Ever-impressive Strasburg making his way back
VIERA, Fla. -- It was 2:15 a.m. at the Melbourne Airport rental car counter. The gentleman was trying to service the line of Delta passengers delayed four hours. He looked up, recognized the customer and said, "We've had some Nationals players here at this counter. Let me tell you, that Strasburg kid is one of the nicest people I've ever met. Couldn't have been more polite, more thoughtful, more polite ..."
Eight hours later, Stephen Strasburg began his morning rehabilitation program at the Nationals' Minor League training complex. He did a long-toss program with rehabilitation coach Mark Grater and then went onto the mound to throw.
"I've been in this game for a long time," said Grater, who pitched briefly for the Cardinals and Tigers in the early '90s. "I haven't met many people like this kid. It's unbelievable how hard he works and does so without any ego. You'd never know what he'd become when he got hurt."
Strasburg went into the bullpen and began his throwing program. "Slow, think slow," Grater yelled at him. Strasburg threw breaking balls, emphasizing slow. Good break.
Later, he threw about two dozen fastballs, and at 10:15 on a muggy Florida morning, with hardly anyone else around, one could hear the zzzzzzzzt of the ball coming out of his hand.
The sounds of art aren't what you and I experience. It is the sound of Stradivari's violin, the sound Rickie Weeks makes in BP, the sound Derek Trucks makes on a guitar, the sound Roger Voisin made playing Purcell on his trumpet.
Strasburg is still three weeks from his 23rd birthday, but his maturity allows him not to worry about getting back to Washington too quickly.
"I know it sounds like a cliché, but I take it a day at a time, a workout at a time," he says. "I am very aware of what I have to do, what's in front of me, and that I'll know when it's time to get back out there. What's most important is being certain that I do the entire rehabilitation process correctly, even if I feel as if I can do more. Of course I want to be back out there. Of course I miss my teammates. But this has to be done right."
One of the many compelling parts of Strasburg is that he never forgets who he is and from whence he came. He appreciates that after his freshman year at San Diego State, he wasn't advanced enough to pitch in the Cape Cod League; instead, he was placed in the New England Collegiate Baseball League with the Torrington Twisters.
"I threw 90 to 92 [mph] at that point," Strasburg says. "I wasn't in the best of shape. I knew I had to improve."
When he went back to school, he began an exhaustive conditioning program. He also learned much from a wise baseball professor named Tony Gwynn.
"Tony was a great teacher who helped me in ways that are unimaginable," Strasburg remembers. "He talked to me about how hitters think. It wasn't about mechanics; it was about attacking hitters, and not giving them too much credit. He taught me about focus and concentration and prepared me for professional baseball, as well as how to take care of all phases of my life. He is a tremendous person."
Strasburg seems unfazed by being what some called "the most hyped prospect in baseball history." He didn't listen to those who screeched that he should be brought up in April. Hey, his first professional start, on April 11, in Altoona was carried live on ESPN. "All I did was focus on what I had to do," he says. On May 4, he moved from Double-A to Triple-A, and his first start for Syracuse set an attendance record for the 115-year history of baseball in that New York city. By June, he was 7-2 with a 1.30 ERA in the Minors and headed to Washington for his June 8 debut.
That start, against the Pittsburgh Pirates, was a nationally televised event. Ken Burns threw out the first pitch, and more than 200 media members came from around the country. Strasburg fanned 14 and walked no one in seven innings. He struck out the last seven batters he faced, eight of the final nine, and his 94th and final pitch was 99 mph. He admits that he, like all pitchers, "think about what the scoreboard shows for radar gun readings, but I never looked. That isn't right."
In June, TBS decided not to show a Phillies-Red Sox game, choosing Washington-Cleveland. In Strasburg's seven starts at home, the Nats averaged 10,685 fans more than in their other 74 home games. But his shoulder got inflamed on July, and he went on the disabled list. Then, after coming back Aug. 10, he grabbed his elbow and had to leave his Aug. 21 start.
A week later, Dr. Lewis Yocum performed Tommy John surgery.
In 12 Major League starts, Strasburg struck out 92 of the 274 batters he faced, a rate equaled only by Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, future first-ballot Hall of Famers. But with the fame and the anticipation came the fish-bowl criticism, of his delivery, even some questioning whether or not he was hurt.
"I don't look back and worry about any of those things," Strasburg says. "I know my arm; I know what I have to do. I know that sometimes, when I get a little quick, my landing leg straightens out and I land too early, and that's all part of my pitching correctly. I talked to a couple of pitchers who'd had the surgery. When the Nationals were playing the Cardinals, Chris Carpenter came to see me and talked to me about what he went through and what I should expect. That's one of those things you don't forget, when a pitcher that great cared enough to reach out and try to help me."
The process has been long, and it has been difficult.
"It's what I was prepared for," he says.
He worked in California. Now he is here in Florida, working for three and four hours a day, and undergoing a throwing program. This coming Monday, he will take the next step and throw to hitters.
"I don't concern myself about when I come back, in September or next February or whenever," he says. "I am focused on doing what I'm told I need to do and doing it correctly.
"Of course I closely follow the team. They have done really well, and I see how well Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa and Jordan Zimmermann are doing. Of course I think about how good we can be when we're all together."
Grater says there "is no doubt in my mind" that Strasburg will come back as the pitcher that became the face of the game in such a short time. He's heard the zzzzzzzzt and he has seen how diligent Strasburg is, by nature, how respectful he is to all around him.
When the 22-year old noticed that I was in a suit, in which I was prepared to wait around in the 95-degree heat until 2-2:30, when Strasburg finished his throwing program, he said, "Why should you have to wait for me to do another three or four hours of workouts? Let's sit down and do the interview now. You shouldn't have to be inconvenienced."
In the loneliness of a Minor League training complex in 95-degree heat, the Stephen Strasburg that created "Strasmas" and whose every start became a baseball holiday clearly understands what he has to do to get back to the front of The Stage. He also remembers that it was but four summers ago that he was pitching in Keene, N.H., for the Torrington Twisters.
"I am who I am, I haven't changed, I haven't forgotten what I have to do to be successful."
Thankfully. For baseball, for the Nationals, for everyone who loves the game.
Peter Gammons is an analyst for MLB Network and a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.