Stephen Strasburg debuts for Nationals, with the baseball world watching

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; D01

It has been building since the day the Washington Nationals drafted Stephen Strasburg with the first overall pick of the 2009 draft almost exactly a year ago. What would he look like on the mound at Nationals Park, with the stands jam-packed, the night abuzz with anticipation?

"It's something I've dreamed about my whole life," Strasburg said five days ago after his final minor league start. "And now it's going to become a reality."

On Tuesday night, as Strasburg, 21, makes his long-awaited debut for the Nationals, and the nation's capital, for once, will be the center of the baseball universe. The anticipation surrounding the event only intensified Monday evening, when the Nationals selected power-hitting prodigy Bryce Harper, 17, with the No. 1 pick in the baseball draft.

Tuesday night's game sold out within hours of the Nationals' announcement that Strasburg would start it -- although the team took the unprecedented step Monday of selling extra standing-room-only tickets and individual suite seats. Requests for media credentials approached League Championship Series levels. ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" will broadcast from within Nationals Park.

All for a pitcher whose most significant baseball achievement to this point, relative to the level of competition, was winning four games for the Class AAA Syracuse Chiefs over the past four weeks.

But if the hype and the anticipation have been building around Washington and beyond over Strasburg's debut, something has been building within Strasburg himself, as well.

"This kid is hungry to go up there and be let go," said Ron Villone, a Chiefs teammate and a veteran of 15 big league seasons. "It's like a horse. He wants the reins to come off. It's building. He's getting motivated, more than ever. I see that hunger in his eyes."

The intensity builds

Over the course of his final weeks with Syracuse, as speculation about his debut began to swell, Strasburg, an intense person to begin with, grew tighter and more irritable, often brushing past the hundreds of autograph seekers who gathered outside the stadium after games.

"I've talked about that stuff a million times," he told reporters when asked after his final start for Syracuse to summarize what he has learned in the minors. "I'm sure you can get it on the Internet somewhere."

The unusual way in which the Nationals telegraphed the date of Strasburg's debut -- announcing it a full week in advance, before the phenom had even made his final Syracuse start -- caught him off-guard, as he heard the news from friends and teammates who texted and called him to offer their congratulations. It also robbed him of one of a minor leaguer's most cherished memories.

"Typically, you get the call the night before they go up there [to the majors]. The situation here is a little bit different," he said. "So that's one side I've missed out on: that total shock and surprise."

When he showed up in Harrisburg, Pa., to join the Class AA Senators two months ago, Strasburg was so green he had to ask a teammate how to pack for a road trip.

The Strasburg who will take the mound a few minutes after 7 o'clock Tuesday night, with a national television audience watching, will be much the same pitcher as before -- there being little about his actual pitching that needed improving -- but a more hardened, more complete professional.

"I still consider myself the same pitcher I was in college," Strasburg said. "But I probably have a little better idea how to attack certain hitters, especially now that I'm calling my own pitches. For the most part, I've just gotten basic experience."

He has internalized the rhythms of pro ball -- the every-fifth-day schedule of being a starting pitcher (as opposed to the once-a-week routine he had at San Diego State), the everydayness that sometimes makes him lose track of what day it is.

"This lifestyle, showing up to the field every day," he said. "It's a bit repetitive, but I'm a real structured person, and I like it."

In his final days with the Chiefs, Strasburg tried to embrace an experience -- minor league baseball, with all its small joys and long bus rides -- he realized he would probably never know again.

He squeezed in a round of golf with two teammates on a rare off-day. On the day before his final start, with the Chiefs playing in Buffalo, Strasburg and his wife, Rachel, joined teammate Collin Balester and his wife on a day trip to Niagara Falls, paying extra for the boat tour.

As he did with Harrisburg a month earlier, he bought a clubhouse spread for his Syracuse teammates one night on the road -- part of an unwritten code in baseball when you have signed a contract for $15.1 million, as Strasburg did last August, and are among teammates making a couple thousand bucks per month.

Before leaving Syracuse on Sunday, Strasburg paid off his "Kangaroo Court" fines -- 17 separate infractions, at $2 a pop ("Mostly because he is who he is," Chiefs teammate Jason Bergmann explained) -- which were marked on a clubhouse scoresheet next to his latest nickname, "Stratosphere."

Then, he threw one last between-starts bullpen session, sat in the clubhouse and signed autographs for teammates and checked out of his extended-stay hotel in Syracuse. He and Rachel loaded their belongings -- plus their pet Yorkshire terrier, Bentley -- into their Lexus and headed south to Washington, to the big leagues.

Despite the overwhelming crush of ticket requests, the Nationals managed to take care of Strasburg's own needs. He will have about 25 friends and family members on hand Tuesday night, including one last-minute confirmation: his former college coach and baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.

Great expectations

As the electricity builds throughout the stadium, everyone will be wondering how Strasburg will do. Can he ever live up to the enormous expectations?

Will he be another Walter Johnson, the Washington Senators legend whom The Washington Post dubbed "a real phenom" the morning after his debut on Aug. 2, 1907? Johnson went on to 417 major league wins and a spot in the inaugural class of electees to baseball's Hall of Fame. Or will he be another Ben McDonald, the former Baltimore Orioles phenom drafted 20 years before Strasburg? McDonald had a couple of good seasons but retired with just 78 wins.

"I think it's foolish for anyone to believe one guy is a savior," Syracuse Manager Trent Jewett said. "You look at his stuff and look at his demeanor and look at his abilities, it's fair to think he's going to be real good. But to think he's going to be untouchable and unscathed in every outing, and throw no-hitters each and every time out, I think people in the industry realize those things aren't going to happen on a regular basis.

"There are lessons to be learned. I believe his stuff will carry him a long way. But there's still polish to be added."

It has always been that way in baseball. When a phenom arrives, it isn't so much the greatness that attracts, but the promise of it -- if everything breaks just right.

"Johnson, of course, has many things to learn," The Post wrote after Johnson's debut 103 years ago. "He realizes this, and being of at least average intelligence, he will learn without much trouble. He has some rough edges, but he has more natural ability than any pitcher seen in these parts in many a moon."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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