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Let’s Remember A Time When Stephen Strasburg Enjoyed Playing Baseball

A smiling Stephen Strasburg is enveloped in an involuntary group hug during the 2019 season.
Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

It was the custom of the 2019 Washington Nationals that any player who socked a dinger would then perform a celebratory dance in the dugout. This custom was the work of beloved "Baby Shark" goofball Gerardo Parra, who was added to the roster mid-season, and it caught on with Parra's teammates for good when four Nationals went back-to-back-to-back-to-back in a game on June 9. Some Nationals had moves. Anthony Rendon had the sprinkler. Not everyone hoped to participate. Stephen Strasburg, who after three years in injury hell will announce his retirement from baseball next month, had nothing. "I’m not a big dancer to begin with," a sheepish and soft-spoken Strasburg, then 30 years old, told the Washington Post.

Strasburg's teammates were aware of this social awkwardness, because it has always been part of his deal, going all the way back to when he was a 21-year-old rookie and the hottest pitching prospect in baseball history. "Stras isn’t much of a dancer," agreed Ryan Zimmerman. "His wedding might have been the last time he danced." Nowadays this discomfort with post-dinger dancing would not matter for a person with Strasburg's responsibilities, but in 2019, National League pitchers were still taking their cuts. In a game in Atlanta on July 18, Strasburg led off the third inning with a sharp single up the middle off Braves starter Kyle Wright, then scored Washington's first run two batters later on a triple off the bat of Adam Eaton. Wright lost command and the inning went to hell: Rendon doubled, Juan Soto, Kurt Suzuki, and Brian Dozier walked, and Victor Robles smoked a two-out, two-run ground-rule double to left. The Braves brought on a new pitcher, and back into the box lumbered Stephen Strasburg. Touki Toussaint caught some plate on a 1–0 inside fastball, and Strasburg took a mighty rip.

"I’ve always been told that a swinging bat’s a dangerous one," explained Strasburg after the game. "I was just able to connect on one." The ball screamed out to left; Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. took a few loping strides and then stood and watched in disbelief as it cleared the visitor's bullpen for Strasburg's second hit of the inning and only dinger of the season, a two-run shot to put the Nationals ahead 8–1 in what would eventually become a 13–4 laugher. Strasburg, as was typical of his demeanor throughout his baseball career, looked both unhappy and embarrassed as he rounded the bases. It was only as he approached the dugout that Strasburg realized he was on the hook for some dance moves. "To be honest, it was pretty nerve-racking," he recalled. "I didn't really have anything."

He found something, a little happy foot-to-foot bounce not unlike something you've seen while watching the dance scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas. His teammates were delighted beyond all proportion; an ecstatic Parra gripped Strasburg's wrists in an attempt to prolong the moment.

Strasburg pitched well in that game, despite not having his very best command, and took the win. For good measure, he added a two-run single to left in the fifth inning, to push Washington's lead to nine runs. The win pushed the Nationals seven games over .500, after starting the season 19–31. The good vibes continued: Washington won 19 games in August, finished the regular season on an eight-game winning streak, and took a long and circuitous road through the playoffs to an eventual World Series victory over the trashcan-lid-banging Houston Astros. Strasburg made five starts and six appearances during the postseason, and the Nationals won every time. He pitched twice in the World Series, including eight-plus innings of two-run heroics in Game 6, and was named World Series MVP.

Stephen Strasburg's body was a real bastard to him throughout his baseball career, but in the rare instances when it was properly tuned it could do some amazing things on a pitcher's mound. That was the second and final of just two seasons of Strasburg's 14-year MLB career when he was healthy from start to finish, and the Nationals needed everything he could give to finally reach the mountaintop. They knew it, and so his teammates also developed a custom, as the season went along, of ambushing Strasburg in the dugout with big group hugs. This was another Parra inspiration. Naturally, Strasburg did not consider himself "much of a hugger," as he explained at the postgame lectern following a win in Game 3* of that season's NLCS. "They kind of just surround me, so I just have to take it." In spite of himself, he was smiling when he said it. Strasburg's baseball career wasn't everything it might've been, but the highs were very high, and the good times were very good indeed.

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