- The Washington Times - Monday, August 31, 2009

VIERA, Fla. | He emerged from the clubhouse shortly after 9:30 a.m. Sunday - wearing a standard-issue gray Washington Nationals T-shirt, blue shorts and a blue curly W cap - and strolled toward the four practice fields that stood a few hundred feet away. About two dozen autograph seekers walked right alongside, asking for a moment of his time.

“Not right now,” Stephen Strasburg told them. “I gotta go to work.”

“Work” in this regard was about as mundane as it gets for a professional ballplayer. Strasburg’s first on-field appearance as a member of the Nationals organization lasted less than an hour. It featured no 100-mph fastballs, no sharp-breaking sliders and certainly nothing that bore the slightest resemblance to game-like conditions.

Rather, the 21-year-old right-hander played catch for about 10 minutes, working his way up from a distance of 10 feet to 90 feet. He got one-on-one instruction on how to cover first base, how to field comebackers and how to throw to second base without getting his shortstop killed.

All of this in front of reporters, photographers and fans following his every move, none of them paying an ounce of attention to the 33 other members of the Nationals’ Gulf Coast League rookie team also working out at the organization’s spring training complex.

Strasburg was clearly caught off-guard by all the fuss.

“I thought I’d get a little peace out here on the field, but you guys follow me everywhere,” he said later with his head down, avoiding eye contact. “I guess it just goes with the territory. It’s something I’m going to have to learn to deal with.”

Yes, this is what happens when you sign the richest contract in draft history. For $15.1 million, Strasburg gets to spend the rest of his baseball career under the microscope.

As he learns to deal with his newfound status, Strasburg also will be learning how to become a pitcher worth the massive investment. The Nationals have put together a comprehensive plan for their prized prospect, one that will bring him along slowly and allow time for development both physical and mental.

It began in earnest Sunday under the hot Florida sun with the kind of simple throwing and fielding routines performed by any pitcher who has sat idle for three months. Things will ramp up from here, to the point where Strasburg begins throwing off a mound in mid-September, begins facing live hitters in the instructional league in late September and then reports to the Arizona Fall League in October ready to throw five innings at a time.

After taking another break this winter, Strasburg will return here next spring for camp with the big leaguers, perhaps proving he’s ready to open the season in the District but more likely putting in some time in the minors before the call comes.

“The biggest thing we all have to understand is this guy isn’t going to be a Cy Young Award winner next year,” said roving pitching coordinator Spin Williams, Strasburg’s primary coach while he’s down here. “It’s going to take time to get seasoned.”

That may be tough to accept for fans who want to see this phenom on the mound at Nationals Park facing Albert Pujols as soon as possible. But that’s not how the organization plans to bring him along.

“From the time he signed the contract, he’s another one of our important asset players, just like anybody else,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. “We’re going to be careful with all those young pitchers because they’re all important to us. We’re cognizant of who he is and the pace he may be on. But he’s getting the same treatment that we give all our draftees.”

To an extent. None of Washington’s other recent draft picks or Latin American players working out here have the money, the hype or the fastball of the lanky 6-foot-4 hurler who showed up Sunday morning and sheepishly introduced himself to the group saying: “Hi, I’m Stephen. I’m from San Diego.” (As everyone else surely thought: “Yeah, we know who you are.”)

None of the other prospects will fly to the District later this week and spend the Nationals’ next homestand working out with the big league club, getting tutelage from big league pitching coach Steve McCatty before returning to Florida for the start of the instructional league.

And none of the other prospects got the kind of one-on-one attention afforded Sunday by Williams, who showed Strasburg the proper technique for each fundamental drill and came away impressed with the young pitcher’s approach.

“I thought it was outstanding,” Williams said. “First time I’ve ever met the kid. Very reserved, very quiet, very intent on what we talked about. Quite frankly, I was pleasantly surprised.”

Drenched in sweat - a condition he rarely had to deal with in the meteorological bliss of San Diego - Strasburg stuck around after his workout Sunday to watch the GCL team face its counterparts from the New York Mets organization. He fulfilled every last autograph request from those fans who stuck it out until mid-afternoon and then returned to his hotel room down the street, exhausted.

The first day of his life as a professional ballplayer was a new experience, one he wasn’t quite sure how to handle. He did, though, seem to grasp the significance of the moment in the larger scope of a career now under way.

“This is a big change in my life, and it’s something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life,” he said. “It’s a little bit of a shocker, being out here and knowing you’re not going back to school. But it’s a good thing. It’s going to be a fun ride.”

• Mark Zuckerman can be reached at mzuckerman@washingtontimes.com.

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