By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 31, 2009
VIERA, Fla., Aug. 30 -- Twelve days, 9 hours and 40 minutes after Stephen Strasburg agreed to his record $15.1 million contract, he squinted into the searing Florida sun, cranked his arm back slightly and tossed his first ball as a member of the Washington Nationals organization.
He was standing in the thick grass at the team's spring training complex, wearing the same gray shirt and navy shorts as about three dozen members of the Nationals' rookie ball team, who were preparing for that afternoon's Gulf Coast League game. The historic throw sailed approximately 15 feet and dropped into the waiting glove of Gulf Coast Nationals pitching coach Mark Grater at -- let the record show -- approximately 9:42 a.m. Sunday.
Photographers scrambled, cameras clicked, fans hovered, and pens moved, recording the moment.
"I thought I'd get a little bit of peace out here on the field, but you guys are following me everywhere," Strasburg said later. "It's something I guess I gotta deal with. I guess it just goes with the territory."
It goes with the territory, at least, for first overall draft picks who collect record signing money and fire pitches at more than 100 mph. Strasburg, 21, did not attempt to hide his displeasure at the scrutiny he received Sunday on his first day of work in this sweltering town nearly three hours north of Miami.
Despite not throwing an actual pitch or stepping on the mound other than to execute defensive drills with Nationals minor league pitching coordinator Spin Williams, Strasburg was tailed by a small group of journalists, photographers and sweat-soaked autograph-seekers.
"Once I get into playing games and stuff, it should be able to die down," Strasburg said. "Hopefully it will die down sometime soon. . . . I'm just a baseball player. It's not like I'm the president or anything."
Strasburg greeted reporters after his easy, 45-minute workout with his head down and eyes nearly hidden by the bill of his now sweaty new cap. Ushered into the lobby of the Nationals' training facility, Strasburg slid grimly into a vinyl chair and leaned his elbows on his knees. He massaged his fingers as he answered questions.
In the last year, "a lot of crazy things got thrown my way," Strasburg said. "A lot of times, I wasn't given a chance to be a normal college kid, or a normal baseball player, for that matter."
That's not likely to change anytime soon. Strasburg, the only collegian to play on last year's U.S. Olympic baseball team, will remain here until Thursday, training alongside the Gulf Coast team and doing long-toss -- but no pitching -- before departing for Washington, Williams said.
He will spend just more than a week with the big league team, working out and possibly watching games from the dugout. (He is on the team's 40-man roster, but not the major league 25-man roster, so he won't be available to play.)
After the major league stint, he will go back to the Florida Instructional League, where he will finally step onto a mound for the first time since he last pitched for San Diego State May 29.
"He will not throw off a mound, he will not throw a bullpen, until the 19th of September," Williams said.
That, Williams said, was because of the long layoff Strasburg has had, and also because the Nationals want to prepare him gradually to pitch in the Arizona Fall League in October, where he will begin preparations for spring training.
That, of course, is the part for which Strasburg can't wait.
"I am going to take what's given to me," Strasburg said. "I know the organization has my best interest [in mind]. . . . When they feel my time is right, I'll go up there and pitch as good as I can. . . . This is the game I love. It's something I love to do."
Strasburg landed at the Orlando airport from San Diego at about 9:30 p.m. Saturday, picked up a rental car and made the 35-minute drive to his nearby hotel. He got to bed late.
Even so, when Nationals media relations coordinator Bill Gluvna arrived to pick up Strasburg for Sunday's workout at 7:22 a.m., eight minutes early, Strasburg already was waiting in the lobby wearing his Nationals workout gear, Gluvna said.
When the pair drove up to the stadium at 7:40 a.m., they were met by a cluster of autograph-seekers. Strasburg, not due inside until 8 a.m., dutifully signed memorabilia before ducking into the complex. He is on his own for the first time; no family members accompanied him.
"It's the first time I ever met the kid," Williams said. "He was very reserved, very quiet, very intent with what we talked about. Quite frankly, I was very pleasantly surprised. Obviously, his body is what you look for in a pitcher. . . . Obviously, it's a special talent. His athleticism is off the charts to me, from just a one quick-day look."
At just before 9:30 a.m., Strasburg emerged from the team's training headquarters with his temporary teammates -- including Washington's Scott Olsen, Roger Bernadina and Jesús Flores, all here on rehabilitation assignments. After stretching in the batting cages, where it was shaded, the players took the field soon to prepare for that day's noon game, which Strasburg watched from the dugout.
After throwing for seven minutes with Grater, Strasburg was pulled out briefly to introduce himself -- "I'm from San Diego, California, born and raised," he said to the other ballplayers. "I'm a right-handed pitcher."
Strasburg then received about 15 minutes of one-on-one instruction on an empty field from Williams. After running through base-covering and other defensive drills, Strasburg, drenched with sweat, walked with Williams to the dugout and sat down.
One of the other coaches slapped Strasburg on the shoulder with a smile.
"Got a little lather going," the coach said as Strasburg looked at him, mystified. "That's 'sweat.' I'm from the South. I'll throw less English at you than some of these Latin guys. Hoagies. We got 'hoagies' for lunch."
The coach walked away, and Strasburg got up and followed his teammates down a palm-tree-lined walkway to the training complex for lunch.
He, too, was followed. Of course.
"The biggest thing we all have to understand is that this guy isn't going to be a Cy Young award winner next year," Williams said. "It's going to take time to get seasoned."