Stephen Strasburg leaves D.C. with a mix of gratitude and regret


The movers had been at Stephen Strasburg’s house for a couple of days this week when the guys came to help crate up the family’s art. A newly retired baseball player can’t move from McLean back to San Diego without hauling some framed jerseys.

On Tuesday afternoon, one of the movers looked at one of those jerseys and suddenly realized whom he was helping.

“He kind of got emotional,” Strasburg said Tuesday night. “It hits you. All these people who stop you, who just say, ‘Thank you,’ it makes you realize that, yeah, maybe it didn’t meet your personal expectations. But people saw it. They saw the work that went into it, and they saw: You had an impact.”

It has not been an easy or straight road for Strasburg to get his mind to that space. Maybe he’s even convincing himself now. Careers that end on terms other than your own can be hard to process, even tormenting. He knows the realities: After being named the World Series MVP and helping the Washington Nationals — the only team he had ever known — finally, memorably, bring home a championship, he signed a seven-year, $245 million contract under which he was barely able to pitch.

Over calamari and salmon at a white-tableclothed Tysons Corner seafood restaurant, Strasburg sighed.

“When you’re dealing with a lot of emotions and inner turmoil, to where it’s like — I wouldn’t say I was really beating myself up, but I didn’t feel good about it,” he said. “I felt like I — you know, I failed. I didn’t accomplish what was asked of me.”

Also true: From his milestone debut on June 8, 2010 — 14 years ago Saturday — through his dominant 8⅓-inning performance in Game 6 of the 2019 World Series, Strasburg appeared in 248 games for the Nats. His team won 158 of those games, including seven of nine in the postseason. Extrapolate that winning percentage over a 162-game season, and it’s a 103-win pace.

But as he reluctantly walks into the athletic sunset, there’s an undeniable difference between what he accomplished and what he might have accomplished. His right arm — indeed, the right side of his body — gave out.

“You can say contract, whatever,” he said. “But it was more like: This was the expectation, and this is what I had in my mind. I worked my butt off, and it’s like, I got to the point where I couldn’t do any more, and it just wasn’t attainable. That really wears on your psyche.

“So you have a tendency to just sit there in the middle of it and dwell on all of the shortcomings and not necessarily all of the successes. But then when you have people out there and they come up to you [and say]: ‘I just want to say thank you. Like, thank you.’ And in my head for a while, I’m like: ‘Man, yeah. No problem.’ But I’m also kind of battling with this, like, ‘Thanks for what?’ ”

The last time Strasburg spoke publicly about his physical condition — after surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) had shut him down yet again — was September 2022. His most recent appearance on a diamond was June 9 of that year. Since he signed the new contract following the 2019 season, he had managed 31⅓ innings across eight starts. He had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome. He had a rib and two neck muscles removed.

The months that built toward the 2023 season were full of baby steps, each with a faint hope that Strasburg might be able to pitch again.

He tried everything. He had dry needles stuck in his right arm in an attempt to increase his range of motion. He would lie on the floor of his home gym with a weight on his arm, trying in vain to get it to straighten out. The doctor who performed his surgery to relieve TOS diagnosed him with what he referred to as “stretch neuropraxia,” meaning the nerves that ran from his neck down through his right shoulder and into his arm were frayed and damaged.

Still, that offseason, he reported to Nationals Park daily to play catch with one of the club’s trainers. They started in the batting cages down the steps from the home clubhouse to the dugout. Eventually, they progressed outside, to the field.

“I thought it felt pretty good,” Strasburg said. “I just kept trying to progress to where it would be like: ‘Hey, who knows? Maybe I can go to spring training and actually be ready.’ ”

Near the end of December 2022, as best he can remember, he asked the club whether he might throw off a mound. Sure, they said. Go ahead. But doctors recommended one more electromyography (EMG) test.

The results were sent to a member of the staff of Neal ElAttrache, the renowned Los Angeles orthopedist and shoulder specialist.

“He read it, and he basically said, ‘I don’t think you should try to progress to throwing,’ ” Strasburg said. “I just said, ‘Well, if I’m going to be able to do this still, I’m going to try.’ ”

He started with a light bullpen session — all fastballs — his first time throwing off a mound since that June start in Miami. A few days later, he tried another easy session, this time mixing in his change-up. By the beginning of February 2023, he tried to mix in his curveball and to ramp up the velocity a bit, all of 30 or 35 pitches.

The result: “Everything started like, yard sale, yard sale,” he said. The pitches sprayed everywhere. He had no feel.

Physical issues followed almost immediately. His shoulder muscles started to atrophy. He couldn’t lift his right arm. The plan: Take a day of rest, then on the next day, play catch from 45 feet — three-quarters of the distance between the rubber and the plate.

“I couldn’t even really get it to him,” Strasburg said. “At that point, I knew something was wrong.”

By this point, the symptoms were acute. He drove with his left arm atop the wheel. He had trouble using his right hand to turn a doorknob. Strasburg saw Robin West, the Nationals’ team physician and a noted orthopedist. He said her instructions amounted to: “Just don’t do anything.” They took another EMG to send to ElAttrache and his team. The image revealed more damage to the nerves.

“They basically told me that it’s not in your best interest to keep trying this,” Strasburg said. “What kept happening was I was trying to get back, and then you just get further and further away.”

A prickly situation becomes contentious

On a Sunday afternoon that spring, Strasburg was sitting on his couch at home in McLean. He had just returned from a visit to Dallas to see Gregory Pearl, the orthopedist who had performed his TOS surgery. In the previous weeks, with the season underway, the Nationals had requested Strasburg show up to the ballpark. He was reluctant, he said. He didn’t want to be a player who couldn’t play to be a distraction to those who could.

They reached a compromise: Strasburg reported daily to a physical therapy facility to treat an old ankle injury. He didn’t really see the point, he said, but “if they want me to show up, I’ll show up.” After a week or two, he was bracing his leg against a therapist’s arm, resistance exercises. One morning, he awoke with his neck locked up. He saw West, who advised him to see Pearl.

And when he returned from that visit to Dallas, he heard a knock on his door. When he opened it, he found a team staffer, who he said issued him a letter signed by Mike Rizzo, the Nationals’ longtime general manager and president of baseball operations — the man who drafted Strasburg all those years ago.

“It was an official document,” Strasburg said. “They basically said I was noncompliant with the rehab.”

The Nationals declined to answer specific questions about points in time over the course of this process. Instead, the club issued a statement that read in part: “Stephen Strasburg will always be a beloved member of the Washington Nationals family. His health and well-being have always been at the forefront of our organization’s decision-making. The communications between Stephen and the club over the last year-and-a-half have been with the guidance of and in accordance with Major League Baseball and the Collective Bargaining Agreement.”

In late July 2023, when the Nationals held a news conference to announce the signing of first-round pick Dylan Crews, Mark Lerner, the team’s principal owner, had occasion to chat with Rizzo and Scott Boras, the superagent who represents both Crews and Strasburg.

The conversation wound around to something like: “Hey, Scott. How’s Stras?” The answer: Not good. He won’t pitch again. And Lerner had a suggestion: Let’s do right by him and hold a retirement ceremony.

Around the same time, Strasburg discovered an additional incentive to retire. He came across information about an anti-aging clinic in Beverly Hills that offered treatment — including using human growth hormone — to help regenerate nerves. The problem: As an active player, even one who could no longer play, he couldn’t take HGH, which is on baseball’s banned substance list.

“So I asked the team, ‘Hey, is it okay if I just go out there and do a consultation?’ ” he said. The team said that was no problem.

But even as preliminary plans were circulated internally for a Sept. 9 feting, there were hurdles to clear. Strasburg couldn’t say he was voluntarily retiring, because then he would forfeit the remainder of his salary. The players association is loath to set that sort of precedent. The club knew all along that Strasburg would get the money owed to him. But the sides could not work out a deal in time for a ceremony on the planned date. Momentum fizzled.

As spring training of this year approached, the club wanted something from him, and it said so in a letter from Rizzo — attendance at spring training and all team meetings, travel with the team on all regular season road trips, attendance at all home games, availability to teammates and some appearances at fan events, including a celebration of the 2019 title.

Strasburg considered some of those interactions staged, inorganic — almost fake. And as a player who could no longer play, he said he wanted to stay out of the way of those who could.

“I didn’t sign up to just sit there, right?” he said. “I signed up to play. I think I have too much respect for those guys in the dugout, in the clubhouse, and how hard it is because I went through it. I’m not just going to sit here and just kick my feet up and just put on a uniform [while] all these other guys are out there grinding like that. That’s not beneficial to anybody.”

In the end, lawyers from Major League Baseball and the union helped the sides work out a deal in which some of Strasburg’s remaining salary was further deferred, the Lerner family’s preferred payment structure. On April 6, just over a week into the season, the Nationals’ official transactions showed that Strasburg had retired.

The next day, speaking about the player he had made the first pick of the 2009 draft, Rizzo said of Strasburg: “He’s one of the Mount Rushmore Nationals, one of the greatest players that we’ve ever had. He was a guy who put us on the map.”

An agreement was in place, but all is still not well. Though Strasburg freely talked about the timeline of events over the past few years, he kept some of his feelings guarded. “I don’t want my emotions involved,” he said. But on April 20, when the Nats gathered to celebrate their 2019 championship, the World Series MVP stayed home.

‘Man, it was a fun ride’

Strasburg distinctly remembers the evening of June 8, 2010, and his first major league pregame warmup at Nationals Park. His routine back then, left over from college at San Diego State, was to stretch out his calves by running out to center field, hitting the wall, then doing an about-face.

“That feeling and that image is just so detailed — still,” he said, “of just turning around from the fence and just being like: ‘Holy crap. There’s a lot of people here.’ ”

Over 14 years, three all-star appearances, four division titles, nine playoff appearances — of which the Nats lost the first two and won the last seven, while he posted a postseason ERA of 1.46 with 71 strikeouts and eight walks in 55⅓ innings — there are memories. At them, he smiled. Broadly.

The eerie mist of Game 4 of the 2017 National League Division Series at Wrigley Field, in which Strasburg struck out 12 and allowed three hits over seven scoreless innings, putting behind illness to extend the Nats’ season. Watching from the bullpen — a rare vantage point — in the 2019 wild-card game against Milwaukee, preparing to throw three scoreless innings, the bridge between starter Max Scherzer and closer Daniel Hudson. The adjustment early in Game 6 of the World Series, at the behest of pitching coach Paul Menhart, to shake his glove in an effort to stop tipping his pitches to the Astros. And Hudson’s last slider to Houston’s Michael Brantley, the swing-and-miss that produced the final out of the championship.

“It was just like: ‘Oh, my God. Oh, my God,’ ” Strasburg said. “That’s another feeling that I’ll just never forget. Probably never feel it, either.”

Strasburg wasn’t always the easiest athlete to cover. He considered other parts of his job and preparation to be paramount, and chit-chatting with reporters neither helped him reach his peak performance nor fit his personality. His resting face registers as don’t-talk-to-me. Couple that with his massive frame, and he can be intimidating. So even with a town so invested in his every start (and every injury) over nearly a decade and a half, we didn’t really know him.

On the way out, though, it’s clear how much he cared and how deeply he developed connections. His three daughters — 10-year-old Raegan, 7-year-old Reese and 3-year-old Rebecca — are all DMV natives, and the older girls have cherished friend networks here. When he signed the deal, he moved both his parents east because he wanted their lives intertwined with his kids’. Plus, he wanted them to see him pitch.

That never really happened. So there were times during this winding discussion when Strasburg teared up. He believes he has so much ahead of him. He has already signed up for a role helping USA Baseball select this year’s under-18 national team. He wants to help his alma mater with fundraising to improve its baseball facilities, to which he has already donated. He could see himself coaching in college. And for the young Nats: “They all have my number. They’re welcome to call.”

“It’s not like I’m sitting here like, ‘I’m just going to hang out,’ ” he said. “All I’ve been doing is hanging out. It’s terrible. My wife hates it. It’s like, ‘Get out of the house.’ ”

Getting out of this house in McLean means leaving behind the only place his family has called home. So in the weeks before and since he sent Rachel and the kids west for good — his father has died, his mother is getting older, and San Diego made more sense — he took note of so many small things. The familiar guy at Whole Foods to whom he could say, “Hey, Kendall.” The coach in Raegan’s McLean softball league who delivered him a card with a note about how much Strasburg’s career had meant to the coach’s family.

He struggled to tell some of the stories. The connections were mostly private. What’s public was the performance on the field. It was at times dominant. It was definitely incomplete. Strasburg struggles with that, too.

“I guess the competitive side of me is like: Wasn’t good enough,” Strasburg said. “But I think I’ve always been really hard on myself. I think as a dad, I wouldn’t want my kids to be as hard on themselves as I am on myself.

“So I have to kind of rework it, rework my [train] of thought. It might not have met other people’s expectations,” he said.

He omitted that it didn’t meet his own expectations — his own astronomical expectations — either. That’s tough to wrestle with. But he landed here: “Man, it was a fun ride.”

Fun, through the pain. Where Stephen Strasburg is concerned, choose the former over the latter, the fun over the pain, what he accomplished instead of what he couldn’t. That’s what he’s trying to do. It isn’t always easy, but he’s trying.

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