In the fall of 2008, as the clutches of the modern hype machine lunged for Stephen Strasburg, he received a phone call from an old baseball coach. Brian Cain invited him to watch the San Diego Show, the elite travel team for which Strasburg had once pitched. Cain had recruited a 15-year-old from out of state to compete on a team of 18-year-olds, and they were playing at a high school down the road from the Strasburg family home. Cain implored him, “You got to come see this kid.”
Between the sophomore season that made him a scout’s darling and the junior year that foisted unwanted celebrity upon him, Strasburg obliged and drove the few miles from the campus of San Diego State. Sitting in the Show’s dugout, it was unmistakable which kid he had been summoned to see. Strasburg could tell the first time he laid eyes on Bryce Harper.
“I really didn’t know who he was at the time,” Strasburg said. “I remember he was playing third base or something. He looked physically developed. He looked like an 18-year-old out there.”
The passing encounter served as the first stroke of fate that brought together Strasburg and Harper, the twin forces who would shape the Washington Nationals. The franchise ebbed at the perfect moment, finishing at the bottom of the major leagues at the point Strasburg and Harper became eligible for the draft. They chose Strasburg first overall in 2009, then Harper in 2010. Ever since, they waited for this moment.
“Nobody could have drawn it up the way it happened,” said Hector Lorenzana, one of the Show’s coaches.
On Monday, Strasburg will take the mound and Harper will jog to left field at Nationals Park, their first opening day together. Two and a half years removed from his elbow reconstruction, Strasburg no longer pitches under an innings limit. The 2012 rookie of the year trophy resting on his mantle, Harper’s days in the minors are behind him. As the Nationals embark on their first season as an established contender, their phenoms have no caveats attached. They will have Harper at the start and Strasburg at the end.
Already, at 24 and 20, Strasburg and Harper may form the most overpowering tandem in baseball. Harper last season accumulated more wins above replacement — a statistic created to show the value of a player to his team — than any teenager in baseball history. Strasburg’s 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings are the most ever for a starting pitcher with at least 250 career innings.
Says Harper: “When he’s pitching, we’re all excited to watch. Everything can be different that game. Something could happen that you never see ever again, because he’s pitching and he’s unbelievable.”
Says Strasburg: “He’s a little more the aggressive type. He’ll go out there, and he’ll try to take the extra bag. Sometimes, it’s going to burn him. That’s one thing that enables him to do things you’ve never seen before. You never see guys hitting flares over the shortstop for a stand-up double. You don’t see that.”
They have been linked on the Nationals’ figurative marquee and in other, almost cosmic ways. The Nationals drafted Harper on June 7, 2010 — the night before Strasburg made his major league debut. Harper’s first trip to Washington came Aug. 26 of that year — the day before the Nationals announced Strasburg would undergo Tommy John surgery.
Each was first anointed as perhaps the best prospect ever, then as savior for a franchise. But their personalities, backgrounds and relationships to fame have rendered their experiences wholly different.
After the Nationals signed Harper, Strasburg told him, “If you need any advice or want any advice, just come to me.” Harper appreciated the offer, but never took him up on it. One on one, they do not acknowledge their obvious connection.
“We never really talked about that at all,” Harper said. “It never really came across as, ‘Oh, wow, we’re both number one picks, and now we’re on the same team.’ We just came and played.”
They were teammates for the first time last year. Independently, they both said the same thing about their interaction.
“It’s much like any clubhouse,” Strasburg said. “The pitchers kind of hang out with each other, and the position players hang out with themselves. There’s always going to be little cliques in the clubhouse. I respect him as a player. At the same time, I usually go hang out with all the pitchers.”
The 162-game season presents endless chances for friendly chatter. The two talk about golf, which Strasburg loves and Harper took up this winter. (He will not play during the season for fear of spoiling his baseball swing.) They chide one another about the basketball rivalry between San Diego State and UNLV, Strasburg’s alma mater and Harper’s hometown team.
Off the field, their differences arise more often than their similarities, usually in how their experiences shaped their reaction to fame.
From the time he reached Little League, Harper traveled across the country to play against kids older than him. During one tournament, he walked to the plate to face a kid one year his senior who ranked among the best in the country in his age group. A crowd flocked behind the chain-link backstop. With the game on the line, Harper blasted a homer over the eucalyptus trees beyond the right field fence.
He was 11.
“When he did that, you knew that something just was not normal about Bryce,” said Lorenzana, his coach at the time. “You kind of knew before, but that cemented it.”
Harper’s appearance, at 16, on the cover of Sports Illustrated exploded the attention around him. His decision to skip his junior year of high school to enter the draft a year early placed him under more pressure than he had — and still has — ever felt. By the time the Nationals drafted him, the maelstrom around him seemed normal.
“I didn’t embrace it, but I had to deal because I was at such a young age,” Harper said. “Everybody came and watched my team play, because we were the number one team in the country. I really had to try to impress them at such a young age. It was over and over again, at every single level.”
Strasburg matriculated through the youth baseball ranks under the radar. He attracted local attention, and big-time college programs such as Arizona State and Stanford recruited him. But his fastball sat around 90 mph, no major league teams drafted him and any sign he may have possessed all-time talent remained hidden. “Growing up, everybody thought I wasn’t good enough,” Strasburg said. “That was kind of the thing that kind of fueled the fire.”
As a sophomore at San Diego State, he started throwing 102-mph fastballs. One day, he started noticing bigger crowds gathering for his autograph than his coach — Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. When he was a junior, national media descended upon the campus. Autograph hounds followed the team bus back to the hotel.
Gwynn helped Strasburg handle the attention; Strasburg calls him “a father figure.” Also a natural introvert, Gwynn told Strasburg what his father had once told him: Would you rather hit .200 and nobody care, or be the best and take on the attention? His pitching coach still treated him like any other pitcher on staff, which he remains grateful for. The support system, though, could never make him grow comfortable. Unlike Harper, it all seemed too foreign.
“We’re, I guess, very different in how we handle it,” Strasburg said. “Let’s face it, Harp loves it. That’s what makes him a better player. He likes the attention. Myself, I’m more the type, I just want to go about my business. I don’t need to be in the center of everything. I think it’s just something that, it was hard for me early to deal with.”
Strasburg has grown increasingly at ease around teammates and reporters. “He’s one of the best guys to hang out with when he’s having a few . . . whatever you want to call it,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “He’s a normal guy.”
One day after a morning workout this spring, Strasburg sat in front of his locker. The question was put to him: What one quality of Harper’s would he like to make his own? “Huh,” he said, pondering how to answer for a beat.
“I’d say just the way he goes out there every single day and he plays like it’s his last game,” Strasburg said. “For me, I overlook that sometimes. . . . I’m a very analytical person. I think if I just go out there and just play the game and not really overanalyze, think too much, I think it could really help me out a lot.”
Another morning, as he ate a breakfast of Frosted Mini-Wheats, oatmeal, a banana and eggs over-easy, Harper was asked the same question about Strasburg.
“I’d love his arm,” Harper replied instantly. “That would be awesome.” He laughed, and then he paused.
“No, um. I mean, it’s kind of hard, because he’s a pitcher.” He paused again. “I’m not sure.”
Harper was told Strasburg’s answer. Harper saw the difference hinging on pitchers performing only once every few days — he can be freer, he figured, because he never has to worry about stewing over a bad game more than one day.
Harper went back to the question, thinking hard. He settled on Strasburg’s “mentality” before reversing — “I feel like I have that same mentality.” He said he would want every quality Strasburg possesses, but then would not settle for a copout.
“But seriously, I really wouldn’t change anything about myself,” Harper concluded. “So, I don’t know what I’d want from him.”
What Washington is about to witness has almost no precedent. Harper and Strasburg will become the first pair of teammates picked first overall to play together on opening day for the team that drafted them since Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez in 1996. It has never happened with a pitcher and a hitter. This is only the beginning.
“To hopefully have them play here until I’m an old guy?” Zimmerman said. “And I get to watch them?”
Zimmerman spoke like he knew how lucky he was. Like he could not wait to see what happened next.