked. I heard Drew Storen picked up the save, but who cares? (We left in the middle of the fifth, before The Man probably even took a seat in the dugout.) This day was about Strasburg. And boy did he deliver. I wouldn’t consider myself a die-hard Nats fan by any stretch, but for those of you who are, get ready. This kid is going to be something special. It’ll be worth the wait.
I’d like to close by thanking Mike for allowing me to share my thoughts. You’re a good man, Mike. I don’t care what anyone says.
(Our Man Can Hit, Too - photo courtesy of Summer Sonner)