Monday, March 8, 2010

Viera: Center of attention?

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Stephen Strasburg and Chien-Ming Wang have turned Viera into this spring's hot spot.
VIERA, Fla. -- For 17 years, this little planned community on Florida's east coast has been the last outpost of the Grapefruit League. Nearly an hour from any other big-league camp, Viera might as well have been named Neptune for its remote location. Some teams wouldn't make the trip here to play exhibition games. Others would reluctantly agree but send only a roster of major-league reserves and minor-league washouts. National media outlets? They wouldn't be caught dead among the cow pastures and brush fires that surrounded Space Coast Stadium.

Over time, though, this little hamlet has grown into a legitimate destination. Homes, golf courses, shopping centers and government offices have sprung up and enticed residents and commerce alike to set up shop here. The cows have disappeared. The brush fires are no more. And the locals suddenly have to deal with the real result of population growth: traffic.

It's probably coincidence, but for the first time in its 17 years of existence, Viera also finds itself one of the state's hottest destinations for baseball fans, executives and reporters. All of a sudden, people want to come see the Nationals.

The hottest destination in Florida this spring isn't Panama City, Daytona Beach or Key West. It's Viera.

Viera? Believe it. Already, an unusually large number of fans have made their way out to the Nats' early spring workouts, wanting to catch a glimpse of a certain rookie right-hander. Today, a horde of international media converged on Space Coast Stadium to chronicle Chien-Ming Wang's every move in his first full day at camp.

And when Stephen Strasburg takes the mound shortly after 1 p.m. tomorrow for his spring training debut ... well, the spotlight will be shining on Viera like never before. A large crowd is expected (though tickets were still available earlier today). An overflow press corps also is expected, leaving the Nationals' PR staff scrambling to figure out where to seat everyone. And for those who aren't there in person, the game will be televised live on MASN in the D.C. area and simulcast on MLB Network for the rest of the country to see.

"I can't wait for 1:05 tomorrow," left-hander Scott Olsen said. "It's gonna be a circus."

At the center of it all will be this soft-spoken pitcher from San Diego, a reluctant superstar who's already earned more than $15 million before ever facing a professional batter. Up til now, it's been all hype. Now, we finally get to see Strasburg with a ball in his hand and a real, big-league lineup in the opposing dugout.

Perhaps in past years, the Tigers would have sent over a "B" team from Lakeland. Not tomorrow. Five members of Jim Leyland's projected Opening Day lineup will be on hand, including Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Guillen. Right-hander Rick Porcello, himself a phenom former first-round draft pick who was handed gobs of money, will start for a Detroit club that doesn't intend to take a back seat to Strasburg.

"I'm going to swing the bat," Cabrera told the Detroit Free Press today. "I'm sure he throws hard. I'm going to be ready."

Will Strasburg be ready? It's hard to believe he won't. Despite all the hoopla surrounding him the last three weeks, the kid has remained remarkably focused on the task at hand.

While others may be looking for him to strike out all six batters he faces, hit triple digits on the radar gun and levitate above the pitcher's mound, Strasburg would be quite content to just get his work in and then move on to his next outing.

"I hope he doesn't come out and try to throw 800 miles an hour and do anything stupid," first baseman Adam Dunn said. "Just go. Just pitch. Just play. And I think he will. I haven't been around him very much, but just being around him and watching him and talking to him a little bit, I think he's probably one of our stronger dudes up top, if you know what I mean. I think he'll handle this fine."

(Who else besides Adam Dunn could utter the phrase "one of our stronger dudes up top" and not sound like a total bumpkin?)

So no one's particularly worried with how Strasburg will handle all this attention. The more appropriate question might be: How are the Nationals going to handle all this attention suddenly being thrust upon them?

Once baseball's remote outpost -- the equivalent of Viera -- Washington is now the talk of the majors. Ridiculed or pitied by the rest of the baseball world for the last four years, the Nats are now basking in the spotlight, thanks to a series of roster additions. Strasburg, of course, tops the list. But Ivan Rodriguez, Jason Marquis and Wang have contributed to the party.

Wang, in particular, has brought an entirely new fan base with him to Washington. The baseball-mad island of Taiwan (and by extension, mainland China) is fast becoming familiar with the Nationals. And if you doubt that, ask me sometime how many hits this site is suddenly getting from the San-Ch'Ung district of Taipai City.

Wang had at least a dozen Taiwanese media members following his every move today. If he comes back from his shoulder surgery as expected, Nationals Park will turn into San-Ch'Ung West every five days this summer.

And if Strasburg is the real deal and starts every fifth day for this club? Better buy your tickets now. It's going to become a major event.

Don't think the Nationals' front office doesn't know this. These two pitchers weren't added solely for their ability to help the franchise win. They were added in part to help put more butts in the seats and perhaps offset the natural attendance decline you'd expect from a club that has lost 100-plus games each of the last two seasons.

Some front-office execs have even gone so far as to extrapolate when the appropriate date for Strasburg's major-league debut might be. Let's see, if he pitches every fifth day from here on out ... how does June 8 against the Pirates sound? Think that might turn an otherwise pedestrian Tuesday night on South Capitol Street into something a tad more significant?

But first things first. Strasburg needs to pitch two innings tomorrow against the Tigers in Viera. Emerge from that test in one piece and then we can start making plans for June.

For now, enjoy this rare moment in the sun. The baseball world has come to Viera. And if the hosts play their cards right, everyone may just decide to stick around for a while.


Doc said...

Hey Mark, that quote from Dunn is priceless. Anyone who reads your blogs has got to appreciate your style. You're a throw-back to an earliar era of sports writing, and you're very good. I like your content, and I like your humor!
Here's hoping you get to mix in a few reports on Nats victories.

Farid in Idaho said...

I think he either brings his "A" game and he dominates or he is overcome by the hype and gives up 2-3 runs in two innings.

My guess? 2 IP, 2 hits, 0 runs, 1 walk, 2 strikeouts

Sean said...

2 ip 6k or this franchise is DOOOOOOOMED!!!

Tigerlily said...

Well, I for one will be contributing to the crowds once the season is underway. Seems like a nice trip from Michigan to Washington. 1. To see my guy "Pudge", 2. Hopefully, see a hotshot young pitcher 3. Catch a few of the sights. That will be four more fans in the seats for a weekend.

Tigerlily said...

By the way, Mark, do you know if Pudge is even going to be at the game? I know he is not catching SS, but my in-laws are going to the game and wondered. Thanks.

natsfan1a said...

That *was* a great quote, and no bumpkin perception here.

Speaking of baseball writing, I noticed Mark had some additional contributions in USA Today's weekly sports paper. Atta boy!

Mark Zuckerman said...

Tigerlily: All players, whether they're in the lineup or not, will be at home games. On the road, it's only the guys scheduled to play.

Dave said...

So if Stras has a couple of bad innings (like practically every other Nationals pitcher so far), may we then begin to panic?

Avar said...

No. No, you may not panic. Not on March 9th. Not the first time SS faces big leaguers which happens to be before he has pitched in the minors. Plenty of time to panic later, but not yet. Enjoy the Spring! Go see the Cherry Blossoms but DO NOT PANIC!....not yet.

Doc said...

Mark, why not an article on 'stronger dudes up top' on the Nats roster?

Anonymous said...

Nieves to catch Stras today.

MM said...

On "...Nationals Park will turn into San-Ch'Ung West every five days this summer..."

well intended (and appreciated) attempt however San-Ch'Ung is really not representative of Taipei/Taiwan. It's not where Wang's born/from either. it's probably as insignificant as Barney Circle of DC...

natsfan1a said...

Dang, let's try that again.

Who? Wil Nieves. If nothing else, that means dancing in the radio booth. :-)

Might a "stronger up top" piece ruffle the feathers of those who are omitted? Or maybe they wouldn't get it, not being that strong up top and all.


Nieves to catch Stras today.

Li-Yun said...

San Chung district is where the base of hinet ,the biggest internet company of Taiwan,locates in Taipei,that's why.

Ramgut said...

Who's scheduled to start Thursday and Friday?

NattyDelite! said...

Love it Mark.

As many said, the Dunn quote was priceless.

Also, a welcome to Li-Yun! Bring friends! We can always feed more frenzied fans in the Natmosphere!

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