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Stephen Strasburg era begins for Washington Nationals

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; D01

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."

It was Jan. 9. The groom wore a black tux with a plain black tie. The bride wore white, the bridesmaids purple.

The next day, per his Nationals contract, Strasburg received the second of three $2.5 million installments from his $7.5 million signing bonus.

Stephen and Rachelle had met at "State," as he calls his alma mater. Of her, he says: "We're great together, and we're really excited to start our new life together. I need her by my side as much as she needs me."

They honeymooned in Hawaii, on the island of Kauai, and Stephen had his baseball glove in his carry-on luggage. Every other day, he would drive to Kauai High School to throw a bullpen session. The catcher, Lanan Rice-Kashima -- "Put his name in there; he'll get a kick out of that," Strasburg said -- was a 5-foot-9, 165-pound high school ballplayer whose services had been lined up in advance by Strasburg's agents.

At the first session, it was just Stephen and Lanan. But as word spread around the island, more and more people showed up to watch the pitcher with the 100-mph fastball, a kid who has been described as the best pitching prospect of all time. By the last session, there were dozens of spectators, many of them asking for autographs, a few inviting the newlyweds over for dinner.

When they flew home at the end of the trip, Strasburg's mother picked them up at the airport.

"The first thought that went through my mind," Kathy Swett said, "was that he looked awesome."

* * *

Strasburg's Arizona Fall League stint consisted of five starts, four of them borderline-brilliant -- a combined 16 1/3 innings with 19 strikeouts and only two earned runs allowed -- and one humbling, embarrassing disaster. But when the last man to have coached Strasburg in a competitive situation looks back now, it was that disastrous performance -- 2 2/3 innings, seven hits (including three homers) and seven earned runs allowed -- that stands out.

"I loved every second of that," said Paul Menhart, the pitching coach for the Phoenix Desert Dogs of the AFL, and for the Potomac (Va.) Nationals, which is Washington's high Class A affiliate. "He learned more from that one outing than from the rest of them combined."

Yanked unceremoniously in mid-inning, Strasburg took a seat on the Desert Dogs' bench and stewed silently for a while, until finally Menhart sat down next to him and suggested Strasburg go inside to the clubhouse and get his arm iced. Instead, Strasburg paused for a few more seconds, then said slowly and purposefully:

"That will never happen again."

Strasburg didn't mean he will never be hammered again in a game; inevitably, he will.

"He meant the way he went about giving up those types of hits, the way he ran away from his fastball because one got hit out of the park," Menhart said. "We sat there and talked for a while, and he did most of the talking. And he was dominant from then on."

It was either an awful coincidence or a terrible omen that Strasburg was scratched from his two biggest starts of the AFL season -- one in the league all-star game, the other in the championship game (both representing the only times his performances would have been televised) -- because of freak injuries.

In the former instance, Strasburg woke up with a stiff neck. Menhart believes he solved that issue by ordering the phenom not to sleep with so many pillows.

Then, the day before the championship game, Strasburg was tossing a ball in the outfield during batting practice when he caught his spikes in the turf, twisted awkwardly and heard two "pops" coming from his knee. He went down and eventually was carted off in a golf cart, but an MRI exam revealed no damage to the knee and Strasburg says he is 100 percent healthy.

"When you hear a kid say, 'I heard two pops,' that scares the daylights out of you," Menhart said. "But then he said he had had it happen once in the past and it was nothing. So I knew he would be fine."

Despite the setbacks, the Nationals viewed Strasburg's AFL performance as a triumph -- proof that their prized phenom could not only compete, but dominate at times against hitters who, at least in some instances, will be in the big leagues by the end of 2010. The gushing over Strasburg's ability and potential was reaching epic heights.

"Eight is the highest [grade] on our grading scale. I'd just say, in grading Strasburg, take the highest guy you've ever seen, and [add] two grades to it," said Jay Robertson, a longtime scout and special assistant to Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo. "Nine times out of 10, you see the hyped guy, and it's not what it was built up to be. In this case, it was even better than I expected."

Many people both inside and outside the Nationals organization expect the club to start Strasburg at Potomac, where the weather is warmer in April than in Syracuse or Harrisburg (homes of the team's Class AAA and AA affiliates, respectively), and where Strasburg can continue to work with Menhart, Potomac's pitching coach.

Five starts at Potomac and, say, five more in Harrisburg would put Strasburg in Washington by June. It would also cut into Strasburg's big-league service time just enough to delay his reaching free agency until after 2016, as opposed to 2015 -- a justifiable line of reasoning, given the franchise's record-setting investment in him.

In the meantime, there will be almost zero marketing of him in Washington. His image, with no voice-over, will appear fleetingly near the end of a MASN commercial -- but no billboards, no print ads, no media guide cover.

"We're in business of marketing whatever assets we have," Nationals President Stan Kasten said. "But one thing we have to balance is overexposure -- not in terms of our marketing, but in terms of impeding his progress."

Strasburg's availability to the media will be limited -- with the team requiring interview requests go through the public relations department -- and for the first time the team is bringing in a media-training company to address the team in spring training.

* * *

His bullpen session over -- one down, perhaps 100 to go before the end of the year -- Strasburg walked slowly and silently to the Nationals' minor league clubhouse. Nobody stopped him.

In the parking lot, his mother, his wife and various members of their families waited for him. When he got there, they loaded up and headed west on the Bee Line Expressway.

There were still four days to fill before Friday's official reporting date for the Nationals' pitchers and catchers. Four days before a hellfire of media members and autograph hounds, and batters itching to prove something, is unleashed upon him. Four days left in Stephen Strasburg's youth.

So the kid was going to Disney World.

Staff writer Chico Harlan contributed to this report.

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