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Homegrown heroes in a city of transients

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Ten years ago, the Washington Nationals had the first pick in the draft, and they picked right-handed pitcher Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg was larger than life, and the pick was seen as transformative. It was called the “most hyped draft pick in history.”

A decade later, Strasburg has just led the Nationals to their first world championship. Strasburg won two games in the World Series win and took home the title of series MVP.

In some ways, it’s a perfect story in which everything went according to plan: draft a phenom, build a team around him, ride that star to a title.

But it’s also a rarity. One aspect of this story has never happened before: Strasburg is the first No. 1 overall pick to be named World Series MVP for the team that drafted him.

In this age of free agency, where sports fans often feel like they’re “cheering for laundry,” as stars pop around the league chasing ungodly salaries, the Strasburg story is extraordinary. Drafted out of college to be the Nats’ ace, he is still the Nats’ ace a decade later, finally bringing them to the promised land of a title.

To be sure, the Nats have shelled out hundreds of millions for free agents, including Game 7 starter Max Scherzer and clutch-hitting Howie Kendrick, who knocked the title-winning home run off the foul pole. But this Washington team has a real homegrown feel.

The Nationals’ first-ever draft pick, as the team moved from Montreal to Washington, D.C., was Ryan Zimmerman, fresh out of the University of Virginia, a school with something of a pipeline to local Washington-area high schools as well as the D.C. professional scene.

Zimmerman has been a Nat since his first game in the team’s first year in 2005. He finally got to the World Series this year, and in his first-ever series at-bat, Zimmerman hit a go-ahead home run.

Talk about a long time coming.

Anthony Rendon, the Nats’ MVP over the course of the whole season, is a homegrown player. Drafted by the Nats in 2011, Rendon has been a Nat his whole professional career. The young stars that all year provided offense, defense, but also outsize excitement are all more or less homegrown: Trea Turner, Victor Robles, and Juan Soto have played every one of their major league games as Nationals.

Scherzer is the Nats’ big free agent pickup. After a few years with the Diamondbacks and the Tigers, the Nats in 2015 signed Scherzer to a seven-year, $222 million deal. It was the largest free agent contract in baseball history at the time. Perhaps feeling some moral strings tied to the cash, Scherzer didn’t act like a mercenary, a la Roger Clemens. Instead, Scherzer immediately became a National and Washingtonian.

Scherzer and his wife moved to Northern Virginia (he’s an alumnus of the University of Virginia). When the Capitals won the Stanley Cup finals, Scherzer was standing in the front row of the final game with Zimmerman, cheering like a fool.

And it has been in Washington where Scherzer became the dominant ace he is now. Scherzer has thrown two of the Nationals’ three no-hitters. His career ERA was a decent 3.58 before the Nats, and it has been a stellar 2.74 since then. On his Hall of Fame plaque, Scherzer will be wearing a curly “W” on his cap.

Both dugouts this series were ripe with homegrown talent. Yuli Gurriel, a Cuban defector who scored both of the Astros’ runs in Game 7, has never played for another team besides the Astros. Jose Altuve, who sent the Astros to the World Series this year with a walk-off home run in the American League Championship Series, has been in the Astros system since age 16 when he attended a trout camp in Venezuela. The rest of the Astros’ core is also homegrown: Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and George Springer.

This is part of a trend, according to one analysis at the data site FanGraphs. Draft picks and amateur signings are becoming the biggest pieces of winning teams, while giant free agent signings are beginning to look like costly mistakes. The Dodgers won the most games in the National League, and theirs is the most homegrown roster in baseball. The Twins won the American League Central, and they were right behind the Dodgers on this score.

The Astros, even with their young homegrown everyday core, showed that the ugly side of this free agent world is not going away: An hour after Game 7 ended, Houston ace Gerrit Cole showed up at the press conference without his Astros jersey or cap. Instead, he wore a hat for “Boras Corp.,” his agent.

So, the irony of the series and the season was that a city of transients fielded a team of homegrown heroes and won it all.