Stephen Strasburg era has arrived
Nationals phenom has plenty of attention on him during his first spring in the majors
VIERA, Fla. -- The Stephen Strasburg era began Sunday with a wind sprint on a back field, 41 years to the day after the great Ted Williams signed a five-year deal to manage the Washington Senators. Sitting in a golf cart maybe 100 feet from Strasburg was the man in camp who perhaps knows Strasburg best and can best appreciate what he is facing as a pitching prodigy. Davey Johnson, a special assistant for the Nationals, was all smiles.
"I told Rigs [Nationals manager Jim Riggleman] not to get a good look at him here, he'll love him, he'll want to take him north for Opening Day,'' said Johnson, who managed Strasburg on the U.S. Olympic team in Beijing. "With pitchers, you look for stuff, the ability to throw strikes and poise. He has them all. On the Olympic team, I just tried not to screw it up. I started him against the Dutch team. He had a no-hitter after six innings. I thought, 'What am I going to do?' Luckily, he gave up a hit in the seventh, and I got him out of there.''
The Nationals undoubtedly will be extra cautious with Strasburg. He almost certainly will start the season in the minor leagues, and likely won't pitch for Washington until June, if then. But from all indications, he has the stuff to pitch in the big leagues right now. He also has tremendous maturity for a 21-year-old. He is shy, quiet and respectful of everyone around him, especially his teammates, saying, "I understand my place.'' He understood his place with the Olympic team, too.
"He was the only college guy on the team,'' Johnson said. "The Triple-A guys we had were all over him all the time, they called him 'college boy' and everything else. But it was like water rolling off of his back.''
Strasburg was bothered by a minor knee injury in the Arizona Fall League, but said he is now 100 percent, saying "my arm feels great.'' He did all the right things Sunday, including throwing an impressive bullpen session that drew a huge crowd at the Nationals' spring training facility.
"Did you see him?'' Nats pitching coach Steve McCatty excitedly asked a member of the front office. "Did you see the way the ball came out of his hand?''
Strasburg said all the right things, too. When asked about a timetable to get to the big leagues, he said that was up to the Nationals.
"I'll go wherever they send me, and answer the bell when it rings,'' he said.
He talked genuinely, not in some contrived way. He was without pretense, despite already being called "The Franchise" and "The Savior" by fans in Washington.
"It's pretty funny,'' Strasburg said, "[Center fielder] Nyjer Morgan called me 'Jesus.'''
To understand how to deal with a phenom, one must have dealt with a phenom. Riggleman and Johnson have. Johnson managed Dwight Gooden in his major league debut.
"The first time I saw him, he was a skinny 17-year-old, the first pitch he threw was 95 mph,'' Johnson said. "I said, 'How do you grip your fastball?' He said, 'I grip it with the seams to get a little giddy-up, and across the seams to make it go left and right.' I said, 'That works for me.' We were debating whether to send him to high-A ball or low-A. I told our guys, 'That stuff is going to work at any level.' They told me, 'We don't want him to struggle.' I said, 'Struggle? He's going to dominate!' I think he struck out 300 that year.''
The Mets debated bringing Gooden to the major leagues the next year, but he dominated there at age 19.
"They were so worried because we had Tim Leary the year before, he made his major league debut in Chicago in the cold, and he blew out his arm,'' Johnson said. "I told our guys, 'Don't worry, don't worry, I'll protect him.' The first start he made was in Houston indoors at 70 degrees. He threw five great innings. And the rest is history.''
Riggleman's history is with former Cubs prodigy Kerry Wood, but the circumstances were much different than with Strasburg. When the Cubs drafted Wood, they knew he had a ligament issue in his right elbow, but he was so good, they had to draft him anyway and hope for the best. His recall to the big leagues in 1998 came after reliever Bob Patterson, the only left-hander in his bullpen, sprained his ankle, forcing Terry Mulholland to go to the bullpen. The day Wood reported, he wore a protective sleeve on his right elbow -- not a good sign.
"He was younger than Strasburg is now, and he had already pitched in the minor leagues,'' said Riggleman, who was then the Cubs' manager. "We weren't clamoring to bring him up. We were in the middle of the pennant race when he came up. We couldn't baby him as much as we would've liked because we were trying to make the playoffs.''
Wood did some spectacular things, including striking out 20 in one game in his rookie season, a season in which he struck out 233 in only 166 2/3 innings.
"The criticism I received,'' Riggleman said, "was taking him [out] too early in games. I'd take him out after six innings with 13 strikeouts. It was a mental boost for the other team when he came out of a game.''
Wood missed the next season with an elbow injury, and made 30 starts as a Cub only two other seasons in his career. Maybe his delivery made him predisposed to injury, but that does not appear to be the case with Strasburg. His motion is fluid, not violent. Still, the Nationals will do everything they can to make sure they don't rush him. They signed Strausburg to a four-year, $15.1 million deal last summer, and their goal this spring is to keep him healthy.
The Nationals won't be in a pennant race this year. Their bigger plan starts in 2011 with a rotation that could include Strasburg with potentially 15 major league starts under his belt, Chien-Ming Wang, John Lannan, Jason Marquis and a healthy Jordan Zimmerman. Their plans all start and end with Strasburg, and it all began on a sunny day in Viera.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.
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