Stephen Strasburg and San Diego State are still close, even as they're miles apart
Saturday, May 29, 2010
SAN DIEGO -- On a shelf inside his cramped office, Tony Gwynn displays a framed, aged photograph of a smiling, blond, 4-year-old boy. The boy is standing next to a poster of Gwynn back when he played for the Padres, long before he became the baseball coach at San Diego State. The boy is wearing Gwynn's signature wristbands, an SDSU shirt and a Padres helmet.
"People walk in my office all the time and they don't know who that is," Gywnn said Friday afternoon. "That's Stephen Strasburg."
Gwynn received the picture from Strasburg's mother a year ago, a thank-you gift for Gwynn coaching and caring for her son at SDSU. "I didn't take care of him," Gwynn joked. "He took care of me."
The picture in his coach's office is one of many signs of Strasburg's continued influence at his beloved alma mater. Someday soon, Strasburg will make his first major league start for the Washington Nationals, 3,000 miles away from where he grew up and went to college. One year after he threw his final pitch for the place he fondly calls "State," his effect on the campus remains stark.
"It's still huge," Gwynn said. "Every day for us, his impact is still felt. I don't think there's a day that goes by that us as a staff and each of the players who were here when he was here don't think about him."
Beyond right field at Tony Gwynn Stadium, the most recent addition to the Aztec Baseball Wall of Fame is "Stephen Strasburg #37." Around the infield, there is $145,000 worth of new FieldTurf, a donation Strasburg made shortly after signing his record-smashing contract last August. When he left, no one forgot about him.
"When he pitched in spring training," Gwynn said, "campus basically shut down."
Even as Strasburg has handled unprecedented attention during his season as a professional, he followed his old teammates. Addison Reed, the Aztecs' junior ace who was Strasburg's roommate on the road last year, received a text message from Strasburg before each of his starts wishing him luck. They spoke once a week, baseball usually the last topic they reached. Strasburg told him that, when he could, he watched San Diego State games online.
"That's cool that he still pays attention to the school he used to go to," Reed said. "He's definitely not forgetting where he came from and letting the big league life take over everything. He hasn't really changed. He's still just regular Stephen that everybody knows. It's good that he's staying level-minded and not big-leaguing people. He still keeps in contact with people."
In their first season post-Strasburg, the Aztecs finished 28-28, their season ending Wednesday with a loss in the Mountain West Conference tournament. "We'd still be playing if he were here," Gwynn said.
The story of how Strasburg arrived at San Diego State has become familiar: Undrafted out of high school, his hometown college was the only big-time Division I team that offered him a scholarship. Even then, Rusty Filter, San Diego State's pitching coach at the time, had to persuade Gwynn to offer him a scholarship. "I really wanted somebody else," Gwynn said. Strasburg shed 40 pounds, added 10 mph to his fastball, and became perhaps the most prized pitching prospect ever.
Gwynn hoped he would be able to see Strasburg when the Nationals came to San Diego. Like the rest of the baseball world, Strasburg included, he'll have to wait eagerly. Before Strasburg left San Diego for spring training, he sat in Gwynn's office. "Coach," he asked Gwynn, "what do you do when you want to make it out of spring training and you know you're not going to have a chance?"
"I said, 'Pitch your ass off,' " Gwynn said. "That's what you do. Force their hand. Make them make a tough decision."
Three months later, Strasburg is still waiting to make his first major league start. Gwynn said Strasburg understands the developmental and financial reasons he's still plowing through minor leaguers. He also knows Strasburg is eager. "He'll never tell you, but yeah, I think so," Gwynn said. "I think he's wondering."
So is Gwynn. Strasburg's potential is captivating even for him, his college coach and one of the best players of his generation.
"They sent him to Double A, did well," Gwynn said. "They sent him to Triple A, doing well. All that's left is, let's see! Let's see, for God's sake! Let's see it. C'mon, Nationals! Let's go already. I'm waiting."