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As Strasburg Takes Mound, Hype Gives Way To Reality

Stephen Strasburg's minor-league starts were meant to help him deal with pressure. There was just one problem: Hardly anyone could hit his pitches. (AP)

Tuesday night, Stephen Strasburg is scheduled to put on the uniform of the Washington Nationals and throw his first pitch in a regular season Major League Baseball game. But already, on sports talk radio, TV and the Internet, he's been called the greatest pitching phenom in years -- and maybe even, as soon as he takes the mound, the best pitcher in all of baseball.

That's a lot of weight to throw on the shoulders of a 21-year-old.

But in an era of 24-7 sports, young prospects have to worry about more than how well they deliver on the field.

Strasburg could surf sports TV or flip through websites, and find that in addition to the proclamations of his greatness, he's also being dismissed as overrated and untested. One commentator suggested he should be traded to the Houston Astros.

"This is unprecedented, the amount of attention he's gotten," says Stan Kasten, the Washington Nationals' team president. "I've been in the sports business for 30 years, and I've never been around an occasion where an incoming player has had this kind of a spotlight focused on him."

Kasten and the Nationals have tried to protect Strasburg. During his two months in the minor leagues, they limited media access to brief press conferences after games in which he'd pitched.

The Challenge Of Seasoning A Phenom

Strasburg started his season in the minors, in part to let him experience bad pitching days with less scrutiny than in the big leagues.

"Yeah, we had a hitch in that plan," says Kasten. "We wanted him to work on all the stuff related to having men on base -- and alas, he just never had a lot of men on base. And we wanted to see how he would bounce back from a real drubbing. And alas, he never got that drubbing. Oh well, that's the way that goes. But he has come through everything that's been thrown at him so far."

Just look at his stats in the minors: Seven wins against only two losses and a minuscule 1.30 earned-run average.

Thomas Boswell, a columnist for The Washington Post, says there's one reason Strasburg has drawn so much interest: He really does have the potential to be great.

"There are very few pitchers who, from the first day they arrive in the major leagues, are clearly seen as part of an arc of pitchers in baseball history," says Boswell.

Wide Range Of Possibilities

Now, there are plenty of cautionary tales throughout baseball history. Strasburg could turn out like Ben McDonald. The Orioles made him the No. 1 pick in the 1989 amateur draft. But McDonald left the stage with a mediocre 78-70 record over nine major league seasons. Or the latest phenom could be another Mark Prior, who showed flashes of brilliance and then -- and it's a common hazard for pitchers -- had career-blunting injuries.

Or, notes Boswell, Strasburg could end up "at the high end of the most optimistic you could conceivably be, Roger Clemens, all-time great. That's what we're talking about."

But even great pitchers often have rocky starts -- including Clemens, in his rookie year for the Boston Red Sox.

"In Roger Clemens' first six starts, he pitched home and away -- good teams, bad teams -- and got hit by everybody," Boswell says.

"His earned-run average after six starts was over 7. People in New England were, 'Oh my Lord.' By the middle of his second season, he was having shoulder surgery to end his season. People thought Clemens was a huge bust."

But he came back the next year and pitched the Red Sox to the World Series.

Still, today, it's not just a pitcher's fastballs and breaking balls that determine greatness. Or his competitive streak, or ability to understand hitters. Now he's got to be able to deal with relentless attention -- especially if things don't work out right away.

"I think the X factor with Strasburg is that, when Roger Clemens came along in 1984, there was enormous hype and excitement among baseball people, but there was nothing comparable to this now," says Boswell. "Not the 24-hour saturation news now."

Kasten says that in the minor leagues, Strasburg has shown the intelligence and steadiness that's needed to deal with that X factor. His first game, Tuesday night, is against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Strasburg is said to be private, reserved and surprised by all the attention. But he realizes it's part of the game.

He wasn't a pitcher who always seemed headed to such close attention. No major league team bothered to draft him when he graduated from high school. It wasn't until his sophomore year at San Diego State University that Strasburg, a 6-foot-4-inch right-hander, found the fastball that made him the top pick in last year's amateur draft. He signed a $15.1 million contract, a record for an amateur.

A New Prodigy On The Way?

Still, if Strasburg thinks there's been a lot of hype about him, he may soon have a match. Monday night, the Nationals used the first pick of this year's amateur draft to select Bryce Harper, a slugging catcher from the College of Southern Nevada.

Harper is just 17. But he can hit a baseball so far that last year -- when he was still 16 -- Sports Illustrated put him on its cover. And called him "the most exciting prodigy" in sports since basketball star LeBron James.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We'll report next on one of the most-hyped baseball prospects ever. Pitcher Stephen Strasburg's fastball made him a number one draft choice last year when he received a record contract for an amateur: $15 million. Not an amateur anymore. Tonight, he will pitch in his first Major League game for the Washington Nationals. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Before he's even thrown his first pitch, on sports talk radio, TV and Internet sites, Stephen Strasburg's been called the best pitching phenom in years. Here's Curt Schilling recently on ESPN.

(Soundbite of TV show)

Mr. CURT SCHILLING (Former Major League Baseball pitcher): I've never seen anything like this.

Unidentified Man #1: Really?

Mr. SCHILLING: No, never. Nothing close.

Unidentified Man #1: Nothing close?

Mr. SCHILLING: No, not at that age, that polished.

SHAPIRO: Schilling should know, or know better. He's a pitching legend himself, the hero of Boston Red Sox World Series victories. Schilling went on to say that Strasburg, when he plays tonight, instantly could become the best pitcher in all of baseball. That's a lot of weight to throw on the shoulders of a 21-year-old.

But here's why there is so much interest in Stephen Strasburg. He really does have the potential to be great. Thomas Boswell is a baseball writer and columnist for the Washington Post.

Mr. THOMAS BOSWELL (Baseball Writer, Columnist, Washington Post): There are very few pitchers who, from the first day they arrive in the Major Leagues, are clearly seen as part of an arc of pitchers in baseball history that they resemble so strongly in their potential that people can't wait to see where they fall along that range of pitchers.

SHAPIRO: Strasburg could be one of those prospects who turn out to be busts, or who shows flashes of brilliances and then, and it's a common hazard for pitchers, has a career-blunting injury.

Mr. BOSWELL: Or at the high end of the most optimistic you can conceivably be, Roger Clemens, all-time great. That's what we're talking about.

SHAPIRO: Boswell knows that even great pitchers often get off to rocky starts.

Mr. BOSWELL: In Roger Clemens' first six starts, he pitched home and away -good teams, bad teams - and got hit by everybody. People in New England were, oh, my Lord. By the middle of the next year, his second season, he was having shoulder surgery to end his season. People thought Clemens was a huge bust.

SHAPIRO: But Clemens came back the next year and pitched the Red Sox to the World Series.

Still, today, in an era of constant sports talk, it's not just Strasburg's blazing fastballs and sweeping curve that will determine greatness, or his competitive streak and ability to understand hitters. Now Strasburg's got to have the skill to deal with the round-the-clock saturation sports news, especially if he doesn't meet all the hyped expectations.

Stan Kasten knows. He's the Nationals' team president. He talked from the team's dugout before a game this weekend.

Mr. STAN KASTEN (President, Washington Nationals): This is unprecedented, the amount of attention he's gotten. I've been in the sports business for 30 years, and I've never been around an occasion where an incoming player had this kind of a spotlight focused on him.

SHAPIRO: The Nationals started Strasburg in the minors, in part so, with less scrutiny, he could experience bad pitching days.

Mr. KASTEN: Yeah, we had a hitch in that plan. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: But Strasburg blew through minor league hitters.

Mr. KASTEN: Yeah, we wanted him to work on all the stuff related to having men on base, and alas, he just never had a lot of men on base. And we wanted to see how he would bounce back from a real drubbing. And alas, he never got that drubbing.

SHAPIRO: Strasburg is said to be private, reserved and surprised by all the attention. Still, if Strasburg thinks there's been a lot of hype about him, wait till he meets Bryce Harper. Last night, the Washington Nationals got the first pick again in baseball's amateur draft.

Unidentified Man #2: The Washington Nationals select Bryce Harper.

(Soundbite of applause, cheering)

SHAPIRO: Harper is just 17, but he can hit a baseball so far that last year, when he was still 16, Sports Illustrated put him on its cover and called him the most exciting prodigy in sports since basketball star LeBron James.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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