Un­lim­ited fu­ture, but liv­ing in the present

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY BEN GOESSLING

FORT WORTH, Texas | The Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als’ big­gest am­bas­sador of hope was here re­cently, wear­ing a dif­fer­ent uni­form, pitch­ing for a dif­fer­ent team, daz­zling scouts and fans eat­ing Frito pie alike, leaf­ing through hit­ters as if they were items in a cat­a­log and com­pletely pre­oc­cu­py­ing him­self with ev­ery­thing but his fu­ture em­ployer.

It was the sec­ond time all year Stephen Stras­burg had pitched east of the Moun­tain time zone, and as the San Diego State righthander with ethe­real stuff inches closer to the June 9 MLB draft, he’s tak­ing great pains to soak up the last bits of his home­town and col­lege days. His fa­ther, Jim, made his “fourth or fifth” road trip of the year to see the ju­nior pitch in the Moun­tain West Con­fer­ence tour­na­ment, and right af­ter the Aztecs beat UNLV in their open­ing game, Stras­burg found his dad and girl­friend out­side Texas Chris­tian Uni­ver­sity’s Lup­ton Sta­dium to make din­ner plans.

He talked not of the bag­fuls of cash he’s about to make or the first time he’ll pitch in a packed ma­jor league ball­park but of a col­lege ath­lete’s sim­ple goals: to get his team to its first NCAA tour­na­ment since 1991.

“We’ve played hard all year long,” he said May 20, five days be­fore the Aztecs re­ceived an at­large bid. “It’s been all about get­ting to this point.”

But just be­yond the tour­na­ment, away from the crash of the Pa­cific Ocean, past the Rocky Moun­tains and well be­yond the Mis­sis­sippi River, Stras­burg’s suit­ors sit with base­ball’s worst record for a sec­ond con­sec­u­tive year. Their fan base pines for the 20-year-old to give them some­thing — any­thing, re­ally — to brighten their out­look.

And though there are plenty of rea­sons to think Stras­burg would rather stay close to home, those around him speak of a de­ter­mined young man who wants, above all, to play in the ma­jor leagues — wher­ever that takes him.

“I’ve never been where he’s been. I’ve never been con­sid­ered the first guy, the best guy, and I have no idea what that en­tails, other than the fact that I know he wants to play,” said Tony Gwynn, Stras­burg’s col­lege coach and child­hood idol from his Hall of Fame ca­reer with the San Diego Padres. “And that, for me, is a com­fort, know­ing that I know where his heart is. He wants to play. And how all this stuff is go­ing to get done, that’s out of my hands. But I know this: He wants to play, and he wants the op­por­tu­nity to show peo­ple he can pitch.”

At this point, it seems the only thing that would keep the Na­tion­als from se­lect­ing Stras­burg with the first pick is a cat­a­strophic in­jury. They’ve done their home­work — a Na­tion­als scout or ex­ec­u­tive has been at ev­ery start Stras­burg has made this year — and they know the prece­dentshat­ter­ing sum his ad­viser, Scott Bo­ras, is likely to com­mand.

They’ve nit­picked his de­liv­ery and his me­chan­ics, find­ing no prob­lems with them. They’ve checked with coaches, par­ents and teach­ers, com­ing to this con­clu­sion, in the words of one team ex­ec­u­tive: “It’s a good year to be pick­ing No. 1.”

Those in the Stras­burg camp know all this, too, which is why they don’t bother tri­fling with the prospect that Stras­burg is likely headed across the coun­try.

The Padres have the third pick in the draft, their shot at Stras­burg largely blocked be­cause of a sweep against Wash­ing­ton at Na­tion­als Park last Septem­ber. In his wildest dreams, Stras­burg likely would want to start his ca­reer for the team he grew up fol­low­ing, just as any kid would.

His oth­er­worldly ju­nior sea­son — a 13-0 record, 1.24 ERA and 180 strike­outs — has all but killed that pos­si­bil­ity.

“I’m one of the luck­i­est dads in the world to have him so close,” Jim Stras­burg said. “What hap­pens next will not prob­a­bly be in our back­yard. I’ve been spoiled, but there’s noth­ing I can do about [the draft].”

Asked if there’s part of him that wishes his son would end up with the Padres — or at least stay on the West Coast by land­ing in Seat­tle with the No. 2 pick — Jim Stras­burg sim­ply says, “No com­ment.”

The fa­ther’s sense of per­spec­tive on the fu­ture is ev­i­dent in his son, whose de­sire to get to the ma­jors as quickly as pos­si­ble gives Gwynn some peace.

“I take great com­fort in that,” Gwynn said, “be­cause I know who his ad­viser is go­ing to be, and I know he has a his­tory of draw­ing it out.”

Ru­mors of Bo­ras ask­ing for a six-year, $50 mil­lion deal have been float­ing around all spring. Na­tion­als act­ing gen­eral man­ager Mike Rizzo has a good re­la­tion­ship with Bo­ras and signed sev­eral high-pro­file clients of his while with the Ari­zona Di­a­mond­backs. The agent also spoke pos­i­tively of the Na­tion­als dur­ing the Mark Teix­eira sweep­stakes in De­cem­ber.

The dance of the ne­go­ti­a­tions has fas­ci­nated Gwynn, who never made more than $6.3 mil­lion a sea­son dur­ing his 20-year ca­reer with the Padres. His im­me­di­ate re­sponse when the Na­tion­als come up is a wide-eyed “You think they’re gonna sign him?” and when Stras­burg leaves the pro­gram, Gwynn will limit his role to an in­ter­ested — if in­formed — by­stander.

He said he has had a con­ver­sa­tion with Stras­burg about en­ter­ing pro­fes­sional ball, dur­ing which Gwynn stayed on his mes­sage that get­ting to the ma­jors is the ul­ti­mate goal.

“You’re go­ing to get to the big leagues; you’re go­ing to make a gazil­lion dol­lars if you’re good. If you’re good, you’re go­ing to do fine,” Gwynn said. “But I don’t know if Scott be­lieves that. I don’t know if he be­lieves the same thing. I won­der if he thinks you should get it all up front. But ei­ther way it goes, I think he’s go­ing to be fine.”

Stras­burg is en­joy­ing his last few weeks at school cor­doned off in rel­a­tive calm. His big­gest con­cerns are fi­nal ex­ams and the grow­ing throng of au­to­graph seek­ers that await him ev­ery time he steps off a bus or walks through cam­pus.

About the only thing he does bet­ter than light up radar guns is throw cold wa­ter on the topic of the draft. He said he won’t think about it “prob­a­bly un­til June 8.” He shares a house with Aztecs catcher Erik Cas­tro, pitcher Jon Berger and two for­mer San Diego State play­ers who razz Stras­burg ev­ery time he shows up on “Sports­Cen­ter” and talk with him about the draft as lit­tle as pos­si­ble.

“We want to let him have friend­ships with peo­ple be­cause every­one’s talk­ing about the draft, every­one’s talk­ing about how well he’s do­ing this year,” Cas­tro said. “So we just kind of try to be there as friends, not talk to him about it.”

But Cas­tro ad­mits that he, like every­one else, is ex­cited to see what hap­pens when his room­mate, who golfs with him, plays video games with him and fires triple-digit fast­balls into his mitt, be­comes the face of a new team June 9.

Asked if Stras­burg has been spot­ted in any Na­tion­als gear around the house, Cas­tro laughs and says: “No, no, not at all. Not at all. I’m sure he will, though, once he gets drafted.”

To a Na­tion­als fan, that’s the sweet­est im­age this sea­son can pro­duce.

“I don’t think to him it mat­ters if it’s a Na­tion­als uni­form, a Mariners or a Padres,” Gwynn said. “Who­ever gives him that op­por­tu­nity, that’s where he wants to play. That’s the im­pres­sion I’ve got­ten since I’ve known the kid, and I don’t think it’s go­ing to change. There’s some loy­alty that comes from the or­ga­ni­za­tion that gives you the op­por­tu­nity. And I think it’ll be that way with him.

“Hope­fully, he’s the first piece of [the Na­tion­als] get­ting things go­ing in the right di­rec­tion. That would be pretty awe­some, to be that guy who peo­ple said helped turn it around.”

GETTY IM­AGES

Can’t Miss Kid: San Diego State right-han­der Stephen Stras­burg

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