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

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2010; D01

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.

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.


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."

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."

The Nationals' top executives speak of wanting to see how their prized prospect deals with adversity -- sounding almost as if they are rooting for a disastrous performance, just to see how he would bounce back five days later -- but through three starts so far in the minors, with a fourth scheduled for Monday in Reading, Pa., adversity has mainly manifested itself off the mound, and rarely on it.

Unbeaten in three starts (one of them cut short by rain), and possessing a dazzling 0.73 ERA -- against, theoretically, the best collection of hitters he has faced in his life -- Strasburg has been simply overpowering, reducing the constructive criticism of his performance, in the words of Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, to "nitpicking."

"He'd be [the Nationals'] number one starter -- I mean right now," sniffed one of the handful of scouts clustered behind home plate at one of Strasburg's starts.

"I'm actually learning from him," says Senators pitching coach Randy Tomlin, who spent the first half of the 1990s in the major leagues before arm injuries derailed his career. "You get someone who throws it that hard, there are things you can pick up from him, to help your other pitchers. I'll gather them together and say: 'Look at how he does this. Watch how he uses his lower half to get power.' "

He is, at once, the least experienced player on the team, and the one closest to the major leagues. He is both the rawest, in terms of life experiences, and the most polished, in terms of ability. He tries hard to fit in with the rest of the team, rebuffing any attempt on the part of team officials to give him special treatment, but could scarcely be more different.

His biggest wish is to not be noticed -- he rarely makes eye contact with anyone he doesn't know -- but he is nothing short of a walking, breathing spectacle.

Minimizing differences

On the bus, he is no different than anyone else. With only 48 seats and 32 people in the Senators' traveling party, the coaches and older players get their own row, but the younger players, including Strasburg, have to double up.

Meal money is handed out -- $200 cash, representing the Class AA per diem of $25 (up five bucks from the year before) in advance of an eight-day trip -- and players get a head start on dinner by packing an extra peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the standard clubhouse spread throughout the minors, for the road.

Other times, the difference between Strasburg and his teammates is obvious -- and staggering in scope. One of those days is payday, the 15th and the last day of each month.

Starting salary in Class AA is $1,500 per month (players are paid only in-season), and when the twice-monthly checks are handed out, including deductions for taxes and health insurance and 401(k), some Senators are netting as little as a few hundred bucks. It's no wonder the majority of them work real jobs in the offseason.

Strasburg, meantime, collected $2.5 million, before taxes, back in January -- one of three scheduled installments from the $7.5 million signing bonus that made up roughly half of the record contract he signed in August, and he is earning a salary of $2 million for 2010. On payday, after deductions, his check comes in at around $100,000.

Nothing is said about this disparity in the Senators' clubhouse when payday comes, but it would make for an awkward situation were Strasburg not so modest and unassuming, and if he weren't so intent on minimizing the differences between himself and his teammates.

"When you hear someone is making that much money, you have a perception of what they're going to be like," says Senators pitcher Jeff Mandel. "And he's completely switched everybody's negative impression because of how hard he works and how humble he is."

In a sense, it is impossible for Strasburg to have the true minor league experience. He is with them, but not of them. He will never know the yearning of someone like third baseman Adam Fox, who is in his eighth pro season, his sixth stint at the Class AA level. At 28, he is slightly older than the average major leaguer, so he knows his time is running out. Married with a 3-year-old son, he spent five straight winters working a lathe for a company that makes bats, but this past offseason he got a license to sell insurance -- "Just in case," he says.

"I've had runs where I've felt like, 'Man, I should get called up,' " Fox says. "It would be an unbelievable feeling, being in the big leagues. But what I really dream about is that moment when you're called into the [manager's] office, and you hear, 'Kid, you're going to the big leagues.' That right there would complete everything I've ever worked for. Every single person on this field feels the same way."

Well, perhaps not every person. For Strasburg, that moment is a given. The only question is when. His time with the Senators is undoubtedly short -- perhaps two more starts, then on to Class AAA Syracuse for another four or five starts, and finally, on to Washington by early June.

With that in mind, Fox has already gotten Strasburg to autograph a jersey for a friend and a couple of baseballs for himself. "Before he leaves," Fox says, "I have to make sure I get him to sign one of my bats."

Stepping up

In early April, at the end of spring training, the young newlyweds -- Stephen and Rachel Strasburg, married less than three months -- loaded their belongings into their new Lexus, making sure to leave space for Bentley, their Yorkshire terrier, and headed north out of Viera, Fla., bound for the capital of Pennsylvania.

If there is little for Strasburg to learn about pitching -- at least little that couldn't be learned just as well at the big league level -- he had plenty to learn about life. This year marked the first time he had lived away from home for any significant amount of time. Born and raised in San Diego, he lived with his mother and grandmother during the three years he attended SDSU.

The drive took two days, and when Stephen and Rachel finally hit Harrisburg they made their way to their two-bedroom apartment -- which they had rented sight unseen, after learning of Stephen's assignment to the Senators toward the end of spring training -- in a complex popular with players because it allows month-to-month leases.

They had figured on having the second bedroom as a spare, until they found out the Rooneys, Sean and Jana, needed a place to live. Strasburg had played with Sean Rooney during the Arizona Fall League, and Rooney was supposed to have started this season at a lower level of the minors, before a last-minute switch put him on the Senators' roster.

"It was awesome of them to step up and say, 'Hey, we've got a bedroom available,' " Rooney said. "A lot of people wouldn't have done that."

If his teammates are the beneficiaries of Strasburg's presence, in terms of the extra media attention and the learning-by-osmosis that takes place when he plies his craft, so too are they his mentors and protectors.

Before departing for the team's first road trip, Strasburg had to ask a teammate, "How many bags are you supposed to pack for the trip?" (The correct answer: As few as possible -- you'll be carrying them yourself.) On more than one occasion, a Nationals official back in Washington has taken a call from a concerned Senators teammate trying to help Strasburg out of some awkward situation caused by his own celebrity.

Usually, it's Storen, who is a year older than Strasburg and was drafted nine spots behind him in June 2009, making the calls.

"He's like Stephen's Secret Service agent," one bemused Nationals official said.

On the morning of Strasburg's first minor league start, a Sunday afternoon game in Altoona, Pa., someone from the Altoona team -- nicknamed the Curve -- had placed two dozen logoed baseballs and a couple of bats at his locker, along with a note asking him to please sign them. Some early-arriving teammates were horrified -- knowing that Strasburg, like most pitchers, works himself into an almost catatonic state of focus before a start, and would probably explode at the sight of the stuff in his locker -- and quickly returned it to the Curve before Strasburg arrived.

When he did arrive, he moved silently through the clubhouse, stopping at the food table, where on this day someone had sprung for doughnuts. He looked them over, chose a jelly-filled, and went to his locker to change into his uniform. He took his wedding ring off his left hand and put on a gold chain he wears around his neck.

As he emerged outside, he ignored the autograph seekers crowding the sides of the dugout -- "C'mon, Stephen!" they begged. "This is part of the 15 million, you know!"

Out in the grass of the outfield, preparing for his life's work, he was no longer a poor naif in need of teammates' assistance, no longer a wide-eyed kid who might be overwhelmed by the crush if he didn't have people around him whose jobs it is to manage it.

Nothing would be overwhelmed on this afternoon except bats. Starting at game time, Stephen Strasburg was in control of his world, and there was nothing anyone witnessing the spectacle could do but gasp.

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