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Tuesday, December 18 , 2018, 8:39 pm | Fair 50º


Mark Shields: Washington Embraces the Real Uniter, Stephen Strasburg

The Nationals' new starting pitcher, not Obama, is bringing the polarized city together

Throughout the 2008 campaign, candidate Barack Obama lifted the spirits and hopes of audiences everywhere with his repeated promises to move us “beyond all the petty bickering and point-scoring in Washington,” “to change the poisoned culture” of the nation’s capital and to restore “a sense of shared purpose in Washington.”

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

We can argue later about why all this positive change has not happened in the first 18 months of the Obama presidency and about who’s to blame. Maybe our expectations were unrealistically high, but the political culture hereabouts remains dangerously poisoned, “petty bickering” is still the order of the day and any “sense of shared purpose” continues to elude us.

But in the early summer of June 2010, the Real Barack Obama did, in fact, arrive in Washington. He has fostered genuine bipartisan unity while never once pitting “Red America against Blue America.” True, he lacks deep Washington experience, and he is young. But Stephen Strasburg has united this fractious, embattled city like no individual has done during my 46 years of living here.

Strasburg is 21 years old, 6-foot-4 and a truly wonderful right-handed pitcher for the generally hapless Washington Nationals baseball team. How hapless? In this the team’s sixth in the District of Columbia, it has yet to have a winning season or to qualify for the postseason playoffs. But in the past two years, by virtue of losing more than 100 games each year and compiling the worst win-loss record of any team, the Nationals qualified for the first choice in the annual baseball draft. They chose The Uniter — Strasburg.

When was the last time any idea or individual in Washington actually exceed expectations? Well, Strasburg has done just that by striking out, as of this writing, seven times as many opposing batters as he has walked. (On Saturday, he struggled against the New York Mets, who chased him after five innings in a game the Nationals eventually won.)

Strasburg is likable, unpretentious and totally lacking in any discernible traces of diva-hood, let alone megalomania.

The Nationals games on television had attracted fewer viewers than reruns of the House Subcommittee on Weights and Measures hearings on C-SPAN or the Russian Weather Channel. But with Strasburg just in uniform, not even in the starting lineup, the Fox network dropped a team with an established national following, the Boston Red Sox, to cover the Nationals game against the then-struggling Chicago White Sox.

My grandson, Jack, wouldn’t take off the Strasburg jersey he got for his 6th birthday. Jack’s dad asked for one gift for Father’s Day: a Strasburg jersey. The jerseys are everywhere inside the infamous Beltway.

I confess that I, too, am a groupie. Last Wednesday afternoon, when the temperature flirted with 100, I skipped work and went to Nationals Park to sit in the unshaded grandstand just to watch this kid pitch a baseball. What I saw there, beyond his 100 mph fastballs and dancing curveball, was a different Washington, where people who disagree — often vehemently — on policy and politics were chatting amiably with each other and cheering on the same side for our Old Hometown Team.

You have to understand this is self-consciously workaholic Washington, where people brag about working until midnight and all weekend. And on a brutally hot workday afternoon, 33,000 Washington men, women and children played hooky to see Strasburg.

In four short weeks, this promising young man has begun humanizing large areas of this polarized city. He has reminded us what we have in common and made us talk to each other. Strasburg could truly be The Real Barack Obama!

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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