Facing monumental expectations
Time for No. 1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg to show the world what he can do
Stephen Strasburg has yet to throw a pitch in the major leagues, and he's already standing on the steps of Cooperstown, thanking his parents, his Little League coach and the clubhouse attendants for their support. There's a statue outside Nationals Park in his honor, and his new cologne, energy drink and sports apparel line are flying off the shelves.
This is how it works in the modern era: Strike out 195 batters in 109 innings in your final college season, flash 102 mph on the radar gun, hire Scott Boras as your "adviser" and sign for a record bonus, and 10-15 years of greatness are laid out neatly before you, like a freshly pressed suit.
All that's left now is for Strasburg to actually perform. The Nationals assigned him to Double-A Harrisburg on March 20, but it will come as no surprise to anyone if he's in Washington soon to make a run at the rookie of the year award. The kid is a heck of a gifted ballplayer -- when he's not rescuing kittens from trees, helping out at the soup kitchen and doing his part to save the world from nuclear proliferation.
"His makeup is outstanding," said Washington manager Jim Riggleman. "He's a gentleman, he's humble, and he's handled every request we've made of him. He's done everything you can do."
His biggest challenge now is ending up on the right side of history.
No player chosen first in the draft is a Hall of Famer yet, but Ken Griffey Jr. is a lock, Chipper Jones is close, Joe Mauer is well on his way, and Adrian Gonzalez and Justin Upton certainly have the potential. Alex Rodriguez will also make it to Cooperstown provided the voters don't hold that little steroids transgression against him for eternity.
In addition, lots of top picks have enjoyed solid, productive careers. Harold Baines made six All-Star teams and amassed 2,866 career hits. B.J. Surhoff and Monday played 19 seasons in the majors, and Shawon Dunston stuck around for 18. Pitchers Floyd Bannister, Mike Moore, Tim Belcher and Andy Benes were durable, reliable and occasionally spectacular while combining for 596 wins and 598 losses. And Jeff Burroughs, Bob Horner, Jeff King, Phil Nevin, Darin Erstad and Pat Burrell all had their moments.
But the landscape is also strewn with players who, for a variety of reasons, failed to live up to their potential. Brien Taylor hurt his shoulder in a fight and never pitched in the big leagues. Matt Anderson allegedly hurt his arm in an octopus-throwing contest. Al Chambers, Danny Goodwin and Matt Bush were busts. And the Mets used their five No. 1 picks on Darryl Strawberry, Paul Wilson, Tim Foli, Shawn Abner and Steve Chilcott.
As baseball fans in Washington wait breathlessly for their savior, the reminiscences of other top picks might prove instructive to Strasburg, the Nationals and all those hopeful fans who expect him to be a runaway success from day one. It doesn't always work out that way.
Once in a lifetime? Not exactly
Long before Strasburg arrived on the scene at San Diego State, there were Floyd Bannister, Ben McDonald, Kris Benson, Paul Wilson and Mark Prior (who went second in the draft behind Joe Mauer in 2001). They were all hailed as the Next Big Thing.
"There are a lot of guys who were ahead of the class. 'Here is No. 1, draw a line, and then there's everybody else,'" said former New York Mets general manager Joe McIlvaine. "Strasburg is certainly good, but he's not the first one who's ever been in that position."
McIlvaine was in charge in New York when the Mets drafted Wilson out of Florida State in 1994. As McIlvaine recalls, the Seminoles' coaching staff had Wilson throwing from a slightly lower arm angle so that he could induce more ground balls in the team's smallish home park. When Wilson made his professional debut in the Gulf Coast League at age 21, the Mets wanted him to throw from a higher angle in classic power-pitcher mode.
The Mets' big mistake was saddling Wilson with too onerous a workload. He threw 192 innings between college and the minor leagues in 1994, and followed up with 186 innings in 1995. That sound you hear is farm directors throughout baseball grinding their teeth.
The Nationals can delay Strasburg's salary arbitration and free agency a year by calling him up in June rather than April, but the economic ramifications are only part of the reason for letting him get acclimated in the minors.
"It's an awfully big risk to take with such a high dollar investment, and teams are going to err on the side of caution with those No. 1 picks -- especially the No. 1 picks with the big arms," Chipper Jones said. "I think if it was a position player and they showed physically and mentally they were ready, it might be different. The guys with the billion-dollar arms, they're going to be especially careful with."
There's no shame in struggling
In a recent Grapefruit League outing against St. Louis, Strasburg allowed solo home runs to Tyler Greene and Allen Craig in a span of 11 pitches. He quickly recovered, and struck out eight batters in four innings.
It might benefit him to endure a little more of that. Strasburg dominated Mountain West Conference competition at San Diego State, but it's a quantum leap from facing Air Force and New Mexico to Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Hanley Ramirez. Tim Lincecum deftly handled the transition from the Pac-10 to the big leagues, but even he made 13 minor league starts before graduating to the Giants' starting rotation.
“Lincecum has two Cy Young Awards in his back pocket at age 25. But what happens if his velocity dips 3-4 mph and he starts getting whacked around a little bit? He'll be entering uncharted territory.
As a No. 1 draft choice, I thought I was supposed to be perfect -- hit a home run every time up and throw out everybody who tried to steal. I wasn't doing that, so I thought I was failing.” -- Former Padres No. 1 pick Mike Ivie
"A pitcher or a player who's never had a hard time comes to the big leagues at a disadvantage," McIlvaine said. "You need to get your ears pinned back once or twice. That's very important in development. You can't experience the first failure of your life in front of 50,000 people on national TV. That's the advantage of the minor leagues. You want to have a game or two where you get knocked around a little bit. That's good for you."
When Jones hit .229 for the Gulf Coast League Braves as an 18-year-old, some Atlanta fans wondered if the team botched it by drafting him first ahead of Todd Van Poppel. Jones took the criticism as a challenge rather than a personal affront, and it helped bring out the competitive spirit that's sustained him through 16 major league seasons.
"It never entered my mind that I wasn't going to play in the big leagues," Jones said. "It was something that motivated me to go home and completely go crazy over the game of baseball and immerse myself in it. I wanted to prove that the next year when I came back, I was going to be well on my way."
Arizona outfielder Justin Upton, who had to deal with the scrutiny of being B.J.'s younger brother and a top overall pick, similarly recommitted himself to the game after hitting .263 with South Bend of the Midwest League in 2006.
"I didn't play the way I thought I should play, and I was pretty hard on myself," Upton said. "It wasn't my best year, and it was noticeable. It just made me go into the next offseason looking to work harder and get better. That first year is really a feeling-out process to let you know where you stand and what you have to work on."
Tune out the static
Times have changed since 1990, when Jones signed as the top overall pick with the Braves. Baseball America, the Atlanta papers and Jones' hometown media in Jacksonville, Fla., were in a frenzy, but it was nothing compared to Strasburg mania.
"The microscope is a hundred times bigger now," Jones said. "I had some print press, but everybody knows this kid's face. Everybody knows his whole bio. In the information age, with ESPN and the MLB Network, it's impossible for you to go under the radar anymore. His starts from now until he's 10 starts into his major league career are all going to be on TV."
Of course, the information overload isn't confined to baseball phenoms. Tim Tebow can't simply leave the University of Florida campus and enter the NFL draft. He has to rework his throwing motion, unveil it for scouts at the Senior Bowl, perform at the NFL combine, have the results of his Wonderlic test leaked to the media, watch his college coach verbally attack a reporter while defending his honor and then debate whether he wants to actually attend the draft in New York.
With the exception of a Tiger Woods here and a LeBron James and a Brett Favre there, few athletes can generate sustained interest of that magnitude. If this comes as any consolation to Strasburg, the attention will wane a bit unless he's incredibly good or amazingly bad.
"Sooner or later [catcher] Bryce Harper or somebody else will be No. 1, and they'll get the hype," Riggleman said. "Stephen will have to deal with it for a while. But sooner or later, there'll be another wunderkind."
A good support system is vital
No player symbolizes the pressure that a No. 1 pick faces more than Georgia high school catcher Mike Ivie, baseball's top pick in 1970. Shortly after the Padres drafted him, Ivie visited San Diego for a workout. When he made an errant throw to the pitcher's mound during batting practice, veteran Chris Cannizzaro responded with a snide comment at his expense. Ivie, mortified, developed a case of the yips similar to what Mackey Sasser, Dale Murphy and several other catchers later experienced. He went on to play 11 seasons in the majors, but gave up catching and was generally regarded as a disappointment.
"As a No. 1 draft choice, I thought I was supposed to be perfect -- hit a home run every time up and throw out everybody who tried to steal," Ivie said in an interview years later. "I wasn't doing that, so I thought I was failing."
That's an extreme response, of course, but it's only natural for top picks to feel some extra scrutiny because of the attention, the money and the expectations.
Andy Benes, drafted first overall out of Evansville in 1988, logged 21 starts in the minors before joining the big club in August of '89. In hindsight, Benes feels fortunate that he pitched on a staff with Bruce Hurst, Ed Whitson, Dennis Rasmussen and Craig Lefferts -- veterans who had his best interests at heart, welcomed him to the fold and helped ease his comfort level. The Nationals have to hope that veterans Jason Marquis and Livan Hernandez can provide a similar service to Strasburg in Washington.
It's all about the baseball
The changing economic landscape has clearly raised the stakes. Benes, who retired in 2002 with a career record of 155-139, received a then-record $235,000 bonus from the Padres 22 years ago. Strasburg, in comparison, signed a four-year, $15.1 million deal with Washington.
"It's funny. I remember looking at my wife after I signed and saying, 'It doesn't matter what else I do in life. We are set [financially],'" Benes said.
"Once the season begins and he starts pitching, it will be more about how he's throwing and the results than everybody saying, 'He got paid a lot of money to sign and he was the No. 1 pick,'" Benes said. "I don't think anybody will expect more from him than he does from himself. That's what makes the elite guys want to pitch at the highest level.
"My advice to him would be, 'You can't be everything to everyone. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Respect the game, your teammates and the opposition. Do what you can do, work hard to be prepared physically and mentally, and you can put your head on the pillow and sleep at night.' That's the way I always looked at it."
Combine old-fashioned values and a pitching arm for the ages, and there's no telling what might happen. Stephen Strasburg's professional journey begins shortly in Harrisburg, Pa. Where and when it ends -- and how he'll be remembered -- is strictly up to him.
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