A Star Is Born, Part III: Stephen Strasburg's journey

Nationals rookie Stephen Strasburg's first two major league starts only bring more attention

The Nationals ace delivers the 'Top Ten List' on The Late Show with David Letterman.
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010

Everything changed June 8, the night the prospect became a big leaguer and the possible became real. Ten days after the fact, it is obvious that Stephen Strasburg's remarkable debut for the Washington Nationals altered the visible universe around him -- from the course of the Nationals franchise, to the degree of intensity of the hype machine, to the outer limits of possibility for what one pitcher can achieve.

At the center of it all, Strasburg braces himself against the whirlwind. Back in May, before it all exploded, he admitted his biggest fear was that the hype "would change who I am as a person."

And now, in his biggest test yet, as the Strasburg phenomenon goes nationwide, he refuses to acknowledge it, clinging fiercely to his routine, his humility and his privacy.

Strasburg, who makes his third career start Friday night against the Chicago White Sox at Nationals Park, doesn't just ignore the hype that has sprung up around his dazzling debut for the Washington Nationals -- which thus far includes two wins in two starts, 22 strikeouts in just 12 1/3 innings, one MLB player of the week award and one Sports Illustrated cover.

He recoils from it.

"I really don't know what you're referring to," Strasburg said the day after his momentous debut, when asked about all the attention he was receiving.

Someone else in his position might be reveling in the moment, in this phenomenon, in the mind-blowing reality that the three biggest sports stories in the country this month are the World Cup, the NBA Finals and him.

Were he to take even a moment to consider it, he might find the whole thing amusing, inspiring, or even empowering. People are bidding thousands of dollars for his autograph or the dirt he has walked on. Television schedules are being altered to get him in front of as many eyes as possible, with TBS notably deciding last Sunday that Strasburg is bigger than the Red Sox and Phillies combined.

It ought to be a rush for a kid one month shy of his 22nd birthday, who has dreamed of and worked toward this moment for years. It ought to bring a smile of sheer wonderment to his face.

Instead, any mention of the phenomenon, any acknowledgment of the hype in Strasburg's presence brings about The Look: a slight grimace, accompanied by a quick turn of the head. Red splotches spread across his neck. It is a look that says: I don't want to hear it. Knock it off.

"I don't play this game for all the notoriety and all the hype," he told reporters Wednesday during a group interview in the visitors' dugout at Detroit's Comerica Park.

It isn't merely blissful ignorance on Strasburg's part. It is a conscious decision -- born out of a rookie's sense of his place, a humble young man's intense shyness, and an admitted homebody's attempt to hold onto his privacy -- to keep it all contained, and prevent the hype from encroaching upon what really matters here: baseball and family.

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