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Nationals prospect Stephen Strasburg stays grounded as major league debut nears

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2010; D01

He's only going to experience this once, and it will all be over in the blink of a radar gun -- two whirlwind months out of a lifetime, likely ending in about a week and a half -- so Stephen Strasburg is going to embrace the minor league life. He's going to absorb the lessons of the grizzled coaches and minor league lifers, feel the bumps of the road on those bus rides, smell the dankness of those cramped clubhouses, know the hunger of being so close to the majors. It's good for him.

"I'm trying to soak it all in," he says. "You meet some great people through your career, and it all starts here. We're all going after the same thing."

Whether with the Class AA Harrisburg Senators, where he started his pro career in April, or the Class AAA Syracuse Chiefs, where he was promoted in early May and remains now, he will carry his own luggage, pass the time playing cards in the clubhouse, change into his uniform at a chicken-wire locker with his name scrawled on masking tape above it.

He will partake, over and over, of the classic minor league spread -- PB&J sandwiches in Class AA, a daily hot dish in Class AAA, growing stale above Bunsen burners in a side room off the clubhouse -- but before he leaves Harrisburg he will treat his teammates to a big league feast: Outback Steakhouse. Ribeyes and T-bones. Bloomin' onions.

And he'll probably do it again in Syracuse before he's through.

He will take part in the Chiefs' "kangaroo court" and cringe when, as often happens, he's the one who winds up on trial for some sin against minor league humanity, inevitably brought about by his celebrity.

He's only going to be 21 once, with the warm glow of youth in his face and a thoroughbred's power in his legs, so he will shrug at his success -- a 6-1 record in eight minor league starts, an 0.89 ERA, 49 strikeouts in 40 1/3 innings -- and insist he hasn't proved anything yet.

Humble almost to a fault, he will insist upon being treated as one of the guys, even though by every measure -- the media attention he brings, the security measures his celebrity requires, the extra zeroes on his paycheck -- he might as well be an extraterrestrial.

"I'm a normal guy," he says. "I put my shoes on just like everyone in that clubhouse. They know, and I know, that I'm here for the same reason they are, and that's to win and be successful."

He will accept his autograph responsibilities, but he'll be discreet about it. He'll wait until after the game, when his teammates are all off the field, then emerge from the dugout, flanked by a team official or a security guard, to sign for the teeming masses thrusting balls and baseball cards at him. He will take it as a given that many of them will be on eBay the next day, going for as much as $299.99.

He's only going to be a newlywed once, so he and his young bride, Rachel, will embrace their journey.

She will attend every game, drop Stephen off at the stadium at 3, then return by first pitch. She will drive behind the team bus for road trips, part of the caravan of wives. They will spend their down time at home -- a month-by-month rental in Harrisburg, an extended-stay hotel in Syracuse -- and spent their one and only off-day in Harrisburg at the Hershey's chocolate factory, taking a tour, tasting the samples.

"She's my best friend," Strasburg says. "I can't imagine her not being here."

Hard as it is, Strasburg will ignore the growing reality -- that his big league call-up is only days away -- because to acknowledge that is to grow complacent, to sit back and wait for it, to treat that day itself as the goal.

"My goal is not to just make it to the big leagues and say, 'Hey, I made it to the big leagues!' " he says. "I want to have a long, successful career, and I want to help the Nationals get a lot of wins and become one of the powers of major league baseball. That's my goal."

Meeting his fellow Chiefs

The first time Strasburg walked into the Syracuse clubhouse, it was just after 3 p.m. on May 6. He wore jeans, a white polo and a shy, sheepish grin on his face. He shook hands with his new teammates. "Long time, no see," he joked to fellow pitcher Drew Storen, whose Harrisburg-to-Syracuse promotion preceded Strasburg's by a week.

On the chair at Strasburg's locker sat a U.S. Mail crate overflowing with fan mail and autograph requests.

Having already seen Strasburg victimized at least twice this year by cases of what the team considered to be stalking -- once in Viera, Fla., during spring training, and once in Harrisburg -- the Nationals were taking no chances in Syracuse, hiring two ex-Secret Service agents to guard him. The behind-the-scenes details are largely hidden from Strasburg himself -- which is the way he wants it.

"I don't want special treatment," he says. "It kind of bothers me when I get it." Then he laughs. "But that's why we have kangaroo court."

His catcher for that first start in Syracuse was veteran Carlos Maldonado, and before squatting down in the bullpen some 30 minutes before gametime, Maldonado had never caught him. Accustomed to driving broken-down Fords and sparkling new Kias night after night in the minors, he was about to get behind the wheel of a Lamborghini.

At 31 years old, Maldonado is nearly 16 years into his pro career, having signed with the Seattle Mariners as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela. Other than two cups of coffee in the big leagues, with the 2006-07 Pittsburgh Pirates, his whole career has been spent in the minors.

When Maldonado and Strasburg had their standard pregame strategy session a couple hours before the kid's debut, there wasn't much said.

"He doesn't talk much," Maldonado recalls. "I just thought I'd ask him what he likes to throw, what's his strikeout pitch? I knew he threw hard, but I don't want to keep calling for the fastball. He told me likes to use the sinker, move in and out. He told me he uses his change-up and curveball in any count.

"I just said, 'All right, let's do this.' "

That night, Strasburg threw 65 pitches in six innings -- the first of what now stands at three consecutive scoreless outings in Class AAA -- and never did he shake off a sign from Maldonado. But when asked if he thinks the kid can learn anything from him, Maldonado shakes his head.

"There's nothing I can teach him," he says. "All I do is put my finger down, and he executes the pitch. This guy is going to be good, real good."

Speed-interviewing

Two days before his Class AAA debut, Strasburg had arrived in town -- after he and Rachel drove up I-81 from Harrisburg -- to introduce himself to the good people of Syracuse, via the local media, in a novel way: Thirteen consecutive one-on-one interviews, with every print, radio and television outlet in town, each getting five minutes of face-time with the phenom.

For nearly all the interviewers, the brief Q-and-A session -- which resembled nothing so much as speed-dating -- would represent the only one-on-one time they will get with Strasburg during his stay in Syracuse. The only other access would be news conferences following each of his starts.

The Nationals' handling of the media crush surrounding Strasburg comes straight out of the playbook of a Hollywood super-agency. Formulated at the upper levels of the team's front office, with the help of an outside media consulting firm that was retained this spring, and executed by the Nationals' public-relations staff, the strategy is simple: shield Strasburg from all but the essential media obligations.

Strasburg, the Nationals knew, had trouble saying no, so the team was going to do it for him. And despite some hurt feelings -- the Patriot-News in Harrisburg complained in print that Strasburg was being "protected . . . as if he were a traveling president" -- it has been amazingly effective.

Most weeks, the team receives 25 or more interview requests for Strasburg. But in a typical week, no more than one or two are approved. Both the Harrisburg and Syracuse teams have their own PR staffs, but both were instructed to refer all requests to the Nationals.

Alone among the thousands of pro players in affiliated baseball, Strasburg cannot be approached at his locker for an interview. If he is, he politely asks the reporter to go through the Nationals' PR department. Such is Strasburg's trust in the system that when an interview request is green-lighted, he understands it to be essential and does not complain.

This spring, the Nationals worked extensively with him on his media skills. There were practice interviews and simple suggestions: Sit up straight. Make eye contact. Smile a lot.

Over time, he has become more natural in front of the cameras and notepads. In fact, in just the three months since spring training, the difference in Strasburg is pronounced. One example came at the end of his regular, postgame news conference following his most recent start, Wednesday night in Rochester, N.Y.

The questioner was setting a trap for him: With the Nationals playing in his home town of San Diego the next week, was Strasburg hoping to be there, in uniform? He recognized the trap and responded with a joke that had the room in laughter.

"I'm trying to get tickets for my dad," he said. "He'll be there. I don't know where I'll be."

'As cool as they come'

The Nationals' media strategy for Strasburg gets at the heart of some essential truths about him: He is almost painfully shy, and uncomfortable being the center of attention -- a possibly untenable combination for someone who is the most famous minor league ballplayer since Michael Jordan. But it explains a lot.

"People think he's standoffish, unapproachable," says Randy Knorr, the Harrisburg manager. "But he really isn't. He's shy, is what he is. I think this is kind of overwhelming for him. It would be for everybody."

"Stephen's personality is to process," says Doug Harris, the Nationals' farm director. "If he seems standoffish, it's because he's processing. He's going to grow into this, and I hope everyone will respect that."

Strasburg, for his part, bristles at the suggestion he's shy: "I was probably a lot more shy growing up, but I wouldn't say that now. When I meet someone for the first time, I kind of want to feel them out and see what they want. But for the most part, if they're cool with me, I'm cool with them."

To his teammates, Strasburg is not unapproachable at all. If any of them want to know what makes him tick, all they have to do is ask. One day in Harrisburg, Adam Fox, a 28-year-old third baseman, sauntered up to him in the outfield during batting practice:

"I wanted to get in his head a little bit," Fox says. "I said, 'What kind of pressure do you feel?' And he had the best answer you could possibly give. He said, 'At the end of the day, I don't have to answer to anybody but myself. I've always had my doubters and my haters. But, he said, 'all I have to do is look in the mirror and know I've accomplished a lot, no matter what happens.'

"I walked away and said, 'Wow, that kid is as cool as they come.' "

While the Nationals might wish he were more PR-savvy, in other ways he is exactly what you would want in a future superstar. His humility earns him universal praise from those around him. In his postgame news conferences, he speaks passionately about the team and the game's outcome.

He is deeply religious without being public about it. He's a devoted husband and a homebody.

But standing on a mound with a ball in his hand, he is unrelenting, his competitiveness almost frightening. The Nationals love this about him, too.

Syracuse third baseman Chase Lambin, a 30-year-old veteran who has his locker next to Strasburg, recalls facing him during a 10 a.m. intrasquad game in spring training. No one was in the stands. The players themselves were barely awake.

"Some guys will sort of go through the motions, get their work in," Lambin says. "You can tell their switch isn't really on. But his switch was on. He was getting mad when he didn't make his pitches. He doesn't care where he is or who he's facing. He's trying to dominate."

One more debut awaits

The humility, the self-imposed ban on special treatment, the hunger -- it all begs a question: Does he get it? Does Strasburg really understand who he is and what he represents?

Certainly, he recognizes his gift. He sees the awkward swings, the sideways glances from humiliated hitters. He can look up the numbers. He knows why opposing players sometimes sneak over to his clubhouse to get his autograph.

But does he really get it?

Way back in the Arizona Fall League, last October -- Strasburg's first experience with pro ball -- Storen (who last week made it to the majors) would tell him, "Dude, you're LeBron James. Don't you see that?" But Strasburg would always protest.

"My biggest fear," he says now, "is that this game will change who I am as a person. I'm starting to get a grip that it's my choice. I'm the same guy I was in high school and in college. Just because there are more people watching the games and more cameras, it doesn't change who I am as a person."

And so for now, for what's left of these two months in the bushes, he will ignore the gaudy stats and the conclusions they bring. He will block out reality and play along with this elaborate game, the one that has Strasburg himself as the lone playing piece, and with all of us -- the Nationals, the minor league coaches, the media -- reaching for him.

He will pretend, like the rest of us, that he belongs here, when everyone knows that, except for a rules quirk that rewards a team for keeping a prospect in the minors for a certain amount of time, he'd have been in the majors by now.

"Deep down inside, I feel like I'm ready to make that jump," he says. "But [until then], I have a job to do for Syracuse. That's my main focus right now. It's just kind of -- grind it out, non-stop."

Sometimes late at night, he admits, it enters his mind: That first time to the mound at Nationals Park. Day 1 of his big league career. What will it feel like? How will it play out? But he doesn't let himself think about it for long.

"You start thinking about [the big leagues]," he says, "it's going to drive you crazy."

So for now, he will be who he is, just a prospect -- full of great promise, but accomplished of nothing yet -- and he will wait, like the rest of us, just a little bit longer.

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