A long time ago, when Jim Lemon hit one against Whitey Ford and Harmon Killebrew denied Mickey Mantle a higher ranking as an American League slugger, the Washington Senators were the enemy. They routinely finished in the second division, when both leagues had eight teams and divisions were determined unofficially by records, so I could cackle. Then they moved to Minnesota and became the team of sibling cities.
Then we had the second generations of the Senators, whose most important contributions were employing Ted Williams and preparing Gil Hodges for the Miracle of 1969. Otherwise, they were an afterthought in my baseball conscience. And now we have the Nationals, born in a football stadium that hadn't been swept since the Lincoln Administration, and finally relocated to a park that suggests sheet metal was in abundant supply when the blueprints were made.
I didn't cackle through any of D.C.'s recent baseball incarnations. Indeed, I felt sorry for the team that played in dirty RFK -- with a grounds crew that never had seen rain and clubhouses reminiscent of my camp barracks in 1958. I enjoyed Frank Robinson when he was their manager, and was pleased when Jim Riggleman was retained as the successor to Manny Acta. And I endlessly enjoyed watching Ryan Zimmerman make miracles out of would-be doubles.
Moreover, one of the more compelling stories in the game develops when a team, any team, begins to assert itself. When the long and gradual transformation from doormat to dominant begins. And the Nationals seemingly had evolved through the first stage of that metamorphosis this season. Then Stephen Strasburg said "ouch" and grabbed his elbow. And the process stalled.
It stalled again on Friday with word that Tommy John, the proper-name adjective dreaded by pitchers for decades, had become part of Strasburg's life and uncertainty had elbowed its way into his future.
No doubt, more than a few of them have been uttered off-mike by Riggleman, Stan Kasten, Mike Rizzo and some baseball-inclined members of Congress. Strasburg was -- and isn't it terrible to discuss him in the past tense already? -- the hottest thing to hit D.C. since ... well, let's not get into that. But he was better for the city and its satellite communities than Marion Barry, Ted Agnew and the White House Plumbers.
The Nationals finally had their Tom Seaver. Strasburg was to serve as the point man in a revival that might make Washington monumental in the game, or at least make the folks watching telecasts not care how absurdly high the cameras are. Every renaissance needs a focal point, a different kind of renaissance man. Strasburg was -- and may yet be -- the Nationals'.
For now though, he is their Mark Prior. And it is so sad. A market inhaled Friday, and word is it may not exhale for 18 months. And after that, who knows? R.A. Dickey once threw hard and struck out batters in bunches. He has become a compelling story now by throwing butterfly pitches. But Strasburg throwing knuckleballs has no sex appeal, not after all that he showed the world in 12 starts -- 2.91 ERA, 92 strikeouts in 68 innings and a 5-2 record with a last-place team.
What a disappointment! And not only in Washington. The game in general has taken a punch to the solar plexus. Strasburg was so good for the game, as Mark Fidrych, Fernando Valenzuela and Dwight Gooden were. As Prior and Kerry Wood were good for Chicago. Nothing sells like home runs and strikeouts. And the Nationals finally had some K's to go with Adam Dunn's long balls. Throw in Zimmerman's magic and some of the kids Rizzo already has promoted. The Nationals had moved toward the threshold.
And now they must retreat. It's a pity for baseball. Feel sorry for the Nationals and for the game and for Mr. Strasburg. I'd rather be subjected to games in RFK than see this happen.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.