By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 22, 2009
On Thursday night, with all still quiet, Stephen Strasburg landed in his new home city. It was 10:40 p.m. He had just arrived at Dulles on a flight that came in two hours late, and he felt tired. This, really, was an intermission between craziness, so who could blame him for wanting some rest? Those tenuous contract talks consumed his summer and kept him on edge. Plus, Strasburg was getting ready for a big day. Friday, his public introduction at Nationals Park, would include fireworks, a news conference, an additional follow-up news conference, a tour of the stadium, a lunch with coaches, a live television interview and a roaring welcome. Strasburg had to provide the show.
But here, briefly, Strasburg could dictate the itinerary. Along with those accompanying him -- his girlfriend; his father, Jim; Kurt Stillwell, an agent with the Scott Boras Corporation -- Strasburg was picked up at Dulles by Nationals' executive assistant Harolyn Cardozo, who planned to drop the foursome off at their hotel.
Then something memorable happened.
The group was coming down Route 66, over the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge. Strasburg saw the Lincoln Memorial. Cardozo, driving the car, heard a gasp.
The group, just like that, wanted to see more. They wanted to see the Washington Monument. The Jefferson Memorial. Cardozo kept driving, circling the National Mall. She headed down First Street, slicing between the Capitol and the Supreme Court building.
Strasburg hadn't seen Washington, D.C., since a trip during elementary school. Now, this was home. Depending on how he pitches once he gets the opportunity -- likely when the 2010 season begins -- the bond could go even deeper than that.
Everybody got out of the car.
"I said to them, 'You'll never forget this. So stop and remember the moment,' " Cardozo recalled on Friday. "So they did. They were quiet. They took it all in. Their cameras were still packed. They just had their memories."
Let the record show that Strasburg's private moments, during his first weekend in Washington after signing a four-year, $15.1 million contract, expired minutes thereafter. When he arrived at his hotel, a few autograph seekers stopped him. On Friday, the 21-year-old, perhaps the most scrutinized and hyped draft pick in baseball history, dealt with a public introduction at Nationals Park that matched his profile -- and belied the team's insistence that Strasburg isn't, to borrow General Manager Mike Rizzo's words, "a savior."
At 2 p.m. on Friday afternoon, with the temperature at 92 degrees, Strasburg had his introductory outdoor "news conference," which was open to the public and included fireworks, a No. 37 jersey presentation (an extra layer for him to wear!), and a VIP seating area where reclusive managing principal owner Ted Lerner watched with his wife. Agent Scott Boras, Strasburg, Rizzo and team president Stan Kasten sat on a stage erected along the third base line. Several hundred fans peppered the sections directly behind third base, bearing witness.
Before Strasburg said even a word, he had already watched two scoreboard presentations -- one a montage of his college pitching highlights -- and had been welcomed publicly by Ryan Zimmerman. When Strasburg finally rose from his chair, acknowledging the applause (and the fireworks), MASN broadcaster Bob Carpenter, the emcee, asked the right-hander, "What's gonna happen when you pitch your first shutout here?"
Strasburg paused a half-beat.
"Maybe a flyby of Air Force One?" he cracked.
Strasburg, during the afternoon, faced questions about his career aspirations, his nerves during the summer-long contract talks, and even his feelings about the spectacle he'd now helped to drive.
"Ahh, you know, they have a pretty big itinerary for me, so I'm just kind of following [the Nationals' staff] around. But I'm loving this," Strasburg said. "This stadium is amazing, absolutely amazing. The only other stadium I've been in is Petco, but this is just incredible. Hopefully I'll be able to call this home sometime soon."
Has he decided how he'll spend his money? No, not yet.
What adjustments must he make from college to pro baseball? Mostly, learning how to endure the stress of a once-every-five-days pitching routine.
Does he have any trepidation about being the rich kid in a clubhouse of lesser-paid veterans? "I mean, yeah, in a way," Strasburg said, "but I kind of experienced that -- probably not to the magnitude that I'm going into -- but with the Olympic team, they were like, 'Who's this college kid?' You know, all these guys are professionals. Some of them went in the first round. Some of them are salty minor league veterans. It was a great mix, and I learned a lot from it. Just goes to show that as long as you let your playing do the talking and just listen and don't try to step on anybody's feet you'll fit in just time."
The relationship between hyped pitchers and results is a spotty one. Strasburg has heard all the names -- No. 1 draft picks who entered their pro careers with high hopes and never delivered. Boras knows the history, too, and cut off a question asking Strasburg for his opinion on that lineage.
Later, Strasburg was asked directly if he felt anything stood between him and an extremely successful career -- one befitting his introduction.
"I don't know," he said. "I can't predict the future. I just have to go out there and do my thing day to day and get better. You know, God has a special plan for you, and if he wants me to be extremely successful in the big leagues then I am. If he has another plan for me, it will show itself in the long run."