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An oral history of Stephen Strasburg’s unforgettable MLB debut

Stephen Strasburg tips his hat to the crowd after making his major league debut in 2010. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)
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On June 8, 2010, Stephen Strasburg made what might have been the most highly anticipated debut in Major League Baseball history. In the decade since, Strasburg has undergone Tommy John surgery, been withheld from the playoffs by his own team, developed into a three-time all-star, signed two new contracts to remain a Washington National for life and earned MVP honors when the Nats won the World Series in October.

But Strasburg’s debut stands out as a seminal moment in the arc of baseball in Washington. The last-place Nats sold out Nationals Park for what was billed as “Strasmas.” A Tuesday night against the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates became a marquee event, with MLB Network broadcasting the game nationally.

Strasburg delivered. Before that night, no pitcher had struck out as many as 14 hitters without walking any in his big league debut. That’s what Strasburg did against Pittsburgh in a 5-2 victory for the Nationals.

As the 10th anniversary of his first start approaches Monday, many of those involved took a moment to remember.

Before the draft

In many ways, the anticipation began building a full year in advance. Because the Nationals had finished 2008 with the worst record in baseball (59-102), they held the first pick in the 2009 draft.

Kris Kline, Nationals scout 2006-09, scouting director 2010-present: If you’re picking 1-1, you’re going, “I got to get this right.” But this was very easy. There wasn’t that other guy near him.

The first time I saw him, it was Jan. 17, 2009. It was a preseason look, just three innings. He was 94 to 100 [mph] and pitched at 98 [mph] with a power breaking ball and limited use of his change-up that was above average also. But being there was kind of a formality. He was the best guy in the country, the one guy that had truly separated himself from the pack. “Rizz” was with me.

Mike Rizzo, Nationals assistant general manager 2006-09, general manager 2009-present: I learned everything I need to in my preliminary look.

Kline: After the first inning, I looked at Rizz and said, “Are you good?” And he goes, “Yeah, I’m good.”

Rizzo: I saw him three times. The second time, there were like 100 scouts there. The last time, it was later in the season, and there were a lot fewer guys. Some heavy-hitter decision-makers, but at that point and if you’re picking eighth, you’re not even there to see him any more because it was clear: He wasn’t going to be around. And that last time I saw him, he threw a no-hitter.

Scott Boras, Strasburg’s agent: I was there. Rizz gave me a nod, and I gave Rizz a nod. We both kind of knew.

On June 9, 2009, the Nationals selected Strasburg with the first pick in the draft. They had a deadline of midnight Aug. 17 to sign him. Rizzo was still the interim general manager.

Rizzo: Stan [Kasten, the Nationals’ president from 2006 to 2010] was my adviser, and I handled every negotiation with Scott. There was some pressure that he may not sign, because it’s happened before. And the early numbers that were being thrown out were historic — $50 million and that type of thing. You take that with a grain of salt.

Boras: About three days after that no-hitter, someone wrote an article saying Strasburg was asking for $50 million. I go, “Who in the right mind is suggesting that?” If it was outlandish, they would have said $25 million. But the no-hitter made them suggest $50 million? As great a pitcher as he is, that wasn’t where we were going.

John Dever, Expos/Nationals senior director of media relations 2004-14: There was this strange void as you’re waiting for this comet to arrive. You don’t know exactly when it’s going to come.

Strasburg: I was a little nervous that it might not get done.

Rizzo: You can’t do a deal that’s going to handcuff your organization for years to come. On that last night, I was on the phone with Scott. Stan and I are in the office. We’re grinding away, and the deal was finished literally seconds before the deadline. Until we pressed enter and it was sent into the league office, it wasn’t done. It was close.

Strasburg signed a four-year deal worth $15.1 million, the most ever guaranteed to a draftee.

Dever: We didn’t have a lot to point towards then. So once we signed him, we had a special signing ceremony on the left field line [Aug. 21]. We had an emcee. I coerced Ryan Zimmerman, as the first draft pick in club history, to bless the whole thing. We invited in a bunch of season ticket holders. But even that was an interesting exercise. If I was a player on the 2009 Nationals and I see this pomp and circumstance that we’re trying to organize on behalf of a player that hadn’t arrived yet and we did it right in front of them, I could see getting offended.

Drew Storen, Nationals reliever 2010-15, selected No. 10 overall in 2009: I remember when we went down to the Arizona Fall League [in 2009], I was like, “I want to see what this is all about.” It was one of those things, right? A lot of guys were looking for a reason to be like, “He’s not that good.” So I went to watch his bullpen before his first start. It was next level. It was like video-game stuff. Everybody was shellshocked.

Bob Costas, Hall of Fame broadcaster: None of us could recall — and can’t remember an example since — where the buildup to a player’s debut was quite like that. It’s different in the NFL or NBA because the guy could be a Heisman Trophy winner or a star in college that everybody knew. It was different in baseball.

Becoming a professional

“It was a big shock for me, coming all the way across the country and going into pro ball,” Strasburg said. “It was all just a whirlwind.”

Rizzo: The tricky part of it was, you never had a player that young in major league spring training that you had to really wrap your arms around security for him. It was really kind of a unique situation. People always wanted a piece of him. It’s a fickle business. You sign 100 autographs, and the 101st guy feels left out. We had to really navigate those waters.

Dever: We had to really learn about Stephen in real time. I went to the Arizona Fall League that year with him, which I think was unique, just to facilitate his interviews and see his routines. The next year in spring training, the onslaught, if you will, really started. After a lot of discussion and batting it back and forth, we decided we were going to be incredibly protective of him and his time. A lot of it came down to he was just so routine oriented.

Strasburg: I think the organization did their best to contain it. It was a challenge, for sure. Honestly, I was at kind of the beginning of the MLB Network [which went on the air in 2009], and now it’s just overkill to where it’s like every single prospect that comes up, it’s like: Boom! Here’s his debut and this and that. That’s all great, but I think it creates this false, like, sense of you made it.

Dever: There were requests coming in from all sectors of media — entertainment stuff, national news, ESPN, Dan Patrick. There wasn’t any aspect of the media landscape that didn’t want to get some time with Stephen. But we needed to protect him.

Storen: In spring training, we would have to do the walk down to the minor league side down the road [where most of the workout fields were], and Stras would have to take the golf cart. He would get worn out by the veteran guys, but it was like, “He has to do this.” Fans just walked right beside us, and that just wouldn’t work with him.

Jim Riggleman, Nationals manager 2009-11: When he came into spring training, he just was really advanced. He threw strikes. … As soon as he is out there firing, the guys would come off the field, the middle infielders and the catcher, they’re just kind of looking at me rolling their eyes like: “Oh, my God. These are major league hitters that he’s making look bad up here.”

Matt Capps, Nationals closer, 2010: Just watching him throw live BP in spring training removed any doubt you might have.

Kasten: After his first bullpen in spring training in Viera, [pitching coach Steve] McCatty was standing behind him on the mound, and Rizzo and I and 100 media people were standing behind the catcher. When it’s over, Pudge [Hall of Famer Iván Rodríguez], who was catching him, slowly gets up, turns around, takes his mask off and with a big smile on his face looks at Rizz and goes, “Good job, Mike.”

Riggleman: The decision was made before spring training: This is how we’re going to handle him. I can assure you it wasn’t any kind of service time issue or anything like that. It was just a matter of we were not destined to be a playoff team. So let’s really be conservative. Let’s really be careful how we bring him along.

Rizzo: We’ve never been an organization to hold back on players if we think they’re ready for the big leagues. But there’s nuances of pitching that you really don’t go over when you’re dominating lineups. In college, when there’s not many people on base, he didn’t pitch from the stretch all that often. He had to hold runners and field his position and learn bunt plays with the bat. It’s just player development.

Capps: When we broke camp and he wasn’t with us, there was a lot of talk that this guy needed to be here, in the big leagues. I mean, we certainly understood the business part, the development part, but we wanted him up.

Riggleman: Guys like Pudge were lobbying for him to make the club. He’s catching him. He’s like, “Hey, this guy’s got to be with us.” My answer was always: “He will be soon. Won’t be long. There’s a plan in place.”

To start the season, the Nationals sent Strasburg to Class AA Harrisburg.

Kasten: We always have one preseason game in Washington, and we toyed with letting him pitch that game before he went down to the minors. But we decided not to. You do that sometimes. You take a hot prospect and give him a little taste of the big leagues before the season.

Randy Knorr, a former catcher who was the manager at Harrisburg in 2010: When I talk to players, I always try to put myself in their shoes and think about how they feel. With him, there was no way I could do that. I wasn’t the overall No. 1 pick in the draft. I tried my damnedest to figure out what he’s going through, but there was no way. God, I felt bad for Stephen.

Rizzo: Everywhere he pitched was a security nightmare. Harrisburg and places like that, those stadiums are not meant to have 200 media people in attendance. Everywhere he went, the place was way sold-out-plus-plus, and so we really had to worry about his safety.

Knorr: His first start was in Altoona, [Pa.] It’s Opening Day, and he’s out there throwing in the bullpen, which is on the field. He’s on the third base side going from the outfield toward the plate, and all of a sudden, all these TV cameras start going behind the catcher. I’m saying, “Get these guys off the field,” but I didn’t want to stop what he was doing because it’s his first start and he’s getting ready for the game.

So I walk over and kind of say, “How you doing?” And he’s like, “Man, this is unbelievable.” I said: “Why don’t you airmail one? [Jhonatan] Solano’s catching, so it wouldn’t even have to be that high to get it over his head.” [Solano is 5-foot-9.] He’s like, “I can’t do that.” “You can do whatever you want.” He had so much going on around him, it was unbelievable.

Storen: When we got to [Class AAA] Syracuse, we went from 300 people one night to 13,000 the next night because he was pitching. It was just like, “Man, this is crazy.”

Knorr: Every night, even games that he didn’t pitch, people were all over the place. We had a grounds crew guy who kind of looked like him some. We’d get him dressed up with a hat and load him on one of those little utility vehicles that the grounds crew uses, and he’d take off from the clubhouse, and we’d say it was Stephen, and the fans would follow him off in whatever direction it went, and then we’d have Stephen walk through to his car. If we didn’t do that, people would follow him home. I said: “Stephen, I’m trying to help you. I don’t know what to do.” It was tough.

Strasburg made five starts for Harrisburg and six for Syracuse, going 7-2 with a 1.30 ERA, 65 strikeouts and 13 walks in 55⅓ innings.

Riggleman: Probably a week before he came up, we would have had a conversation that said: “Okay, he’ll be pitching against the Pirates on this particular night at home because he’ll be on his normal five-day rotation. He’ll have four days’ rest. It’ll be perfectly aligned.” … He just dominated enough early on that there was no holding him back. It became obvious to [farm director] Doug [Harris] and everybody else that we got to get him up here.

June 8, 2010

The Nationals entered the game 27-31 and in last place in the National League East, which is where they had finished in four of their first five seasons in Washington. To that point in the season, the Nationals were averaging 21,560 fans for home games. A sellout crowd of 40,315 filed in for Strasburg’s debut.

Kasten: Probably to this day, it was the most anticipation ever for any rookie’s debut.

Dever: We didn’t get a lot of attention. When Nationals Park opened [in 2008], we finished in last place three straight years. You had [Zimmerman’s walk-off] home run to open it up on “Sunday Night Baseball,” and then no one came for three years in terms of writers and media. [That night] we had so much media, it was like the equivalent of [a National League Championship Series] game.

Kasten: By the time we worked out the schedule and when we thought he would be ready to come up — not just ability-wise but his ability to handle the crowd and the game-day atmosphere — we found out it was going to be on the MLB Network, which was good. … This had national significance. There wasn’t anybody in the world of baseball that wasn’t watching this game.

Storen: I remember being like, “Man, is he nervous?” He’s a quiet guy anyway, and he really never looked for the spotlight at all. I look over at the couch, and he’s watching Animal Planet. I’m like, “I think he’s all right.”

Riggleman: I probably said something I said generally to any pitcher making his debut. Which was, “How far is that mound from home plate in the minor leagues?” And they always say, “60 feet 6 inches.” And I’d say: “Well that’s good. Because that’s what it is here, so you’re going to be fine.”

John Russell, Pirates manager: When we got to the stadium that night, you could kind of sense the buzz. We got to the stadium that night, and here comes Bob Costas and John Smoltz, and now it’s nationally televised. You knew it was going to be a pretty big night.

Costas: During the broadcast, I mentioned that I had researched the debuts of Hall of Fame pitchers, and there was nothing like this. Sometimes they debuted before a small crowd. Sometimes they debuted in relief before they even established themselves as starters. … And because his career coincided with the explosion of cable television — I mean, ESPN was already well established, of course, but the MLB Network was only about a year old.

Capps: I remember McCatty walking out to the bullpen with him before the game and him telling Stras: “Okay, be ready because they’re going to go nuts when we walk out. I’ve gotten used to it by now — they always go nuts when I walk out.” Cat had a way of cutting through the tension.

Kasten: I’ve been around some World Series, and it was a World Series atmosphere in the park that night.

Capps: It was very comparable to playing in the playoffs. There were people there early. The buzz around town — you heard it on the radio, everywhere you went.

Boras: The first pitch, there’s just an “Ooh.” Second pitch: “Ooh.” I’m going, “My God, when have I ever experienced that?” There was a silence before every pitch, and then he’d throw it, and you’d hear that “Ooh.”

Russell: We were definitely in a transition stage in Pittsburgh. We didn’t feel like we had a lot coming. We had Andrew McCutchen coming. We had Neil Walker coming. Other than that, we really didn’t have much.

Riggleman: It was a good team for him to be pitching against. Looked like a club he should be comfortable pitching against.

Russell: Going into that game, we knew it was going to be a huge challenge to face a guy like that. It was kind of like if you prepare for a Chris Sale or you prepare for a Roger Clemens back in my day or a Nolan Ryan — one of the top arms in the league. You knew it’s going to be a grind, and this is one of those games where you got to stay in it and stay close and hope something goes your way.

In the first inning, Strasburg got McCutchen to line weakly to shortstop, forced Walker to ground out to first baseman Adam Dunn and struck out Lastings Milledge — all indicators that he had good stuff.

Capps: You felt it right away.

Russell: I remember that night, he had a good breaking ball going. Change-up was pretty good. The dominance that you have in a pitcher’s arm like that, if you can throw your secondary [pitches], I don’t care what team you face. You’re going to be extremely tough to hit. … We were telling our hitters, “Let’s see what he’s featuring as far as command, and we’ll go from there.” Obviously, his command wasn’t too bad.

Riggleman: Now it’s just a matter of … is he going to be able to control that energy? He just did. He kind of came out of the blocks composed and controlled his emotions and just let it fly. It became immediately obvious: He’s going to be able to handle this major league lineup here.

Zimmerman homered in the bottom half to give the Nationals a 1-0 lead. Through three innings, Strasburg had allowed only one hit and struck out six.

Russell: We got down, and we actually took the lead in the fourth when Delwyn Young hit the two-run homer. There was a little bit of breath like: “Okay, we can get this guy. He’s not invincible.”

Kasten: There was a little letdown early on: the two-run homer. It was like, “Welcome to the big leagues.” But it didn’t faze him at all.

Costas: We were talking to Riggleman before the game, and I think his pitch limit was going to be 90. … You got the feeling they were really babying him and that 90 was a number that, if not set in stone, was close to set in stone.

Russell: I think he started to feel the excitement. I think the fans got behind it even more. He started striking some people out. The energy level, I think he felt it.

Storen: For me, it was still kind of new, but I could tell just judging by the reactions of the guys in the bullpen, like: “This is crazy. You don’t understand. This is not the norm.”

In the sixth, Strasburg struck out McCutchen, Walker and Milledge on 11 pitches to bring his total to 81. In the bottom of the inning, Dunn and Josh Willingham hit back-to-back homers to put the Nationals up 4-2.

Riggleman: He got on such a roll that we could see, you know what? At the risk of his health, he looks fine to throw another inning. I think we had McCatty and the trainer let Rizzo know that we’re thinking about sending him out for the seventh. Rizzo was like: “Oh, yeah. Definitely. Let him go.” So he went seven. He was minimizing his pitches so much and controlling the game so well that we sent him back out.

Costas: Riggleman and McCatty, I think, had a sense of the drama playing out. It would have been just wrong to go and get him when he hit 90. They had the sense to let him finish the inning, and he ended it with a flourish.

Dever: It was like an encore at a great concert.

Rizzo: It was the draft. The night before, we took Bryce Harper [with the first pick]. But we were all insulated in the draft room with all the [front-office members and scouts], like we do. And you could hear the crowd from the draft room.

Dever: Every strikeout, it was just a crescendo. The noise from the fans just kept rising. It was like good music, and you just kept turning it up.

Storen: Once it started rolling, we all were just fanboys as well. I just remember we would peek back at one of the TVs above the bullpen, and we were all just laughing. “Oh, my God, that really just happened.”

Kline: I remember taking a break and walking out and standing on the concrete platform behind home plate there.

Rizzo: I let the guys escape, and a couple of us manned the draft by ourselves for a little bit. They went up to that Delta Club level so they could watch. They got their guy out there, and they’re like proud papas.

Kline: [Nationals owner] Mark Lerner was standing next to me, and Stephen was dealing, and the energy level kept getting higher and higher. I kind of grabbed Mark Lerner by the arm, and I said, “This is what it’s all about.” And he just smiled.

Rizzo: I did not see one live pitch from him that whole game.

Strasburg struck out Garrett Jones to start the seventh. He then sat down Young and Andy LaRoche on three pitches apiece. His final line: seven innings, four hits, two runs, no walks, 14 strikeouts. Just two pitchers had posted more strikeouts in their debuts — Houston’s J.R. Richard and Brooklyn’s Karl Spooner, both with 15.

Costas: He struck out the last seven he faced. I mean, wow.

Kasten: I was walking around the ballpark, like I always do. But I remember his 14th strikeout and just pumping my fist because we were witnessing something special.

Riggleman: There’s no question he could have gone nine that day. But we were stretching it to go seven, so we didn’t push it further than that.

Tyler Clippard pitched a scoreless eighth, and Capps threw a 1-2-3 ninth for the save and a 5-2 victory.

Capps: I gave him the ball I kept from the save. When we walked through the handshake line, I handed it to him. But I went and got another one of the game balls from [clubhouse attendant Mike Wallace]. I’ve got it in my basement. It’s in a little case in my basement. I only kept a few: my first save, my first win. But I did hold on to that one.

Costas: It’s often said that, more often than not, the reality doesn’t match the hype. Here, it exceeded it. … No one walked away from that night thinking anything else except, “This guy is the real deal.” There was a huge payoff.

Dever: That was really the opening of Nationals Park in my mind and kind of showed the potential of what the Nationals franchise could be. The performance was instantaneous, but for baseball people, you could kind of look inside and see what you had. You could kind of squint and picture where this thing could go in coming years.

Riggleman: It felt great that here’s this young guy we can build around. It was starting to look like the makings of a major league rotation.

Rizzo: It was a proud moment for the franchise. It was a proud moment for what Stan had brought me in there for. We based this thing on scouting and player development. We built it from the bottom up. And that night, you could see it coming. You could really see it coming.