They said they didn't expect him to be the savior of a franchise, yet shot off fireworks when he took the microphone. They said he was merely another piece of a plan to add talented young pitchers to their system but called his introductory news conference an opportunity for fans to witness "baseball history."
Whatever guideposts of restraint the Washington Nationals tried to lay in introducing No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg to the public Friday afternoon, the extravagance with which they did it sent another message. The former San Diego State right-hander, who Friday officially signed the largest contract ever given a draft pick, made his introduction to the District with all the trimmings of an inauguration week event.
Several hundred fans bought tickets and sat down the third-base line in stifling heat for the news conference, where Strasburg, general manager Mike Rizzo, team president Stan Kasten and agent Scott Boras took questions from reporters for about 25 minutes.
There were not one but two highlight videos during the proceedings. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was asked to show up early to pose for pictures with Strasburg, hand him a No. 37 jersey and say a few words. The Nationals threw T-shirts into the stands when Strasburg was introduced, and fans responded every time Rizzo or Kasten hit on an "applause line" when answering reporters' questions.
Ordinary news conference, this was not. And yet Strasburg, the 21-year-old with the Mach 1 fastball and dive-bombing slider, handled it all with utter calm.
Since he pitched on the U.S. Olympic team last summer and attracted national attention with his sensational junior season, Strasburg has been interviewed by almost every major media outlet. He has signed so many autographs that his college coach, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, took a back seat with fans. And he sat in silence with his family Monday night while Boras and Rizzo raced against the clock to hammer out the final points of his four-year, $15.1 million deal.
This was just a final feting before he heads to the team's spring training facility in Viera, Fla., to throw simulated games, live in cramped quarters and ready his arm for a fall-ball slate that could be the run-up to his major league debut next spring. Strasburg took it all in stride and said all the right things.
"I consider myself to be a humble person," he said. "I try to manage the highs and the lows and not get too greedy out there, because I've learned in playing baseball that if you think you're the greatest, then it's going to humble you real quick."
The news conference was the centerpiece of a whirlwind day for Strasburg that included lunch with interim manager Jim Riggleman and several Nationals coaches, time in the clubhouse and another, smaller interview session with Boras and reporters. Finally, he was introduced to the Nationals Park crowd, which included several thousand fans who bought $1 tickets to commemorate the No. 1 pick's arrival.
His demeanor left an impression on most of the players, who saw how eager Strasburg is to get going.
"He seemed like he's a good kid," Zimmerman said. "He said he's glad it's over with so he can start playing baseball, which is a good answer. I think the important thing is, he doesn't put himself in a position where everyone thinks he's not going to give up a hit ever. He's a great talent; it's going to be exciting to watch him develop and hopefully get here soon."
Said right-hander Craig Stammen: "What's weird was watching him on TV. He's very mature, and he's in such a limelight that he seems like he's older than I am. I think back to when I got drafted, how immature I was and stuff. But he's a special talent, and we're glad to have him in the organization - because he can only make us better."
Strasburg is slated to be in the District the rest of the weekend, meeting fans at a season-ticket holder picnic Saturday before heading to Florida and readying for the Arizona Fall League. It could be the last time he's in the District until he makes his major league debut.
But Strasburg left an impression Friday - as much by what he did to handle the circus the Nationals created as by the circus itself.
"He has a level of maturity that, for a man his age, you typically don't see," said hitting coach Rick Eckstein, who coached Strasburg in the Olympics last year. "He didn't need people pushing him. He pushed himself. He possesses a lot of qualities you're looking for. His work ethic speaks for itself."