What It Means to Be the 1

A record-setting contract, maybe even a leap to the bigs this summer, await draft phenom Stephen Strasburg, but as plenty of past can't-miss kids will attest, you can miss
June 14, 2009

For months Stephen Strasburg has been tailed by raised radar guns, standing-room crowds and breathless scouts filing even more breathless scouting reports. The magic of the 20-year-old righthander from San Diego State has been well-documented: a four-seam fastball that has been clocked at 102 miles per hour, a slider that makes hitters look as though they're swinging in quicksand, and—as this week's draft got under way—a legion of baseball men calling him the best pitching prospect ever. Awaiting him are fame, opportunity and likely the richest contract ever bestowed upon an amateur player (a six-year, $50 million deal if his agent, Scott Boras, gets his way). But there is this too: the unreasonable expectations, the injury risks, the strange whims that have been the rule rather than the exception with the game's bonus babies. SI rounded up nine pitchers spanning more than half a century who have trod the same turf—the Strasburgs of their era—to offer some perspective to baseball's Next Big Thing. From Paul Pettit (class of 1950) to Mark Prior (class of 2001), an oral history of the flamethrowing phenom:

The Hype

TIM BELCHER, '83: I wasn't even recruited out of high school [in Sparta, Ohio]. I was a catcher and a shortstop. I only pitched four games. Before graduation my high school coach told me I should contact some colleges. I got form letters back.

ANDY BENES, '88: I was a biology and chemistry major at Evansville. I thought I'd go to medical school. Then, in the second or third game of my junior year, I struck out 21 batters. My velocity had gone up eight miles per hour in one season. It was all thrust upon me at once.

FLOYD BANNISTER, '76: I grew up in Seattle but only went to one professional baseball game—1969, Pilots versus Indians. I sat in rightfield. So when I went 15--0 as a high school senior with a 0.00 ERA, I didn't really know it was that big a deal.

LEW KRAUSSE, '61: I pitched 18 no-hitters in my amateur career. I struck out 16, 17, 18 batters a game. In the stands on most days were my mother, the catcher's mother and a few girlfriends. The rest were scouts.

BOBBY WITT, '85: I wanted to throw as hard as I could and light up that gun. I went to Oklahoma, and I remember one game against Texas when everybody was there, all the scouts and cross-checkers. I struck out 17. I think I was throwing 95 or 96. But that was with a slower gun than they use today.

PAUL PETTIT, '50: They didn't have radar guns when I was coming up. They didn't have the draft either. But I would have been what you call the No. 1 pick. There was a producer in Hollywood—a foreign guy named Frederick Stephani—who wanted to make sports movies. He had the idea of picking out an athlete who would become famous, quote unquote. He knew I would be cheap compared to Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio. That's how I became the first player with an agent.

WITT: I didn't even have an agent. It was just me and my dad.

BENES: My last start was in a [College World Series] regional at Arizona State. The Padres had the first pick in the draft. Jack McKeon, who was the Padres' general manager at the time, was in the stands. I got up to 101 on the radar gun, and Jack told all the other scouts, "You might as well leave because that's who we're taking."

DAVID CLYDE, '73: The draft was on a Tuesday, and my high school team was playing in the state semifinals on Thursday. The Rangers picked me first overall, and the following week they came down to see me in Houston. It took 30 minutes to negotiate the contract. Then they said, "Do you want to go straight to the big leagues?" I said, "Sure."

BELCHER: It's your wedding day, graduation day and the day you get your first speeding ticket all wrapped into one. It's one of the greatest days of your life, but I wouldn't want to go through it again. It's very exciting but very uncomfortable.

The Expectations

PETTIT: I was the first $100,000 bonus baby. The producer, Stephani, gave me $85,000, plus movie royalties, and the Pirates kicked in $15,000. It wasn't a monumental achievement. It wasn't my ability. It was just money.

KRAUSSE: I was the first to get a $125,000 signing bonus. I thought I had tied Donald Trump. I signed with the Kansas City A's because my father was a scout for them and Charlie Finley offered him a five-year contract to stay on.

BENES: I got the largest bonus at the time, $235,000. We were sitting at dinner last night talking about the million-dollar bonuses first-round picks get now, and my son said, "I bet you wish you could get that?" I told him, "I'll take my 235 and 15 years in the big leagues." It's very hard when you always have to validate what you've been paid.

BANNISTER: Houston drafted me first overall, and their initial offer was $70,000. There were guys picked a lot lower who got more than that. But the Astros had finished 43½ games out of first place and were not doing well financially.

BELCHER: I'm only the second guy drafted No. 1 who didn't sign. I got vilified for it, and it seems like Scott [Boras] has gotten vilified for it every June since. At one point I could've gotten about $100,000. That would've been pretty much in line. But the Twins' final offer was $60,000, third-round money. I went into the January draft in '84 and was picked by the Yankees. I signed on Feb. 2, but the Yankees had to submit their protected list in mid-January and didn't put me on it. The A's took me in the [free-agent] compensation draft six days later. I was on three teams before I played my first game.

KRAUSSE: God help you if you get the huge contract. You're resented from Day One. I made more money than anybody on the team just by signing my name. Other players were jealous. They called me Moneybags. I was alone a lot.

ANDERSON: I bought a four-acre farm. I probably bought 25 cars. I took trips to California to hang out with friends. Focus on the baseball, man. There will be time to spend your money later. A lot of people chase wealth. I know now that it's not all it's cracked up to be. I actually have more fun living on a budget these days. I get more excited about buying new wheels for the van than I got about buying an $80,000 car I had nowhere to park.

CLYDE: I joined the team in Minneapolis, and the first guy—I'm not naming names—said, "Hi, my name's so and so and I don't think I'm going to be your friend." Some guys would ask me to go to the bars with them, but I was 18. I don't know if they were trying to make me feel like part of the team or trying to take advantage of me.

PETTIT: I was 18 when I started out with the New Orleans Pelicans, the Pirates' Triple A team. There were three newspapers in town, and I was in the paper almost every day. The first game I pitched, there were more than 10,000 people in the stands. The outfield was roped off. Looking back, it might have been better to start at a lower level.

The Show

WITT: I went 0--6 in the minors and didn't win my first game until I was in the big leagues. Things you get away with in college you don't in the pros. That breaking ball you throw down and away? They spit on it.

MARK PRIOR, '01: When I got called up, I was replacing a guy who was 1--7, and Don Baylor was getting fired and we were on our way to losing 95 games. Joe Girardi was my catcher and he said, "Be professional, know your job, know your responsibilities on the field and off." My transition happened so fast, I don't think I appreciated what it took to get there.

CLYDE: The only way I can describe that first big league game I pitched: Imagine your biggest dream come true and getting to live it. As I warmed up, the coaches called the bullpen to tell me to sit down. The game was delayed 15 minutes due to a traffic jam outside the stadium. That's how many people were coming.

ANDERSON: I was only in the minors for 2½ months when I got called up in 1998. We're in the old Tiger Stadium, playing an interleague game against the Cubs, Kerry Wood pitching for Chicago. It's the seventh inning, crowd stands up, bullpen door swings opens, and they start playing Wild Thing for me. It was just like the movie. I threw missiles.

KRAUSSE: I went right from high school to the big leagues and threw a three-hit shutout in my first game against the Angels at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City. When I gave up a home run in the second game, I thought, Holy s---, the world is going to come to an end tonight. It was the first home run I had ever allowed in my life. In the third game, my elbow started to burn.

WITT: What Strasburg has is very, very special and doesn't come along every year or five or 10 years. Take care of your arm. Just take care of that thing.

The Fall

CLYDE: My shoulder trouble was the result of my trying too hard. I went straight to the big leagues out of high school, and I didn't know at the time I was good enough. I thought my fastball had to be that much faster and my curveball had to be that much better. The minor leagues allow you to build that confidence, to ease into it. I had the ability to pitch in the big leagues. I know that now. But I didn't know it then. That's why I'd like to see Strasburg start in the minors.

KRAUSSE: I didn't throw at all that first winter, and by spring training the next year, I felt really good. On the second day of spring, I was probably throwing 95. Someone should have been standing there saying, "Settle down, it's only the second day." But there was no supervision. It was the beginning of 15 years of pain. I would pitch, take time off, get a shot of cortisone, pitch again, and then the pain would come back. Nobody found anything wrong until I went to the Mayo Clinic later that year and they said I had a detached tendon. They cut right through the muscle. You should see the scar I have on my elbow today. It looks like my wife took me out in the barn and chopped me open.

PETTIT: I pulled a muscle in my elbow that first year in New Orleans, but the coaches told me it wasn't serious. I learned how to throw differently, to compensate for the elbow, and hurt my shoulder. From then on, I had to throw like a catcher, from my ear. I never had the same leverage. I finished my career as a hitter.

ANDERSON: The night I blew out my shoulder, the Red Wings had a promotion before the game at Comerica Park where they asked me and Jeff Weaver to throw two or three octopuses. We threw them underhand about 10 feet. That's not why I hurt my arm. But a lot of people took it and ran with it.

BANNISTER: We had a concrete wall in the backyard growing up that was never finished, so it was only about three-feet high. I would stand 40 feet behind the wall and fire fastballs at it, and if I missed, the ball would go into a neighbor's yard. The neighbor had some big dogs, so I had to learn to throw with downward angle. I think that's why I never had arm problems.

BELCHER: I work for the Indians now, and I'm asked all the time to talk to kids who were draft picks and are struggling. I tell them, "Teams draft arms, legs, speed and power. They don't know the full story." I was one of 10 pitchers drafted ahead of Roger Clemens in 1983. And five of those 10 didn't even pitch in the big leagues.

CLYDE: I hear periodically when a young kid comes along, a team will say, "We're not going to let happen to him what happened to David Clyde." That's very gratifying for me. At least they know they screwed up.

PRIOR: Injuries make you look at the big picture, at what it means to be in the major leagues. It's not like I was one of those guys who was drafted high and never made it or barely made it. I made it, performed at a high level and because of injuries wasn't able to maintain that level.

PETTIT: The producer came and checked on me every now and again, but we never did make a movie. I didn't develop quite the way he thought I would.

CLYDE: My last game was in the instructional league with the Astros. I've thrown my eighth warmup pitch, and as I give that O.K. sign to send it down to second base, I asked myself, What are you doing here? Never in my life had I asked what I was doing on a baseball field. At that point, I knew it was time to walk away. I didn't realize I was 27 days from my pension, but at that point it didn't matter. Obviously, I'd love to have it now.

The Aftermath

ANDERSON: I pitch batting practice to my sons' Little League teams, and my wife gets on me for throwing too hard to the kids. But I can't slow my arm down. I can still get in the high 90s when I'm working out. I will pitch in the big leagues again. I don't know if anyone else believes that, but I do. It ain't over.

PRIOR: Unfortunately, there's no timetable for my return right now. It's good, it's bad, it's rehab. The Padres are giving me the time I need. The more I'm away from the game, the more I appreciate the intricacies of it. That's what I miss. I miss watching guys and knowing, 'This is what I would do in that situation.' I just want to play again.

BENES: One of the top high school pitchers in the country is here in St. Louis. His name is Jacob Turner, at Westminster Christian Academy, where my kids go. He's 17, and he throws in the upper 90s. I sometimes go watch him, and it brings back a lot of memories. My kids see the herd of scouts salivating behind home plate, and I tell them, "I remember when it was like this."

CLYDE: I give 150 pitching lessons a month now, to everybody from eight-year-olds to college kids. Right now I'm here with Dalton Barcello, a 10-year-old from Houston. "Get that elbow up, Dalton! Those balls are high, Dalton! Trust it, Dalton! Trust it! Trust it!"... You know, my grandson just called me an hour ago and said, "Grandpa, guess what we did today?" I asked him what, and he said, "We went on a field trip to the Ballpark in Arlington," and he said, "Guess what I saw?" And I asked him what, and he said, "I saw you. I saw your picture in the stadium." That was pretty cool.

KRAUSSE: I live in Kansas City and go see the Royals once or twice a year, but I only stay for four or five innings. That's all I can handle. I still sometimes have these dreams where I'm pitching that day but can't find my glove or my hat and am late to the ballpark and missed the bus and can't catch a cab. I went to counseling when I was out of baseball, and they said, "Lew, it's because in your mind you left the game before you were mentally ready, and you have to accept the fact that you had a good career and did things other people wish they could have done." This kid in San Diego sounds like he's got all the physical tools. God, I hope they take care of him emotionally.

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MATT ANDERSON, '97: I would run out of the bullpen at Rice and watch the radar guns rise. It doesn't feel like you're doing anything special, and then—wham!—100 mph. You hear the ball snap off your fingertips. You can actually hear it sizzle in the air. It's like breaking the sound barrier with a plane. Ninety-nine is cool. But 100—that's a whole different deal, bro.

BELCHER: I didn't want an agent. I told my coach at Mount Vernon Nazarene College, Sam Riggleman, to tell the agents that my parents and I were going to handle everything on our own. Sam called me a couple weeks before the draft and said, "I know you don't want to talk to any agents, but I just got a call from a young guy in California who sounds really sharp, and I think you need to meet him." We met at the airport in Columbus. It was Scott Boras.

BENES: I spent three months in Double A at Wichita, a month in Triple A at Las Vegas, and then I was in the big leagues. I was 21. The next year I pitched against the Cubs in San Diego, and their pitcher hit Joe Carter. It was a close game, but I wanted my teammates to like me and I told myself, 'I need to hit somebody to show them I'll stick up for them.' I threw one behind Shawon Dunston's back. Jack McKeon—he was our manager then—asks me, "Were you trying to hit him?" I said, "I'm trying to stick up for my teammate." He shook his head and said, "We're trying to win a ball game here."

KRAUSSE: I went out the way I came in. It was at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, and in the last game of the Pacific Coast League season in 1975. I convinced my manager to let me play leftfield. I came up to bat and I told the catcher and the umpire, "Back up, we're going to have a little barbecue today." I took off my jersey, took off my pants and laid them on home plate. I sprayed them with a bottle of lighter fluid, lit a match and set them on fire. It's a shame it wasn't at Yankee Stadium. I didn't give a s--- about repercussions. My arm was hurting so bad I couldn't wipe my a--. Half the people were shocked and half were laughing their a----s off. You come in with a blaze, you go out with a blaze.

PHOTOPhotograph by ERNIE ANDERSONEXPRESS LANE Strasburg has the stuff to make an immediate impact, but there are plenty of bonus babies who would advise him to take it slow. PHOTOMARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE[See caption above] FOUR PHOTOSTHE TOPPS COMPANY
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