ATLANTA - JUNE 28: Starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals pitches in the third inning against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on June 28, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
It's been contentious from the start. Remember the reports from Stephen Strasburg's first workout in Viera, Florida back in late August 2009, just weeks after he signed, when Washington Post reporter Amy Shipley told the Post's Nats beat writer Chico Harlan in a Nationals Journal post entitled, "Strasburg in Viera, and other material", that the 21-year-old right-hander "...did not attempt to hide his displeasure at the scrutiny he received," from the writers who showed up to record the first official workout/throwing session of the pitcher's professional career?
Or when Washington Post writer Dave Sheinin sat in with Harrisburg Senators' radio announcer and Director of Broadcasting and Media Relations Terry Byrom for an interview in advance of a Double-A start against the Reading Phillies and told Mr. Byrom about Strasburg's reaction to the hype back then when it was just beginning to get out of hand:
"Stephen doesn't really know who he can trust and who he can't, so he just tends to not trust anybody, and that's unfortunate, but it's just the state of the game today, and you know, he's gotta get used to that, we've got to get used to that..."
But lately, it seems the national press might not be willing to "get used to that", and the relationship between the Nationals' ace and the press might be deteriorating...
The first instance I noticed occurred in the postgame press conference that took place after Strasburg and the Nats dropped a 1-0 decision to the Kansas City Royals, a game in which the 21-year-old right-hander had allowed 9 hits and 1 ER run while walking no one and striking out nine. The majority of the questions the Nats' '09 no.1 overall pick fielded were about the game and what Royals' hitters had done differently in collecting the most hits anyone had managed off Strasburg to that point, (or since), but then the line of questioning changed slightly...
Q: Stephen, How difficult do you think it's been for this organization to manage the hype and the scrutiny and the excitement and all the attention that's focused on you?
Stephen Strasburg: "It's great for this organization, number one, it's obviously brought a lot of national exposure to this team, but bottom line, my goal number one is to come in here and help this team win some ballgames, didn't get it done today, but hopefully we can do it next time."
Q: How much are you enjoying or not enjoying all of that attention and appetite for you?
Stephen Strasburg: "I'm pretty steady when it comes to baseball, really try to manage the highs and lows, doesn't matter how much hype there is, it's not going to change the way I go out there and approach the game."
Q: Along those same lines, it's been a whirlwind couple of weeks, and I know you just recently got married, how does your wife and your family deal with all this new attention and celebrity and does she help keep you grounded?
Stephen Strasburg: "Well you know, we just couldn't get it done today. So we're going to focus on today, and you know, it's baseball so, we just wanted to go out there and try and put a few good swings together, we just couldn't get it done."
I watched the video of the press conference quoted above and stopped to rewatch the exchange, wondering if Strasburg had simply misunderstood the question. "No, he heard it," a friend I asked to watch the video responded, "...he just chose not respond to that question." Following Strasburg's 5.0 inning, 96-pitch win over New York, in which Strasburg had thrown 37 pitches before the first inning was over, Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman was asked if he had considered removing the young starter in the first, and Mr. Riggleman responded that he was essentially two batters away from doing so, "...you probably noticed I had [Nats' reliever Miguel] Batista up in the first inning. I did not want [Strasburg] to throw 45 pitches in the first inning." In the press conference with the pitcher that followed the Nats' manager's, Strasburg was asked whether or not he'd noticed the veteran reliever Batista up in the bullpen, "Why would I be looking in the bullpen in the first inning?" Strasburg asked, then when pressed to answer directly responded, "No, I didn't realize that, no."
In his last start before the All-Star Break against San Francisco, Strasburg gave up a run on a leadoff HR by Giants' outfielder Andres Torres in the first, but just the 1 ER, 6 hits and 1 walk total in a 6.0-inning-outing in which he earned the win. In the post game press conference, Strasburg spoke openly about his performance and what he thought he'd learned. The lesson, in Strasburg's mind was that opposing hitters were crowding the plate and jumping on his fastball outside, "...if they're going to continue to do that, then they better get ready to back off the plate," Strasburg said, making clear he's not afraid to throw inside as he did later at times throughout the game, "...and they better get ready for some stuff up there to keep them off-balance."
When asked, however, to reflect on whether he'd, "...noticed the hype dying down a little bit," or got, "...the sense that it's not as crazy as it was a few weeks ago," since there were a few thousand less fans than his previous home starts and significantly less media there to cover it, Strasburg was less willing to respond than when asked about his pitching or what had taken place on the field, saying simply, "I don't know, man. I'm just here, we're talking about the game right now, it was a great win for us. It was big for us to win game one, and we're just going to go out there and try to win tomorrow."
"He does not like to talk about hype. Not talk about it, not revel in it, not even acknowledge it," Yahoo!Sports.com's Jeff Passan wrote in an article on the press conference entitled, "Hype not part of Strasburg’s program". Weeks earlier, as recorded above, Strasburg had been more than willing to discuss the hype his debut and first few starts had received. Mr. Passan, who was clearly impressed by Strasburg's performance on the field, was less enthusiastic about what he saw as "robotic" responses to reporter's questions, but Mr. Passan pointed at the DC fanbase as the reason the hype had died down, not anything that Strasburg had done, calling Washington, "a zygote of a baseball town", still adjusting to the rebirth of baseball in the nation's capital. Mr. Passan concluded his report by once again addressing what he described as, "...the bubble Strasburg has created for himself and his handlers – or are they enablers? – have nurtured,":
"Perhaps it’s best, actually, that MLB kept him away [from the All-Star Game], because Strasburg remains ill-prepared for the limelight that is tracing a path toward him. The coddling can last only so long. The babying can go only so far. The hype is real, and as long as he pitches this way, it will only grow on a national basis. Ignoring it is just as negligent as LeBroning it.
"The bubble will pop soon enough. Hopefully, Strasburg is the one holding the pin."
What if it's Strasburg that doesn't want the metaphorical bubble popped just yet. He's been described everywhere as humble, and uncomfortable with all the attention he's received since he's only begun to establish himself at the major league level. Maybe Strasburg thinks he's undeserving of all the attention at this point. Maybe he's simply press shy and uncomfortable discussing his family publically or offering instant public reflection on what he's been able to accomplish thus far...Why expect that just because he's preternaturally prepared athletically, that he's also going to be a natural in dealing with the somewhat redundant questioning constant interviews provide. What if he's just still a 21-year-old player less than a year out of college and seven starts into his major league career that's not interested in examining his own myth? What if he's really just a humble young player who chooses to keep to himself and do his job, well? In fact, that's pretty much the model for baseball stardom in Washington, D.C...
In an interview for ESPN the Magazine last December, the so-called Face of the Nats' Franchise Ryan Zimmerman told ESPN writer Anna Katherine Clemmons that he, "...shies away from too much attention. 'I'm really boring with the media here on purpose,'" Zimmerman was quoted stating. Before Zimmerman, and before baseball returned to the nation's capital in 2005, Frank Howard was the face of the second-Senators. The hard-hitting slugger who'd keep fans in their seats til his at bat just in case they missed one of his monster HR's, is constantly referred to as a man of few words, a gentle giant, yet another humble superstar who let his play on the field speak for him. The original face of the baseball in the nation's capital, who gave Washington its first World Series title, Walter "Big Train" Johnson's, "...gentle nature was legendary," according to an anecdote on his Wikipedia page pulled from a book entitled, "Damn Senators: My Grandfather and the Story of Washington's Only World Series Championship", which is written by the son of Johnson's teammate first baseman Joe Judge, Mark Gauvreau Judge, to the point that the 6'1'', 200+lb Johnson, who reportedly threw in the low 90's when it was unheard of, wouldn't throw inside to batters who crowded the plate, because he, "...was privately nervous about the possibility of seriously injuring a batsman."
Strasburg isn't afraid to throw inside, he said so after his last start, so for now I'd suggest that hitters back up and reporters stick to questions about the game, or there's equal chance of each getting brushed back by the Nats' ace.