- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2009

Suppose the Nationals do sign Stephen Strasburg for an amount somewhat less than the national debt. Suppose he makes his first appearance in an exhibition game and strikes out eight batters in three innings. Suppose in his first official major league start he fans 15. Suppose he betters that three weeks later with 16 K’s.

Sensational stuff? Of course, but not unprecedented, because that’s what Bob Feller did for the Cleveland Indians away back in 1936.

Feller is still around at 90 and still keeping his eye on baseball affairs, though he is not particularly familiar with Strasburg. More than anyone else perhaps, he is in a position to discuss the pressure affecting a young man who arrives in the bigs with unlimited potential and unlimited potential pitfalls.

Or is he?

“I never worried about pressure, and neither should [Strasburg],” Feller insisted Tuesday from his home in Cleveland. “All he has to do is throw strikes, keep his nose clean, keep his mouth shut, and he’ll be OK.”

Probably there are more differences than similarities between Strasburg, now 21, and Feller. Bob was a 17-year-old student at Van Meter (Iowa) High School when the Indians gave him a shot without a contract a month after his graduation. Despite Bob’s success against prep and American Legion competition, no fireworks lit the sky above Cleveland’s old Legion Park when Feller took the mound against the St. Louis Cardinals’ famed Gashouse Gang in the fourth inning on July 6, 1936.

At least none did until right-hander Feller wound up and threw a fastball to a justifiably obscure Cardinals catcher named Bruce Ogrodowski. Bob didn’t earn the nickname Rapid Robert in the 1930s because he ate fast.

“My first pitch was a strike, and it made that sweet, smacking sound that is so sweet to a pitcher as it hit [manager/catcher] Steve O’Neill’s mitt,” Feller recalled in his 1990 autobiography, “Now Pitching, Bob Feller,” written with D.C. author Bill Gilbert. “Ogrodowski turned to O’Neill and said, ‘Let me out of here in one piece.’ ”

That brought up Leo Durocher, aka “The Lip,” who wasn’t easily intimidated. Feller was wild in those days, so one pitch sailed over Durocher’s head and another behind his back.

Leo stepped out and told umpire Cal Hubbard, “I feel like a clay pigeon in a shooting gallery.” Then, with the count 2-and-2, he escaped to the dugout and pretended to hide behind a water cooler. After all, it was just an exhibition game.

After the game, Cardinals ace Dizzy Dean, mispronouncing Bob’s name, told the kid, “You sure poured that ol’ pea through there, Fellows.”

The next day, the Indians signed him - presumably for peanuts in the middle of the Great Depression - and used him in several mop-up appearances before starting him Aug. 23 against a St. Louis Browns lineup that included future Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby (lifetime batting average: .358). When Feller whiffed 15 Brownies, two short of the major league record, in a 4-1 victory, his name - pronounced correctly - suddenly was on everybody’s lips.

A bit later, Feller rang up 16 Philadelphia Athletics. He finished the 1936 season with a 5-3 record and 76 strikeouts in 62 innings before returning to high school. Two years later, he was a 17-game winner. Then he became baseball’s best pitcher with 76 victories over three seasons before World War II interrupted his career. When he retired in 1956, he had 266 wins, three no-hitters, 12 one-hitters and a career record of 266-162.

Could Strasburg come anywhere close to that? The odds are against it, but the Nats can dream.

“He could be very good, and he’ll make a lot of money,” Feller said. “But he’ll have good days and bad days like anybody else. What he has to do is forget about the bad days.”

That sounds like good advice - except what would Hall of Famer Bob Feller know about bad days?


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