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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.

That morning, he had already spent a half-hour in a room that is supposed to be the office of the team's strength coach -- but has lately been taken over by Strasburg's fan mail -- going through the dozens of pieces of mail he gets daily and fulfilling as many autograph requests as he can get to. ("I always do the balls first," he says. "I figure those official balls are expensive, and if someone has spent the money on one and sent it to me, I should sign it.")

As Strasburg emerges from the clubhouse, with a duffel bag slung over his prized right shoulder and a computer bag in his left hand, the hounds mobilize -- the intimacy of minor league baseball suddenly turning scary -- and the cop drifts over. Teammates already on the bus, having been largely ignored by the hounds, watch through the darkened windows.

"He's like a rock star," marvels Drew Storen, the Senators' closer.

Eventually, Strasburg signs, but he does so joylessly, and it is difficult not to notice something odd about the scrum: Of the 25 or so people surrounding him, with their Sharpie pens, balls and binders full of baseball cards, not a single one is a kid. These are pros, most of them middle-aged. A few of them say thanks.

One man drifts to the fringe of the scrum, reloads with a fresh ball and doubles back around, but Strasburg catches him.

"You already got one, right?" he says.

"Yeah," the man says sheepishly.

"Only one," Strasburg says sternly.

Taking it slow

If he were a basketball player, he'd be LeBron James. If he were a football player, he'd be Peyton Manning. He'd go straight to the NBA, or the NFL, and begin constructing what would almost certainly be a Hall of Fame career. You could take it to the bank.

But because he's a baseball player -- and because there is significant financial incentive, in the form of future salaries and delayed free agency, for the Nationals to keep him out of the majors for a couple of months -- Strasburg starts in the minors, on the mounds of the Eastern League, in the small cities of the East Coast, from Richmond up to Portland.

And because he's a pitcher, you don't take anything to the bank. Baseball's history is littered with the carcasses of failed pitching phenoms, the majority of them done in by arm injuries. Ostensibly, Strasburg is here to gain seasoning, to learn the craft of pitching, to get acclimated to the life of a professional ballplayer. The Nationals paid $15.1 million, shattering the previous record for a drafted amateur, to pluck Strasburg out of San Diego State last summer. They are building their future around him, and they are taking it slow. It's how things are done in baseball.

"This is important for him to go through," says Doug Harris, the Nationals' farm director. "You can't speed this up. You have to live it."

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