Thursday, August 18, 2011

Talk Take II

Coke or Pepsi… Stones or The Beatles… Bird or Magic… Brady or Manning…

The emerging D.C. version of this seems to be “Ovechkin or Strasburg.” It started with the Washington Post's Jason Reid recently anointing Stephen Strasburg as “the District’s No. 1 sports star.” Hockey fans in these parts reacted with predictable results, the failure to recognize Alex Ovechkin as the District’s top sports star viewed an assault on the player, the Caps, hockey, and all that is good and wholesome in sports. Even we weighed in on the matter.

Chastised to a point, Reid offered in a follow-up column that he did not give Ovechkin enough credit. But he still ranked Ovechkin behind Strasburg. Good for him. I don’t agree, but he wasn’t bullied into changing his mind. From a perspective as a self-styled “baseball guy,” his choice is entirely reasonable.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to the original contention and the question it purports to answer – “Who is the District’s number one sports star?” How do you define that? Who is the most accomplished? Who gets the most hits on a Google search? Who gets the most column inches in local newspapers? Who leads off the discussion most often on sports talk radio? Who wins the most (ok, strike that…not yet relevant in these parts)?

It is in these questions that I don’t agree with Reid, and here is why. It is the difference between “is” and “could.” Reid makes the specific point in his follow-up piece that Strasburg “could emerge as the single most important athlete in D.C. sports history if his performance matches his talent. The hard-throwing right-hander could play the biggest part in transforming D.C. into a place where football no longer rules.”

“Could” has no firm place in a discussion of who “is” the biggest local sports star. Both teams pack the house when either is playing, the Caps having sold out more than 100 consecutive games, the Nationals filling the house when Strasburg takes the mound (or is even rumored to do so). For the Ovechkin and the Caps it is the product of having demonstrated an ability to win (with notable exceptions) and to display an entertaining style on the ice, a significant part of it due to Alex Ovechkin’s body of work. For Strasburg and the Nationals, though, it is the product of curiosity, precisely because Strasburg is still almost entirely potential without a body of work. Ovechkin is the statue – still largely unfinished, but we can see the shape it is taking. Strasburg is the block of marble; we are left to imagining what shape it will take.

Let’s pose a hypothetical. Let’s just say that hockey and baseball seasons overlapped more than they currently do. It is a regular season weeknight. The Caps are hosting the Minnesota Wild – a team that isn’t an especially big draw as visiting hockey teams go. The Nats are hosting the Milwaukee Brewers (another team without a clear local following) with Strasburg penciled in to take the mound. Who – Ovechkin or Strasburg – is going to be the lead on sports talk radio? Who is going to be the above the fold story in the Washington Post? Who is going to trend higher on Twitter? Who gets more attention in the blogosphere?

In the here and now, those questions are asked in the context of the teams for which these two players play. The Caps are an accomplished team, one that has won their division for four straight seasons and has won the top spot in the Eastern Conference the past two years with a Presidents Trophy thrown in for good measure. The Nats are a team that still struggles to win 70 of 162 regular season games (they have not done it in the past three seasons, although they are on a pace to win 78 this season) and have never appeared in the playoffs since arriving in D.C. in 2005. Baseball might have the advantage over hockey in these parts as sports go, but winning matters, too. And Ovechkin is a big part of why the Caps win. In that context, it’s a tough call to say whether Ovechkin or Strasburg get the majority of the attention on a regular season weeknight. But there is that winning thing. The Caps are now a playoff team, the Nats are not. Ovechkin is going to get more attention, more consistently, over more of the season than will Strasburg. At least in the here and now.

But fast-forward a few years. Strasburg has established himself as the cornerstone of the Nats’ rotation, and the team has solid players like Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond, and the Zimmermans – Jordan and Ryan – around him. They have kids pushing for roster spots. They are 90-win team, a contender. Ovechkin is still a force in the NHL, the Caps are still a playoff-caliber team, maybe with a Stanley Cup on the mantel. Sports in D.C. is good (even the Redskins might have returned to relevance, which might make John Beck a bigger star than either, but we digress).

If that is the environment in which Ovechkin and Strasburg display their talents, this is no contest. Strasburg, by virtue of his position (number one starting pitcher being analogous to starting quarterback in football) and the broader appeal of his sport, both locally and nationally, would win in a walk. This is not to say that Ovechkin would suddenly find his exploits confined to page 8 of the sports section of the Post or the link in six-point type you would have to scroll down to find on the Post Web site, but baseball is baseball, and hockey is, well, still hockey.

But that is what could happen. Stephen Strasburg could be the biggest sports star in these parts. He could be one of, if not the biggest sports star in D.C. sports history. But baseball being what it is, he could reach these heights of performance and achievement playing in the Bronx or in Boston, those teams having lots of cash and no salary cap to keep them from poaching this talent.

We do agree with Reid when he says…

“D.C.’s pro sports landscape has been barren for so long, a generation of fans has only heard stories about the way it used to be when the Redskins were winning Super Bowls. If the Redskins finally get it right again behind Shanahan, the Capitals finally break through in the playoffs and the Nationals and Wizards reach that level, D.C. would be full of sports stars.”

But that is down the road. In the here and now – as to the matter of who is the biggest sports star in D.C. – Stephen Strasburg is not the correct answer to the question. There is too much “could” and not enough “is” in his resume. Alex Ovechkin is, for the time being, the number one sports star in D.C.

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