Over a 40-year career a major league scout of amateur talent will raise his radar gun perhaps a million times at high school and college games. And almost every time only two digits will pop up on his screen. So in the rare instance when he sees a third digit, it is like witnessing the elusive green flash that follows a perfect sunset. After Strasburg touched 101 in the first inning against UNLV, scouts behind home plate reacted with a torrent of hyperbole. Or
Strasburg is famous for those absurd radar-gun readings, for the friction his fingers generate when they rub off the seams, for the hiss the ball makes when it zips out of his hand. There are a handful of major leaguers who reach triple digits (
Strasburg cuts a menacing figure on the mound -- 6' 4", 220 pounds, in a black hat, black jersey, black pants, black spikes and bright-red stirrups showing over his calves. He has piercing powder-blue eyes, long blond sideburns and arms that nearly reach his kneecaps. At the top of his delivery he turns his left hip slightly toward third base, as if pulling back a bow and arrow, and then unloads with a high three-quarter release. "It's so smooth," says Aztecs pitching coach
Strasburg is the consensus No. 1 pick in this year's draft -- if the Washington Nationals don't take him, they might get chased back to Montreal -- but he is almost as unaffected by status as his coach, former Padres star
In the modern sports world it is hard to find a phenom who comes out of nowhere. Professional scouting is too organized, amateur athletics too sophisticated. But Strasburg won just one game as a junior at West Hills High outside San Diego, went undrafted after his senior year and failed to impress Gwynn. "To me, he didn't have a lot of confidence," Gwynn recalls. Strasburg was 250 pounds, had never lifted a weight in his life, and after practice every day went to Estrada's Taco Shop and scarfed down a California burrito, packed with carne asada, and french fries. He could throw 90, but he was so out of shape that his knees would occasionally buckle during games, forcing coaches to help him off the field. "He would just collapse," says his high school coach,
"I know everybody now is asking, 'How did you miss on Stephen Strasburg in high school?' " says a major league scout. "But we didn't miss. He was soft in every way." Strasburg would bark at infielders after errors and at umpires after bad calls. If he gave up a couple of hits and the opposing dugout started to chirp, he had a tendency to overthrow his fastball, which would then flatten out and get smacked even harder. "I told scouts not to draft me," Strasburg says. "I wasn't ready."
Filter saw those radar-gun readings, that swimmer's wingspan, and persuaded Gwynn to take him. During Strasburg's first night on campus it became clear he was a little different. He was living in a dorm at University Towers and was asleep at 10:30 p.m. when his roommate stumbled in with five female students. Strasburg was aghast. A few days later he moved in with his mother and grandmother, who share a nearby house. Then by the end of Strasburg's second week, when conditioning began, he was ready to drop out of school altogether. "I was this close," he says, holding his thumb next to his index finger. "I was going to find a job. We have a Home Depot and a Lowe's near our house."
The man responsible for almost driving Strasburg away, and then for whipping him into shape, is
Strasburg bowed his head, his chubby cheeks a bright red. "Just out of shape," he said. Ohton nicknamed him Slothburg, which he later shortened to Sloth. "I demoralized this young man," Ohton says. "I didn't even want him around the other players. I had never seen a college athlete who was as far behind as he was. I didn't think it was possible to be that bad." After two weeks of conditioning and purging Strasburg passed Ohton on the stairs in the weight room. "I appreciate your staying on top of me," Strasburg said. Ohton paused at the top of the staircase. "Sloth," he said, "you really should consider quitting. You're not going to make it."
Recalling that exchange, Ohton shakes his head. "Well," he says, "I guess he shoved those words up my ass." Strasburg thought about the scouts who had ignored him, the strength coach who had slighted him, and decided he was not ready to mix paint at Home Depot just yet. Not only did Strasburg stick with Ohton's conditioning program, but he also added Bikram yoga classes to improve his concentration and flexibility. His mother,
Of course, given baseball's recent history, all radical changes in body type are viewed with suspicion. But Strasburg did not get bigger. He got leaner. "I take a lot of pride in doing this naturally," he says. "It's hard work that's paying off -- not cheating the game."
As the pounds dropped, the velocity rose. He went from the low 90s in the fall of his freshman year to the mid-90s in the spring. He was clocked at 98 in the summer with the Torrington (Conn.) Twisters of the New England Collegiate Baseball League. In the fall of his sophomore year he hit 100 for the first time, and by the fall of his junior year he was at 101. Such spikes are unusual, but not unheard of. Chicago Cubs righthander
Given that he is only 20, Strasburg may have a couple of more miles per hour left in his right arm, but nobody with his best interests at heart wants to see him throw any harder. "It's better to throw 105 than 95, but it's better to throw 95 and be on the field than be in a trainer's room telling people you used to throw 105," says
Recession or not, assuming Strasburg is represented by Boras, he should clear $10 million when he is drafted in June, and he could conceivably be in the majors by September. The San Diego area has produced some pitching treasures in the past decade --
The scouts only have one question left: How might Strasburg cope with failure in the big leagues? Will he bark at an infielder or scream at an umpire or overthrow his fastball? When Strasburg has given up hits -- which isn't often, considering he had whiffed 74 batters in 34 1/3 innings through Sunday -- he usually just lashes out at himself, and he does it in the dugout rather than on the mound. That high school kid with the chubby cheeks and rabbit ears is gone, replaced by the best amateur pitcher in the country and perhaps one of the best ever, with a 102-mph fastball and so much else. At San Diego State, there's a name for a person like this.