By John Perrotto
Stephen Strasburg, by his own admission, would pitch in a vacuum if he could.
Just him on the mound, the batter in the box, the catcher behind the plate and eight fielders behind him. No fans, no television cameras, no radio announcers, nobody tweeting, no reporters asking about why he threw a certain pitch or about his pitch counts or his innings totals.
Just baseball. That's the way the Washington Nationals' ace likes it best.
"He doesn't seek attention," Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "He's just focused on being the pitcher he can be and to help this team. He doesn't care about being a star or any of that stuff."
However, Strasburg has gotten plenty of attention, going back to the days when he was routinely hitting 100 mph with his fastball and dominating Mountain West Conference hitters at San Diego State. The spotlight only got brighter when the Nationals selected him first overall in the 2009 amateur draft and signed him to a draft-record $15.1-million major league contract that covered four years.
The attention reached a crescendo when he made his major league debut on June 8, 2010 against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Nationals Park in Washington. The atmosphere that night -- from the festive nature of the crowd to the throng of credentialed media -- made it seem like a World Series game, something the nation's capital hasn't seen since 1933.
Strasburg struck out 14 in seven innings that night. Suddenly, every start at home was being called "Strasmas" because it was such a big event. However, Strasburg admits he didn't enjoy what should have been the time of a then-21-year-old's life.
"I played for Tony Gwynn at San Diego State, a Hall of Famer, one of the greatest players ever, and he always stressed that you have to earn your way in this game," Strasburg said. "I didn't feel like I had come close to earning anything. I had less a full season in the minor leagues. It was very uncomfortable to have everyone write and say these (good) things about me when I hadn't accomplished anything.
"I felt like I was taking away something from my teammates. All everyone was asking them were questions about me. That wasn't fair to them. It's a team sport."
Strasburg was clearly uncomfortable in the spotlight, his clipped and clichéd answers belying the 4.67 weighted grade point average he compiled at West Hills High School in Santee, Calif., and the fact he is actively working on finishing his degree in public administration from San Diego State.
However, Strasburg has slowly come to terms with the fact that celebrity is part of playing professional sports. He no longer so uncomfortable with television cameras or reporters asking questions. While it is a stretch to say Strasburg enjoys the interaction, he is more at ease and gives much more meaningful answers. He will flash an occasional smile during interviews and even recently filmed a hilarious commercial for ESPN's SportsCenter.
Much of the loosening up stems from being a first-time father last October.
"It's made me realize there is more to life than baseball," he said. "I go home and see my daughter and it's just an unbelievable feeling. I still want to be the best pitcher I can be and help my team win but that's not my only priority now. More than anything, I want to be the best dad I can be."
That doesn't mean that Strasburg is not intense on the mound. He is still a great competitor, evidence of that coming last Saturday night when he lost a difficult 3-2 decision to the Pirates in Pittsburgh by giving up the tying and winning runs in the bottom of the seventh inning. While the rest of his teammates were either showering or eating after the game, Strasburg sat staring into his locker while in full uniform.
Yet by the next morning, Strasburg had been able to move past the defeat and amicably chat with a reporter following his pre-game workout.
"He's still very focused on his job but he's more relaxed and I think that's a good thing," Washington shortstop Ian Desmond said. "Nobody wants to win more than he does, but I also think he's learned to let things go a little more easily now."
Strasburg's traditional numbers see him pitching like a mortal so far this season, going 3-4 with a 3.42 ERA in 11 starts, barely above average, as his 104 ERA+ attests. (Although at least one advanced metric still considers him a superstar, with his ERA largely waylaid by a poor Nationals defense that has committed more errors than any other team in the National League.) That has fallen in line with the Nationals as a team, as they are just 25-26 while trying to withstand injuries to such key players as third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, left fielder Bryce Harper, catcher Wilson Ramos, starter Gio Gonzalez and first baseman LaRoche. However, no one on the Nationals thinks fatherhood has made Strasburg soft.
"The thing that has struck me the most about Stephen is his attention to detail," first-year Nationals manager Matt Williams said. "He came into spring training really wanting to become better at holding runners. A lot of guys with his background wouldn't even think about something like or want to put the extra work that goes into something like that.
"He's also extremely competitive. He's our No. 1 starter and he really embraces that. He wants to be that guy who leads the staff and is on the mound for big games. He wants to win very badly."
In some ways, Strasburg has become yesterday's news despite being just 25 and seemingly having a long career ahead of him. The media, as we are wont to do, have moved on to other phenoms like Mike Trout and Yasiel Puig.
Every fifth day isn't Strasmas anymore. Twelve starts into his career, Strasburg underwent Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery and has since made a conscious effort to take a little bit off his fastball for the sake of preserving his arm over piling up strikeouts and blowing out radar guns. As it turns out, though, the late Lewis Yocum did more than repair Strasburg's elbow when he performed the surgery in September 2010.
"I was devastated when I found out I needed surgery," Strasburg said. "I look back on it now and it's the best thing that happened in my career. It slowed everything down. I know I will probably always get a little more media attention than most other players just because of what's happened in the past but I was able to become more of a normal pitcher after I got hurt. I don't feel like everyone is watching every move I take anymore, and I like it this way a lot better.
"I've never asked to be treated different than anyone else."
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.