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A Star Is Born, Part I: Stephen Strasburg's journey

Stephen Strasburg: In minor leagues, phenom tries to blend in while his talent stands out

Pitcher Stephen Strasburg makes his minor league debut with the Harrisburg Senators on April 11 in Altoona, Pa., against the Curve.

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By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2010

It always starts with a gasp.

They have read the stories, seen the footage, heard the hype, and now they have come to experience it. They have come to see the Phenom, Stephen James Strasburg, and they gawk as he stretches his muscles in the outfield before the game. They encircle him in the bullpen as he warms up, handing their camera to a friend and posing just so, with Strasburg visible in the background -- proof that they were there when it all started, when the Phenom was a Harrisburg Senator, a Class AA minor leaguer, his greatness still just a promise.

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And then he's standing on the mound, and the ball is resting in his glove, and the fingers of his right hand are twitching nervously at his side, and the batter is at the plate, and an expectant hush fills the stands. And then, in an instant, there it is:

Whoosh. Smack.

Gasp.

Strasburg, 21 years old, with an arm made of gold, will later claim not to have heard the crowd's visceral, audible reaction to his first pitch of the game, a 99-mph fastball that explodes into the catcher's mitt. He is either too locked in to notice or too humble to admit it. But as the gasp dissolves into chuckles and oohs and oh-my-gods, the realization takes hold across charming Metro Bank Park, between forks of the Susquehanna River on Harrisburg's City Island:

This is the real thing. This kid, this moment -- we're going to remember this forever.

"I've been in this game for 32 years. I've seen everything," says Donald "Spin" Williams, the Washington Nationals' minor league pitching coordinator and one of several lieutenants dispatched by the Senators' parent club to monitor each of Strasburg's minor league starts. "And I get chills when he lets that first pitch go."

It always ends with a scrum.

They are smart and resourceful, these autograph hounds, and they linger outside the Senators' clubhouse 90 minutes after the game, at the end of a homestand, between the door where the players emerge and the bus waiting to carry them five hours north, to the first stop on a trip.

Some of them are also borderline stalkers, showing up in the lobby of the team's hotel when the Senators are on the road, staking out Strasburg's car in the parking lot when they are home -- even, on occasion, tailing him to his apartment. Which is why the Nationals have hired an off-duty Harrisburg police officer to shadow him.

"It's just shady," Strasburg says. "Personally, that's just overstepping boundaries."


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