D.C. fans were delivered a gut punch this week when the Wizards traded point guard John Wall along with a future first-round pick to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Russell Westbrook. As much basketball sense as the move might have made, it was still an emotional scene for Washington fans who came to love Wall over his 10 years with the Wizards.
Washington drafted Wall with the No. 1 pick in 2010 and he quickly developed into a star. The Kentucky product led Washington to four playoff appearances and made five straight All-Star Games before injuries began to derail his career. Wall embraced the city and dove into charity efforts that continue to have a lasting effect.
So when the Wizards ended the Wall Era in D.C., there were plenty of fans who were left disappointed they couldn’t see him return from his nearly two-year rehab from multiple Achilles injuries. With his departure causing such a reaction, NBC Sports Washington’s Nationals Talk podcast crew pondered whether the surprise departure of any of the town’s baseball players would garner a similar response.
“With the amount of turnover they’ve had recently and the big names who have left, it’s hands down Stephen Strasburg,” Nationals Insider Todd Dybas said.
“I think that would be the closest, but it’s really tough to compare for two reasons,” Wizards Insider Chase Hughes replied. “One, first of all John Wall — I think what he’s done for the city from a charitable standpoint is really tough to compare to anyone…I don’t think you could find anyone in the history of Washington, D.C., sports that would compare to what he’s done charity-wise.
“Also, Nationals fans, although a lot of them I’m sure root for the Wizards as well, when you look at the Nationals and you’ve followed them for a long time, they’ve done things very differently than the Wizards and I think they’ve done things smarter and better. Not just because they’ve won, but because they’ve set loyalty aside.”
The Nationals have seen several big stars leave via free agency in recent years including Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon. But among who’s left, Strasburg and career National Ryan Zimmerman (though currently a free agent) stand out as the only legacy players who will always be attached to D.C.
Strasburg’s career began similarly to Wall’s: a No. 1 pick joining an organization trying to climb out of the depths of its league standings. He also developed a strong affinity for the team over his career, repeatedly expressing his excitement to be a “National for life” during his press conference for the seven-year, $245 million extension he signed in 2019.
But while he delivered a championship — something Wall was never able to accomplish — Strasburg’s quiet demeanor resulted in less of an emotional connection with the fans, at least when compared to Wall. The same could be said for Zimmerman, who endeared himself to fans by sticking with the Nationals through their rebuild before being a part of their World Series run in 2019 but didn't show a ton of personality in his game.
Yet even Zimmerman wasn’t as consistently a star as much as Wall was in Washington. And while he’s participated in a variety of charity efforts over the years to help the D.C. area, the cause closest to Zimmerman’s heart remains finding a cure to multiple sclerosis, a disease his mother is battling.
But with all due respect to the legacies Strasburg and Zimmerman will leave behind, the Nationals just haven’t operated in a way that allows players to stick around long enough to leave that kind of impact.
“The Nationals have made some tough decisions and they’ve sort of trained their fans to not have that loyalty, to not take for granted when you have a guy knowing that he’s probably going to price himself out of town,” Hughes said. “The Wizards were to beholden to loyalty and they held onto these guys, not just John Wall…Mike Rizzo, if he was in charge of the Wizards, would not have re-signed Otto Porter. He would’ve simply let him walk, he would’ve thought two steps ahead and had someone younger, cheaper and probably better waiting in the wings.
“The Nationals have done that and it’s a tough way to build a team because emotions, you have to set them aside and it’s tough for fans to watch guys like Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon go, but it’s for the best of the organization and I think that philosophy has served the Nationals very well and it’s led to a situation where I don’t think there’s as deep of a personal and loyal connection and emotional connection to any of the players because of that.”