A Franchise, and a City, Pin Their Hopes on a Mighty Arm

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Stephen Strasburg is 21 years old. He has never thrown a professional pitch. He is so newly rich, he hasn't yet been paid. He is a blank slate, for now known only by his contract -- a four-year, $15.1 million deal, the most lucrative in amateur history -- and by his professional record, 0-0. His baseball career is just beginning, and even in a sport for romantics, perhaps no other occasion comes so loaded with promise and possibility.

Washington's baseball history, to this point, has included almost everything but promises kept. In Strasburg, the Nationals -- and their city -- have found the best, brightest chance yet to change that. Already hyped, scrutinized and famous unlike any previous draft pick, Strasburg will now be asked to help a franchise fill its stadium, win some games, and, just as important, galvanize a new generation of fans.

When the Nationals signed Strasburg just 77 seconds before Monday's midnight deadline, they consummated a pivotal union, joining the major leagues' weakest franchise over the last two seasons with the greatest young pitching talent in a generation. Now, those who have seen him do almost nothing expect from him almost anything.

Because of Strasburg, Carolyn Johnson Thomas, 86, the daughter of Washington Senators Hall of Famer Walter Johnson, woke up at 11:30 p.m. Monday, walked to her computer, and Googled "Stephen Strasburg," just to see if he'd signed. Because of Strasburg, Scott Marks, a fan from Bethesda who attended Senators games as a child, stood near the batting cages at Nationals Park on Tuesday and exclaimed, "The value of my season tickets just went up." Because of Strasburg, the Nationals are now talked about -- not joked about -- on national television. Because of Strasburg, the Nationals now have a savior, or at least a potential one.

Will he be able to do it? That depends on what you expect, and what you believe in. Few great pitching careers have sprouted from such hype. In fact, there have been few great pitching careers in the District, period. Johnson, the best pitcher to ever take the mound in the city, began his career by leaving Weiser, Idaho, with $100 wired from the ballclub -- barely enough to cover the train fare. A correspondent from the Senators simply told Johnson, according to an account in Johnson's biography, "They'll fix your salary up when you land in Washington."

But in a way, all careers begin with an act of faith. Washington selected Strasburg first overall on June 9 in Major League Baseball's annual amateur draft, hoping the right-hander wouldn't crusade for agent Scott Boras's floated contract demand of $50 million. Strasburg agreed to Washington's terms under the belief that he needed baseball more than he needed a revolutionizing salary.

"I think he always wanted to sign," said Erik Castro, a close friend and Strasburg's catcher at San Diego State University. "We always talked about it at school. It's not about the money. Me and him had conversations like, 'Man, this is what you're supposed to be doing. Baseball.' But being a Boras guy, sometimes Boras will talk you into -- you're worth this, you're worth this. But I think with him, he was just being talked to by friends and family, and they kept saying, 'You'll get your money. You haven't proven anything yet. Go out there and play.' I think all along he knew he always wanted to sign. It was just a matter of him really not being influenced."

In the days and hours before the signing deadline, Strasburg felt nervous; he text-messaged friends, telling them as much. When he'd head every other morning to Tony Gwynn Stadium on the San Diego State campus to play catch with his roommate, Addison Reed, Strasburg only spoke about the negotiations when asked.

He didn't necessarily crave money, those around him said. He drives a Honda. He has rarely shopped for flashy clothing. Truthfully, the $50 million demand, first proposed by Boras in March, embarrassed him, his friends and college coaches said.

"You were getting people at the big league level -- and by that I mean players -- who were thinking, 'Who does this kid think he is, asking for $50 million?' " said Tony Gwynn, a Hall of Famer as well as San Diego State's coach. "Right away people were kind of turned off by it, because he's a guy who's never thrown a [professional] pitch."

Strasburg didn't really expect $50 million, or even half that. Washington, merely by selecting him, had gambled as much. Yes, the franchise needed a central figure -- a player who could substantiate its future-is-bright promises -- but the Nationals also had a ceiling. Privately, those in the front office believed, even from opening day, that they would draft Strasburg, offer him between $12 million and $14 million, and wait on pins and needles until about a minute before the deadline.

Down to the final minutes on Monday night, Mike Rizzo, the team's acting general manager, sat by himself in his third-floor office, speaking by phone with Boras.

They went back and forth discussing the payment schedule of Strasburg's signing bonus.

At 11:58 and 43 seconds, they had a deal.

But now, compromise reached, Strasburg is again a pitcher. He won't appear in the big leagues this year; the Nationals will likely introduce him at a news conference on Friday, then send him to Viera, Fla., for some private throwing at the team's spring training facilities. But next year, he will be a central part of the team's pitching rotation, local appeal and Q-rating.

"Well, it's external pressure, because we've never felt him as the savior of the organization," Rizzo said.

Said Ryan Zimmerman, the team's third baseman, "He's coming into a tough situation where everyone's going to expect him to strike out everyone and throw 110 miles per hour, and you've got to kind of tell him to go out there and be yourself."

Strasburg, now, is halfway between the life he knew and the role he'll enter. After finally agreeing to the deal -- he'd stayed at his mother's house during the final hours of negotiations -- he drove over to hang out with several friends, mostly teammates on the college baseball team. One of the players' girlfriends had baked a cake saying, "Congratulations," Reed said. The group sat in front of the television, watching ESPN and the MLB Network, where commentators talked about nothing but Strasburg, analyzing the money he'd make, and guessing about the career he'd come to realize.

Strasburg watched. At one point, he described the experience as "unreal."

"But honestly," Reed said, "if somebody was there that didn't know anything about baseball, they wouldn't know something crazy had just happened."

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