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Associated Press/Photo by Ann Heisenfelt

National treasures

Sports | Despite two top draft picks and two record contracts, the Nationals are years away from hope

Issue: "Broken beyond repair?," Sept. 25, 2010

When the Washington Nationals signed No. 1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg to a record-breaking $15.1 million deal last year, few questioned the wisdom of it. The 21-year-old pitcher was a lock for greatness, a sure thing. And such expectations were seemingly confirmed this past June when Strasburg struck out 14 batters to pick up a victory in his Major League debut.

So it was that when the Nationals dipped back into the bank account to drop another $10 million on No. 1 draft pick Bryce Harper this year, few commentators raised eyebrows-despite Harper being just 17. This 6-foot-3, 205-pound slugger is such a can't-miss prospect that he made the cover of Sports Illustrated a year ago when just 16 under the heading "baseball's chosen one."

But less than a week after signing Harper, the Nationals got a painful reminder that the promise of youth can evaporate in an instant. Strasburg was removed from a game Aug. 21 due to a torn ulnar collateral ligament, an injury requiring Tommy John Surgery and 12 to 18 months of rehabilitation.

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The good news: Many pitchers who undergo such surgery return to productive careers. The bad news: Strasburg won't pitch in a game again until at least 2012. The ugly news, which isn't news at all: The last place Nationals now have millions of dollars invested in two players who are years away from Big League production, never mind the stardom their salaries suggest.

Of course, such is the nature of professional sports. Injuries happen and investment in talent for the future is necessary, albeit risky. Some insiders anticipate the Nationals' fate could help make the case for a less flexible slotted salary system when baseball's present collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2011 World Series. In such a slotted system, draft picks would be paid a prescribed amount according to their place of selection.

But that is of little comfort to Nationals fans, who have seen their team shell out piles of cash but can expect only more dismal results until the pair of young stars join the active roster. That old hopeful refrain, "Wait till next year," won't mean much for at least another year.

Iron Nun

Sister Madonna Buder, who turned 80 this past July, is attempting to break her own record for the oldest woman ever to complete an Ironman triathlon within the 17-hour time limit. She finished the Subaru Ironman Canada last year in a time of 16:54:30 but had to drop out of this year's race when her new wetsuit restricted her ability to breathe.

The "Iron Nun," as she is known throughout the triathlon world, will have one more chance this year at the Ford Ironman World Championship Oct. 9 in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Publishers at Simon & Schuster are rooting hard as the feat would coincide with the release of Buder's new book, Grace to Race, which chronicles her completion of some 340 triathlons over the past 30 years.

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