By John Feinstein
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Let's begin today with Stephen Strasburg's opening line to the media after his first 45-minute workout on Sunday as an employee of the Washington Nationals: "I thought I'd get a little bit of peace out here, but you guys are following me everywhere. It's something I guess I gotta deal with. I guess it just goes with the territory."
Yes it does. It goes with the territory when you're the No. 1 pick in the Major League Baseball draft and when you are seen as the potential savior of a woebegone franchise. Athletes with special gifts can expect scrutiny -- sometimes over-the-top scrutiny.
When Strasburg and his family decided to hire agent Scott Boras a year out from the draft, they knew full well he would take the Nationals right to the signing deadline and squeeze every possible dollar out of them.
That's just fine, but then after signing a deal worth more than $15 million the next few years, you can't whine about the ensuing attention.
After the protracted negotiation, the Nationals decided not to rush Strasburg into action this season: no real pitching until October. So, with no actual start on the horizon, the interest in Strasburg's first workout in Florida was not surprising. If he thinks it was tough having a few reporters show up for his long toss, he better gear up for spring training -- or for the first time he has a bad outing in an actual game in April or May.
Here's another line from Strasburg post-workout Sunday: "A lot of crazy things got thrown my way [in the last year]. A lot of times, I wasn't given a chance to be a normal college kid, or a normal baseball player for that matter."
This brings to mind a conversation between Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer 12 years ago in the champions locker room at Augusta National. The two men had played a practice round together prior to Woods's first major as a pro. The way Palmer tells the story, Woods looked at him and said: "You know, it really isn't fair. I almost never get to be a normal 21-year-old."
Palmer, who understood being a public figure perhaps better than any athlete in history, looked at Woods, smiled and said: "You're right, Tiger. You don't get to be a normal 21-year-old. Normal 21-year-olds don't have $50 million in the bank. You can be a normal 21-year-old if you want. Just give the money back."
As most people know, Woods went on to win the Masters by 12 shots that week. Since then he has become, without question, the most scrutinized athlete in the world. At times he still bridles at the attention -- witness his two-day media boycott last week because a reporter printed a funny comment he made to an amateur partner last Wednesday criticizing the golf course -- but for the most part, Woods understands, as Strasburg said, that it comes with the territory.
Strasburg most likely will never have to deal with anything close to the media attention Woods receives. Even if Strasburg fulfills his star potential, he'll be part of a team, and as someone who's only going to pitch once every five days, he will have a lot more space than Woods does.
But the fact that he's already whining about "not being able to escape" before ever giving up a home run or throwing a shutout or missing a turn because of stiffness in his arm, is not a good sign if you are the Nats. The one thing the franchise has had going for it the last few years is a media-friendly clubhouse led by a media-friendly star in Ryan Zimmerman. A surly franchise pitcher may be okay if he is winning Cy Young Awards and the team is in the playoffs every year because -- as Woods has shown -- people will accept a sometimes whiny superstar as long as he performs at an optimum level.
Stan Kasten, who has plenty of experience dealing with Hall of Fame-caliber pitchers (Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz come to mind), should sit Strasburg down and say this: "Look Stephen, we both know that a lot is going to be expected of you here the next few months and years. The most important thing for you is to work on becoming the best pitcher you can be. But, part of your job every day that you come to work is going to be dealing with the media. There will be dumb questions and repeated questions. "You can whine about it and make your disdain for the media clear. Or you can be cooperative, put a smile on your face and understand it's part of being a well-paid public figure. How you're treated and how we're treated when things aren't going well will be determined in large part by how you handle yourself in public and how you deal with adversity.
"Oh, and by the way, talking to a few reporters after a workout is not adversity. That's still to come."
Kasten also might add: "To quote Arnold Palmer talking to Tiger Woods a few years back, 'If you want to be normal, that's fine. Just give the money back.' "
That should get Strasburg's attention. At the very least, it will get Boras's attention.
For more on the author, visit his Web site, www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.