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

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010; D01

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.

"Just another week," he said, without a trace of irony, after his June 13 start in Cleveland.

Undoubtedly, Strasburg's singular powers of focus -- his uncanny ability to block out the madness that is increasingly encroaching upon him -- is part of what makes him so good, so special.

"He just doesn't care" about the attention, said fellow Nationals rookie Drew Storen. "I don't know how he does it. But he just doesn't let what people say about him define him."

"He gets it," said Tony Gwynn, the Hall of Fame outfielder who was Strasburg's coach at San Diego State University. "He's very humble, a workaholic -- all the things that you want in a player. His focus is unbelievable."

It's possible, given his aversion to the hype and his determination to avoid it, that Strasburg doesn't even know the way the nation has embraced his arrival -- the record-setting television ratings on MASN and the MLB Network, the incongruous sight of merchandise booths in Cleveland selling his jerseys, the gushing testimonials of baseball bigwigs across the country.

"He's not the type of guy to embrace the attention," said Erik Castro, Strasburg's catcher at San Diego State University and the best man at his wedding. "Most baseball guys love to have the fame. I'd love to be in that spotlight. But honestly, he hates it. He's definitely more of a quiet type of kid. I'm sure you guys [in the media] get frustrated because he's so danged boring in those interviews."

'Just a baseball player'

Adored by teammates, worshipped by fans, cherished by coaches, praised by opponents, Strasburg -- humble and unassuming, almost to a fault -- has only one natural enemy in the baseball ecosystem: the media.

More accurately, the enemy is hype. But the media is its weapon.

When someone bursts onto the scene the way Strasburg has this month, the public is ravenous for information, for deeper insight into the subject's thoughts and his life. But in Strasburg's case, it could be a long process before anyone outside of his inner circle comes to know him that well.

Since Strasburg's arrival in Washington, he has been kept under strict media restrictions, with access limited to news conferences after his starts and Wednesday's group session -- with the exception of a one-on-one interview with the team's television rights holders. Partly, this is done to manage an unruly mob. And partly, it is to insulate a reluctant superstar from a part of the job he doesn't really want.

Last August, upon arriving at Viera, Fla., to begin workouts for the fall instructional league -- his first official assignment as a Nationals minor leaguer -- he was surprised (and more than a little perturbed) to find a handful of reporters and photographers there to document his first long-tosses as a professional.

"I thought I'd get a little peace out here on the field, but you guys are following me everywhere," he said then. ". . . Hopefully it will die down sometime soon. I'm just a baseball player. It's not like I'm the president or anything."

In retrospect, such sentiment seems naive. The degree of media interest in him has risen almost exponentially. There were about 70 credentialed media members at his minor league debut for Class AA Harrisburg in April, and more than 200 for his major league debut on June 8.

He can be insightful and revealing in the rare one-on-one interviews he has done -- as long as the questions don't stray too far from baseball.

"I enjoy talking about baseball with guys who don't focus on the velocity or the hype, who want to ask detailed baseball questions," Strasburg said in May. "It's something I like to do -- I like to talk baseball, period. But not everybody [in the media] is like that. There are some things you have to just deal with, but that's what happens when everyone wants a piece of you."

Strasburg also has jumped at opportunities to do a pair of television appearances on shows he grew up watching -- ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" (for which he and wife Rachel drove themselves to the ESPN studios in Bristol, Conn., when Strasburg's Class AA Harrisburg team was in nearby New Britain for a road series) and, last week, CBS's "Late Show With David Letterman."

For the Letterman appearance, Nationals PR staffers approached Strasburg hesitantly, figuring it would require serious arm-twisting. "But he immediately said yes," one official said. "I think he thought [doing the 'Top 10' list on Letterman] was really cool."

In the clubhouse with teammates, Strasburg is personable and funny, flashing a killer smile -- wide and toothy -- but around the media he is almost always serious, even sullen. "At a certain level he just wants to show up and pitch, and that's it," said Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. "And obviously, it'll never be like that. And he'd never say that. He would never blow it off and disrespect it. It's part of the job, I guess you could say. You have to understand that the reason we have baseball and we get paid is because you guys write about it, and fans read it, and they want to know what we have to say."

By Strasburg's own decree, family members are strictly off limits, and to disobey that rule is to invite his wrath.

Numerous times, he has chastised media members who have called his parents seeking interviews. Once, after a Harrisburg game in April, a reporter asked Strasburg whether Rachel had been in attendance. "She's not doing any interviews," he said sternly.

"That's my private life," he explained once, "and I want to keep it that way."

Before Strasburg's debut, the Nationals sent out a mass e-mail to credentialed media members with some guidelines for covering the game. Included was a reminder that Strasburg's family was off limits. "No exceptions," the e-mail said.

Still, when Strasburg's entourage was ushered into the interview room where Strasburg was holding his postgame news conference following his debut, it was difficult for the media not to take notice. Many of them, including Strasburg's father, Jim, appeared to be holding back tears. And when Strasburg finished talking, he stepped down off the stage and began hugging them, one by one -- the kind of camera-ready moment that makes PR folks drool.

As Strasburg hugged Rachel, a Reuters photographer snapped off a few frames, causing Strasburg to turn, throw up his hand and say, "No pictures." The photographer backed off.

It was a minor annoyance, no big deal. And in no way could it ever have tarnished a night that was near-perfect in every other way.

An electric debut

Shortly after noon on June 8, Strasburg said goodbye to his pet yorkie, Bentley, and walked out of the two-bedroom apartment he and Rachel are renting in the Virginia suburbs. They drove to the stadium together, and Rachel dropped him off.

No one who witnessed what occurred on the Nationals Park field that night will soon forget it. And that holds doubly true for Strasburg's friends and family in attendance, a group that includes his father, Jim; mother, Kathy Swett; his in-laws, Tim and Jenny Lackey; his college coach, Gwynn, and pitching coach, Rusty Filter; a college teammate, Bubba Ruddy; and his agents, Scott Boras and Scott Chiamparino.

Also in attendance were Brett and Marybeth Lefevre and their 17-year-old son, Ryan, who served as Strasburg's host family when he played in a wooden-bat summer league in Connecticut after his freshman year of college in 2007, and with whom he has remained close.

Once the game started, the majority of Strasburg's entourage watched from a luxury suite, but different friends and family members, two by two, took turns occupying two pairs of seats down front, in Section 120, where the reactions were more visceral, the atmosphere even more charged.

As the innings wore on, and Strasburg began to gain strength and dominance -- he struck out the last seven batters he faced, and 14 batters overall -- the raw emotion began to sweep over everyone. There were tears shed in those box seats and in that luxury suite.

"We were just in awe -- jaw-dropping awe," said Marybeth Lefevre. "It was just magical, to look around at all of these people, people of every stripe, screaming and yelling for Stephen, and all the 'Strasburg' shirts, and the electricity. Upstairs, Gwynn was grinning ear to ear. He was like a proud father. Each person saw the same thing, but they all took something different from it because we were all from different parts of Stephen's life."

The glow was felt beyond Nationals Park, by people around the country watching rapt on television.

In Milwaukee that night, Bud Selig, baseball's commissioner, watched rapt as Strasburg mowed down the Pittsburgh Pirates. "I've seen a lot of great pitchers," said Selig, 75, in a telephone interview. "But there was something about this kid that was really aberrational. I mean, it was really unique. Here you have this 21-year-old kid, 10 months from signing. You had this huge buildup. And he just completely delivered. It was just remarkable. I've been watching baseball since the early- to mid-'40s, and I can't think of a good analogy to this. That's how good this was and how remarkable this was.

"It was big. I thought to myself, 'Baseball is really back in Washington.' "

Long after the game was over, about 10 of Strasburg's friends and family members gathered in one downtown hotel suite, reliving the magic well into the wee hours of the next morning.

Stephen and Rachel, though, did not, choosing instead to return to the apartment they had only begun occupying some 48 hours earlier. It was after midnight. Bentley needed to be walked. Stephen was exhausted, and his eyes were still red and stinging (and would be again the next morning) from the three shaving-cream pies he took in the face, courtesy of his teammates, during an on-field postgame interview.

And besides, had they gone to that hotel room, someone, though well-meaning, would have undoubtedly started talking about how great Stephen Strasburg is. And that's something he wouldn't have wanted to hear.

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