Stephen Strasburg brings the heat

Tony Gwynn, Hall of Famer, maestro hitter, astute observer of balls and strikes and the potential existing within those who throw them, didn’t skip a beat when the question came.

“Does this kid live up to the hype?” I asked Gwynn, sitting in his office at San Diego State, where he has been the baseball coach for seven years.

His eyes lit up. He smiled a giddy, confident smile. “You’ve just got to see him pitch,” he said. “You’ve got to.”


And so there I was, 48 hours later, Friday night at San Diego State’s Tony Gwynn Stadium, my eyes trained on a 6-foot-5 pitcher with a steely gaze and the long, loose arms of an Olympic swimmer.

Stephen Strasburg, who some say is the finest college pitcher ever and the best major league prospect of his generation, stared down the game’s first hitter: an infielder for Texas Christian. Smoothly and easily he reared back, paused for half a beat, and then uncoiled, unleashing from his right hand a fastball that registered 99 miles per hour on a radar gun.

“Whoooaaa!!!” came a collective sound from the stands, cramped with onlookers who’d come to witness Gwynn’s unlikely star.

“Been at this job 30 years and in all that time I’ll tell you, Strasburg is one of a kind,” observed George Kachigian, a Chicago White Sox scout, echoing his colleagues. “He’s overpowering, but throws it so nice and easy. Four fine pitches. Could start in the majors right now and do very well. I’ve just never seen anything like him.”

And baseball fans may never have seen anything like what could happen to Strasburg, a college junior now, when major league baseball’s draft takes place this summer.

With almost dead-lock certainty he’ll be the first pick, by the moribund Washington Nationals, who view him as a savior while knowing the history of top-pick pitchers is stuffed with broken dreams.

Then will come the tricky, possibly ugly part.

“Remember, his agent is Boras,” observes a wary Davey Johnson, the former Mets and Dodgers manager who ranks Strasburg equal to a young Dwight Gooden and who made Strasburg a starter at the Beijing Olympics, even though the San Diego native was an amateur on a team full of pros.

Boras, of course, is Scott Boras, notorious for extracting every shred of flesh from any team he deals with. It has been said Boras will want more money for Strasburg than any drafted pitcher has ever received. A benchmark: the $10.5 million ex-USC great Mark Prior got when he signed with the Cubs in 2001. If in today’s economy Boras aims much higher, expect a long drama. Maybe it becomes a poker game. Maybe, to drive the stakes higher, Boras keeps Strasburg from playing for a spell, no matter the public relations nightmare.

To his credit, Strasburg, 20, wearing a wispy beard, his blond hair in a buzz-cut, doesn’t want to talk about the draft more than to say he’s living in the now, thank you much, and loving every minute of it.

Thing is, he almost never got this far.

He was a fleshy 250-pounder in high school. He threw in the low 90s, but he also had a reputation for pouting and finger-pointing. Unimpressed, Gwynn had to be cajoled into offering a scholarship by one of his coaches. When Strasburg arrived on campus Gwynn watched in horror as his new recruit waddled through conditioning drills, red-faced, often getting sick in the middle of sprints.

“I spent a lot of time puking,” Strasburg recalled, face straight.

He was so weak, such a sad-sack straggler, that the Aztecs’ conditioning coach called him “Slothberg,” and eventually advised him to quit.

Incredibly, he almost did.

“Why not?” I asked.

“It came down to this: Did I have it in me to push myself through all of the tough stuff? Could I keep going, stay at it, keep coming back? I’d never really believed in myself before. But somehow, something, well, something just clicked.”

Click, indeed. He went from weakling to workout warrior and nutrition fiend, shedding 30 pounds, becoming the team’s leader, and watching the speed on his fastball rise. With his pitching coach chirping in his ear, reminding him that he’d gone undrafted out of high school because he was viewed as soft and immature, he gained perspective -- and guts.

“When did I know we had something really, really special?” Gwynn replied to another question. “One of his first games, this was against USC if I’m remembering right. He’s a freshman, our reliever. We’re up by one run and he goes in there to seal it and he walks the first three guys he faces -- boom! -- 12 pitches. I couldn’t believe it. Then, you know what? He turns around and just like that, bam, he strikes out the next three batters. Nine pitches . . . bam-bam-bam. The rest is history.”

Last year, riding a fastball that sometimes reached 103 mph, Strasburg became an All-American, once striking out 23 in a single game. This year, he’s been better. Coming into Friday’s game he was 8-0 with a 1.28 earned-run average, and the national lead in strikeouts, averaging 17.2 per nine innings.

His performance against TCU, another win, was as advertised: extreme poise, fastball heat and a buffet of curves, slurves, sliders and changeups.

When it was over, after 14 more strikeouts, Strasburg helped his teammates clean the field. Then he answered reporters’ questions with the settled calm of someone who knows what he has but does not gloat in it.

He’ll need such wisdom. Thirteen pitchers, 13 would-be saviors, have been selected first since 1965, when the draft began. The most victorious? Mike Moore, winner of 161 games, loser of 176.

This underscores that the future is uncertain, even for Strasburg. And it makes what’s happening now, a touch of college baseball genius played under the watchful eye of one of the game’s greats, something special, something to behold.