Stephen Strasburg era begins for Washington Nationals

(Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

VIERA, FLA. -- And so it begins, the Stephen Strasburg era. It begins -- the hype, the hope, the scrutiny. It begins like this: Monday morning, five days before the Washington Nationals' pitchers and catchers are to report for spring training, on a back field at the team's minor league complex. A couple dozen players are gathered for an informal pre-camp workout.

And then Strasburg, 21, steps onto a bullpen mound -- dressed minimally in a white Billabong T-shirt, gray athletic shorts and black Nike spikes, no socks -- and signals to his catcher that a fastball is coming. As it leaves his right hand, humming and hell-bent, his new teammates are divided into two categories: those who are sneaking glances at the phenom, and those who are outright gawking.

"I'm just curious. I've never seen him throw before," said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, a glancer. "It's exciting. There's just a different kind of buzz here this year."

A few hundred yards down Stadium Way, in the home clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium, equipment manager Mike Wallace and his lieutenants are unpacking boxes and hanging up uniforms. Strasburg's name is on an end-of-row locker in the middle of the room. His uniform number, 37, has lived an itinerant, undistinguished life for this franchise, having previously graced the backs of coaches Dave Huppert (2005) and Pat Listach (2009) and pitchers Travis Hughes (2006), Mike Bacsik (2007) and Levale Speigner (2008).

It is here that Strasburg's professional baseball career will begin, and here where his transition from youth to adulthood, with all its blessings and responsibilities, becomes complete.

"It's a fun ride," Strasburg said Monday morning before his first bullpen session of the spring. "This is just another part of the journey."

In the past six months, that journey has seen Strasburg sign his name to the largest contract (four years, $15.1 million) ever given to a drafted player, dazzle scouts in the developmental Arizona Fall League, take in marriage the hand of his college sweetheart and leave San Diego to live somewhere else for the first time in his life. When his plane touched down in Orlando Thursday, home was suddenly 3,000 miles away and life was changed forever.

"I don't know how to explain it, but he's just totally at peace with where everything is in his life," said Erik Castro, Strasburg's former teammate at San Diego State and the best man at his wedding. "He knows he has a lot of blessings in his life, so he's ready to go. This is what he lives for."

* * *

Kathy Swett cried, just a little, at the wedding of her only child. It happened just as her Stephen took the hand of the former Rachelle Lackey, before several hundred friends and family members at a winery outside San Diego, and recited his vows.

"And then," she said, "I reminded myself there was nothing to cry about because I was actually getting a daughter I never had. And I couldn't have asked for anyone better. I'm a very typical, protective mother. Nobody was ever going to be good enough for my son. But she's great."

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