Sports Illustrated writer Albert Chen, who penned the feature story on the Washington Nationals' '09 no.1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg that was inside the latest (6/21) newsstand edition of SI (Volume 112, Issue 26) (featuring Strasburg on the cover with the headline "National Treasure"), wrote in the article that it's, "... a joy to watch [Strasburg] pitch, with his effortless mechanics and a delivery that appears not to cause him to break a sweat." Mr. Chen, who witnessed Strasburg's major league debut in Nationals Park and his road debut in Progressive Field in Cleveland, was nice enough to answer a few questions about what he'd seen via email for the interview that follows which touches on the hype that's surrounded Strasburg's debut, the impact he's had on the league's perception of the Nats, and the moment he realized that the 21-year-old right-hander was for real...
Federal Baseball (FB): Since Miguel Cabrera praised Strasburg after facing him in Spring Training, it seems opposing teams have been oddly open and willing to praise Strasburg in the press, were you surprised at all by the reaction from the Indians' players you talked to after the game? Anything interesting said other than the Branyan quote in your article?
SI's Albert Chen: "There are a certain few players that are so dazzling that players can't help but turn into fans when they watch them, even if they're watching them from the opposing dugout. I found that to be true of Josh Hamilton, when I did a story about him two years ago during his comeback season: even non-Rangers players wouldn't hesitate to say that this guy was an incredible baseball player. This year, that's the case with Ubaldo Jimenez. Talk to anyone who has faced him this year, and in all likelihood, they will be pretty open in saying, 'This guy is probably the best pitcher in baseball right now.' I got that same sort of vibe in the Indians' clubhouse after Strasburg's start on Sunday. The Cleveland players were obviously impressed, saying that he was absolutely the real deal. Branyan, for one, said that he was more wild than he thought he would be but that his stuff was as good as advertised."
FB: Have you noticed the tone of the national conversation about the Nationals change since they got Strasburg signed and brought him up last week? His agent, Scott Boras, said recently that, Strasburg, "...has changed the marquee of a franchise, changed the perception of the franchise..." would you agree?
SI's Albert Chen: "Absolutely. It was remarkable seeing the number of fans in Cleveland walking around in Nationals t-shirts. There was a memorabilia stand at Progressive Field that sold *only* Strasburg shirts, and I saw a number of fans in line, fans wearing Indians hats and shirts. One guy I talked to in the stands was from Ohio but had been so caught up in Strasmas fever that he shelled out $100 for a Strasburg jersey. There's no question the team's national profile has been raised virtually overnight. But in the end this story is about one player; the reality is that the perception of the franchise isn't going to change a whole lot until the team starts winning games consistently. Strasburg can only take this franchise so far. Let's see the Nats finish with a winning record before we talk about them as a marquee franchise."
FB: Your fellow SI writer Tom Verducci anointed "Next Big Thing" status on Bryce Harper a few years back, do you think it's possible for a position player to command the spotlight the way a starter like Strasburg has?
SI's Albert Chen: "The difference between Strasburg and Harper, of course, is that Strasburg could have come in and competed in the majors the day he was drafted. Who knows how long it'll be before Harper is up. That said, you look at what Bo Jackson did when he broke into the league in the 1980s, and you have to wonder if Harper will be that kind of once in a generation talent; like Jackson was, he's a guy with an almost mythical tool set. If you believe the scouts, he absolutely has that kind of talent. Put it this way: if you're 19-year-old hitting 500-foot bombs in the majors, chances are you're going to command the spotlight."
FB: Was there a moment when you were finally convinced Strasburg was for real?
SI's Albert Chen: "I hung out at the visitor's bullpen in the outfield before the game in Cleveland to get a good view of Strasburg's pregame bullpen because I figured it would be kind of a circus, and sure enough, by the time Strasburg emerged, there was a big crowd of fans looking to get a glimpse. I wasn't in DC for his debut (and I didn't see him in spring training), so that bullpen was the first time I'd seen him in person. And it didn't take long to see the jaw-dropping stuff. Really, you could see it in the looks on the faces of fans standing around: they had never seen this kind of pitcher before. Against the Indians, Strasburg started the game (against leadoff hitter Trevor Crowe) with a 100 mph fastball for a called strike, tossed two curveballs with a ridiculous 13-inch break, then finished Crowe off with two straight 100 mph heaters. The guy next to me in the press box and I just looked at each other and shook our heads."
FB: I wrote an article recently comparing Strasburg's influence on DC baseball to that which Walter Johnson had at the start of the last century, can you think of any other precedents for a player having this immediate an impact on not only his team but the entire league?
SI's Albert Chen: "Certainly phenoms like Fernando Valenzuela, Doc Gooden, and Mark Fidrych had a similar kind of impact when they arrived. I think a recent comparable might actually be the splash Ichiro made when he debuted in Seattle -- though they are obviously different in many ways. But it's been a while. And it may be a while before another player like this comes around, so enjoy the ride."
Stephen Strasburg makes his third Major League start, his second at home, tonight a 7:00 pm EST in Nationals Park against the Chicago White Sox. According to the Nationals, as of yesterday afternoon plenty of good seats were still available...
(ed. note - "Thanks, Mr. Chen.)