Standing room only for Strasburg’s Nats’ debut
WASHINGTON – The anticipation is nearly over. The 21-year-old with the fastball that approaches 100 mph and the curve that freezes batters is about to take the mound in the nation’s capital.
Stephen Strasburg is set to make his Washington Nationals debut Tuesday night.
Standing room only tickets went on sale Monday, all part of a rare Nationals Park sellout. The Internet is humming with offers for good seats. More than 200 requests for media credentials have been submitted, forcing officials to turn a dining area into a work space to accommodate all those reporters with laptops.
For the Nationals, Strasburg’s major league debut is best summed up in one word.
“I’m looking forward to that first outing or two being out of the way,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “I know the attention’s not going to go away completely, but the anticipation of the thing has been building since the draft – and before the draft – last year.”
No one’s seen anything like it. A No. 1 overall pick who gets sellout, rock-star, hire-extra-security treatment in minor league cities such as Harrisburg and Rochester. It’s the type of overexposure usually reserved for top picks in the NFL or NBA.
The Nationals are actually having a decent year following back-to-back 100-losses seasons, but everything they’ve done has been overshadowed by talk about a player who didn’t have a locker in the clubhouse, whose debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates has been given its own baseball holiday nickname: “Strasmas.”
“He needs to take a step back, take a deep breath and kind of soak in the moment because you only debut once in your career. It’s a special day for him, also,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “We’re looking forward to getting back into a more normal routine with Stephen Strasburg as part of the Washington Nationals.”
That would be just fine with Strasburg. He has candidly stated on many occasions that his majors debut has been long overdue.
“I feel like I’ve been ready,” he said after his last minor league outing, five scoreless innings for Triple-A Syracuse at Buffalo last week.
There’s not much argument there. It was almost cruel to watch Strasburg overwhelm hitters in Double-A and Triple-A. His combined stats: 7-2 with a 1.30 ERA with 65 strikeouts and only 13 walks in 55 1-3 innings.
But money trumped wins, at least this year. Having already invested heavily in the right-hander from San Diego State with a record $15.1 million contract over four years, the Nationals wanted to save some dough down the road by calling Strasburg up after June 1, thus delaying by one year the eventual date when he will be eligible for arbitration.
Strasburg is also looking forward to normalcy because he’s not a limelight guy.
He usually doesn’t have much to say when the microphones are turned on, and the team has protected him by limiting his availability. He will sometimes let a reporter know if he doesn’t care for a question, which can both refreshing and embarrassing. Strasburg was married in January, but the Nationals have already announced that on Tuesday: “Strasburg’s family will NOT be available to media (no exceptions).”
Relief pitcher Drew Storen has been called the anti-Strasburg. Drafted nine places after his more famous teammates, Storen is on Twitter and always has time for an interview. At spring training, Strasburg seemed to have an invisible wall around him, while Storen once spent about 10 minutes with reporters discussing socks. Storen, called up to the majors a few weeks ago, jokes that he and Strasburg have “that Batman-Robin thing going on.”
Storen, therefore, doesn’t mind sharing the news: Strasburg does indeed have a pulse.
“He’s got a great personality – it’s just that he’s a very low-key guy,” Storen said. “And it’s not what you’d expect out of a guy like that. You expect a big-time talent to have a big-time personality and be this real outspoken guy, and he’s far from that. He’s a guy that will ask anybody questions and is willing to learn from anybody, and that’s the key to his success. … He’s got a different type personality than I do, but he’s got the right personality for the position he’s in.”
The toned-down persona hasn’t stopped the hype machine. Want to bet on how Strasburg’s going to do Tuesday? There are odds on whether his first pitch will be a ball or strike, how many innings he’ll last and nearly everything else in between. Nationals Park has been sold out only once so far this season – on opening day – but the thought that Strasburg might pitch drew the season’s second biggest crowd Friday against Cincinnati.
Strasburg’s thoughts about it all? Pretty straightforward.
“It’s my major league debut. What more can you say?” he said. “It’s something I’ve dreamed about my entire life, and now it’s starting to become a reality.”
At least Strasburg won’t have to wait long for the next phenom to come along. Baseball’s draft was set for Monday, and the Nationals again held the No. 1 overall pick. Soon, all eyes will be anticipating another big debut in the nation’s capital.
– AP sportswriters John Wawrow in Buffalo, N.Y., and John Kekis in Syracuse, N.Y.; and AP freelance writer Pete Kerzel in Washington contributed to this report.