FORT WORTH, Texas | The Washington Nationals’ biggest ambassador of hope was here last week, wearing a different uniform, pitching for a different team, dazzling scouts and fans eating Frito pie alike, leafing through hitters as if they were items in a catalog and completely preoccupying himself with everything but his future employer.
It was the second time all year Stephen Strasburg had pitched east of the Mountain time zone, and as the San Diego State right-hander with ethereal stuff inches closer to the June 9 MLB draft, he’s taking great pains to soak up the last bits of his hometown and college days. His father, Jim, made his “fourth or fifth” road trip of the year to see the junior pitch in the Mountain West Conference tournament, and right after the Aztecs beat UNLV in their opening game, Strasburg found his dad and girlfriend outside Texas Christian University’s Lupton Stadium to make dinner plans.
He talked not of the bagfuls of cash he’s about to make or the first time he’ll pitch in a packed major league ballpark but of a college athlete’s simple goals: to get his team to its first NCAA tournament since 1991.
“We’ve played hard all year long,” he said last Wednesday, five days before the Aztecs received an at-large bid. “It’s been all about getting to this point.”
But just beyond the tournament, away from the crash of the Pacific Ocean, past the Rocky Mountains and well beyond the Mississippi River, Strasburg’s suitors sit with baseball’s worst record for a second consecutive year. Their fan base pines for the 20-year-old to give them something - anything, really - to brighten their outlook.
And though there are plenty of reasons to think Strasburg would rather stay close to home, those around him speak of a determined young man who wants, above all, to play in the major leagues - wherever that takes him.
“I’ve never been where he’s been. I’ve never been considered the first guy, the best guy, and I have no idea what that entails, other than the fact that I know he wants to play,” said Tony Gwynn, Strasburg’s college coach and childhood idol from his Hall of Fame career with the San Diego Padres. “And that, for me, is a comfort, knowing that I know where his heart is. He wants to play. And how all this stuff is going to get done, that’s out of my hands. But I know this: He wants to play, and he wants the opportunity to show people he can pitch.”
At this point, it seems the only thing that would keep the Nationals from selecting Strasburg with the first pick is a catastrophic injury. They’ve done their homework - a Nationals scout or executive has been at every start Strasburg has made this year - and they know the precedent-shattering sum his adviser, Scott Boras, is likely to command.
They’ve nitpicked his delivery and his mechanics, finding no problems with them. They’ve checked with coaches, parents and teachers, coming to this conclusion, in the words of one team executive: “It’s a good year to be picking No. 1.”
Those in the Strasburg camp know all this, too, which is why they don’t bother trifling with the prospect that Strasburg is likely headed across the country.
The Padres have the third pick in the draft, their shot at Strasburg largely blocked because of a sweep against Washington at Nationals Park last September. In his wildest dreams, Strasburg likely would want to start his career for the team he grew up following, just as any kid would.
His otherworldly junior season - a 13-0 record, 1.24 ERA and 180 strikeouts - has all but killed that possibility.
“I’m one of the luckiest dads in the world to have him so close,” Jim Strasburg said. “What happens next will not probably be in our backyard. I’ve been spoiled, but there’s nothing I can do about [the draft].”
Asked if there’s part of him that wishes his son would end up with the Padres - or at least stay on the West Coast by landing in Seattle with the No. 2 pick - Jim Strasburg simply says, “No comment.”
The father’s sense of perspective on the future is evident in his son, whose desire to get to the majors as quickly as possible gives Gwynn some peace.
“I take great comfort in that,” Gwynn said, “because I know who his adviser is going to be, and I know he has a history of drawing it out.”
Rumors of Boras asking for a six-year, $50 million deal have been floating around all spring. Nationals acting general manager Mike Rizzo has a good relationship with Boras and signed several high-profile clients of his while with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The agent also spoke positively of the Nationals during the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes in December.
The dance of the negotiations has fascinated Gwynn, who never made more than $6.3 million a season during his 20-year career with the Padres. His immediate response when the Nationals come up is a wide-eyed “You think they’re gonna sign him?” and when Strasburg leaves the program, Gwynn will limit his role to an interested - if informed - bystander.
He said he has had a conversation with Strasburg about entering professional ball, during which Gwynn stayed on his message that getting to the majors is the ultimate goal.
“You’re going to get to the big leagues; you’re going to make a gazillion dollars if you’re good. If you’re good, you’re going to do fine,” Gwynn said. “But I don’t know if Scott believes that. I don’t know if he believes the same thing. I wonder if he thinks you should get it all up front. But either way it goes, I think he’s going to be fine.”
Strasburg is enjoying his last few weeks at school cordoned off in relative calm. His biggest concerns are final exams and the growing throng of autograph seekers that await him every time he steps off a bus or walks through campus.
About the only thing he does better than light up radar guns is throw cold water on the topic of the draft. He said he won’t think about it “probably until June 8.” He shares a house with Aztecs catcher Erik Castro, pitcher Jon Berger and two former San Diego State players who razz Strasburg every time he shows up on “SportsCenter” and talk with him about the draft as little as possible.
“We want to let him have friendships with people because everyone’s talking about the draft, everyone’s talking about how well he’s doing this year,” Castro said. “So we just kind of try to be there as friends, not talk to him about it.”
But Castro admits that he, like everyone else, is excited to see what happens when his roommate, who golfs with him, plays video games with him and fires triple-digit fastballs into his mitt, becomes the face of a new team June 9.
Asked if Strasburg has been spotted in any Nationals gear around the house, Castro laughs and says: “No, no, not at all. Not at all. I’m sure he will, though, once he gets drafted.”
To a Nationals fan, that’s the sweetest image this season can produce.
“I don’t think to him it matters if it’s a Nationals uniform, a Mariners or a Padres,” Gwynn said. “Whoever gives him that opportunity, that’s where he wants to play. That’s the impression I’ve gotten since I’ve known the kid, and I don’t think it’s going to change. There’s some loyalty that comes from the organization that gives you the opportunity. And I think it’ll be that way with him.
“Hopefully, he’s the first piece of [the Nationals] getting things going in the right direction. That would be pretty awesome, to be that guy who people said helped turn it around.”
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