Stephen Strasburg saves Washington tonight. You might have heard.
Strasburg makes his major league debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are major league by association only. It was a shrewd move by the Nationals, who want to break the kid in slowly. Against Pittsburgh, he'll feel like he's still in Syracuse. Except for the sold out stadium, the 300 media folks and the national TV broadcast. Nothing exceeds like excess.
Strasburg hasn't been mowing down big-league hitters for a decade. It just seems that way. We don't let people develop now, athletes or celebrities. We smother them, so by the time they're fully formed, we're on to someone else, too busy to notice. If Strasburg isn't Cy Young by the All Star Break, he's done. Bryce Harper is in the wings, ready for his turn to can't-miss.
From afar, Reds rookie Mike Leake watches with bemused detachment. "I guess when you're that good, you have to wear it a little bit,'' Leake says.
I guess. The 22-year-old Leake and the 21-year-old Strasburg have one thing in common: Neither has lost in the major leagues. Of course, Leake has won five times for the Cincinnati Reds, made 11 starts and has an ERA of 2.22. Strasburg has 55 professional innings, in Syracuse and Harrisburg.
When Leake's family goes to the Reds team shop in Cincinnati, it can't find a Leake jersey. A fan goes to a game in Rochester, N.Y., on the night Strasburg pitches there, he can buy a Strasburg jersey for $19.95.
When Leake became the first college pitcher in 21 years to go straight to the major leagues, he had a postgame media contingent of maybe five writers and a couple TV guys. Strasburg gets that kind of attention ordering a pizza.
Leake has thrived thus far in Cincinnati, fully under the radar. He knows Strasburg. He told USA Today that Strasburg was "overweight, pouty and used to cry'' when he was taken out of games, when both were 11 and on the same traveling team. But Leake has little feel for the publicity tornado that has surrounded Strasburg in the last two months. "I'm not really in tune with it,'' he says. "[Cincinnati] isn't New York.'' Or Washington.
Comparing how the Reds handled Leake with how the Nationals have handled Strasburg has been a cottage industry among the baseball intelligentsia. Leake is 22, pitched three years at Arizona State, winning 40 times. The Reds drafted him eighth overall last June. He has dazzled the majors by throwing breaking balls and painting the corners of the plate with a very fine brush. The Greg Maddux comparisons are premature, but not inaccurate.
Leake is SoCal cool, a wisp of beard tugging at his chin. Nobody recognizes him. Not long ago, he was eating lunch in Cincinnati, when a man approached him. Leake prepared to sign an autograph; the guy wondered if Leake wanted a Reds schedule. Seriously.
Nothing rattles Leake. Except, maybe, walking hitters. (After walking seven in his first start, he has walked 18 in his last 10.) Leake has the word "Believe'' tattooed on his right side. It never occurred to him that he would not make the Reds rotation this spring. "I didn't feel like I had anything to prove in the minors,'' he says.
Leake is 5-foot-10, maybe, and 180 pounds, possibly; Strasburg is 6-4, 220. Strasburg throws a 100 mile-an-hour fastball and a 90 mile-an-hour curve. Leake arrived under the radar gun in February; everyone watched another Reds prospect, the flamethrowing Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman. Strasburg has been media-stalked since before Washington drafted him No. 1 overall last spring.
Lately, Strasburg's patience with the attention has thinned. He has blown off the autograph hordes. When asked what he'd learned in the minors, Strasburg said, "I've talked about that stuff a million times.'' Only a million? "Get it on the Internet.''
Leake has plenty of time for just about everyone. Of course, everyone in Cincinnati amounts to a few scribes in the clubhouse, milling around with their hands in their pockets. Regardless, being 22 years old and undefeated as a major leaguer could swell a head.
"Not at all,'' says Leake. "It's only five wins, and I don't look at wins too much. ERA is a better predictor of how you're doing. Lots of luck involved in wins and losses.
"I was a cocky piece of crap when I was younger, but that's not me now. I think I handle it pretty well. I'm laid back. It'll be tough for (Strasburg) because he'll be bombarded with it.''
The Reds studied Leake's personality as much as his pitching. They guessed, correctly, that he'd be able to handle the immediate jump to the majors. Quiet confidence plays well in the crucible. The Reds also have an impatient owner and a cranky fan base. Cincinnati isn't D.C. It has one summer passion, and that passion has been losing ball games since 2000. There is no patience for patience.
The Nationals have the luxury of time. The city has other passions. Winning isn't the short-term priority. Strasburg didn't have to be Leake. Leake's advice to Strasburg? "Learn to ignore,'' he says.
Don't do more off the field than you're comfortable with. Don't read the papers or listen to the radio. "It's not by his choice he's getting all this attention,'' says Leake. "Be welcome to the experience, but remember what you're there for.''
Enjoy it while you can, kid. There's always someone else, waiting to be Next.
Tuesday night, Strasburg's debut in D.C. will be witnessed by a sold-out crowd and broadcast on national TV. About 300 media members will attend the blessed event. In Cincinnati, Mike Leake will throw a bullpen session before his next scheduled start, Thursday afternoon.