As the color man on TV broadcasts for the Triple-A team in Syracuse, N.Y., Steve Grilli has witnessed the Stephen Strasburg phenomenon up close. It reminded him of someone else, 34 years ago.
The same kind of attention Strasburg will get when he makes his big-league debut tonight for the Nationals was once heaped on Mark Fidrych, a teammate of Grilli on the 1976 Tigers.
"He electrified the city," Grilli told FanHouse. "We were a middle-of-the-road team at the time, but every night he pitched, there was 45,000-plus at the stadium. That's the closest thing I've seen to what this guy [Strasburg] has done."
Strasburg isn't the first mega-phenom pitcher in baseball history. Before Strastivus, or Strasapalooza, or whatever the rest of this summer becomes known as in D.C., there was Fernandomania. And the K Corner. And "The Bird" -- Fidrych.
"It can bring a lot of energy, a lot of energy to the town, a lot of energy to the league," said Reds manager Dusty Baker, who played behind Fernando Valenzuela on the 1981 Dodgers.
In their time, those pitchers created what the Nationals hope for from Strasburg: a rejuvenated team, an energized fanbase and a transformed franchise.
"I think it's a great thing for baseball, a great thing for the Washington area," said Mets broadcaster Ron Darling, who played with Dwight Gooden on the '84 Mets and called Nationals games in 2005.
As Trent Jewett, Strasburg's Triple-A manager, said, "He's good for the game, because he's a rock star."
The 1983 Mets weren't very good. They lost 94 games, the franchise's seventh straight losing season. New manager Davey Johnson pushed the front office to give him a 19-year-old right-hander Johnson had managed the year before in the Triple-A playoffs after a late callup from Class A.
Suddenly, there was a reason to go to Shea Stadium.
Gooden -- who later took on the nickname "Doctor K," as in "K" for strikeout, and then just "Doc" -- went 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA and 276 strikeouts in 218 innings.
At age 19.
"When 'Doc' pitched, you had to be there," Darling said. "You had to watch the game. You didn't go to your bowling league. You had to watch this must-see show, because you didn't know if he was going to throw a no-hitter."
Three years before Gooden arrived, Valenzuela -- who had been a September call-up in 1980 -- became the Dodgers' Opening Day starter by accident when Jerry Reuss pulled a calf muscle.
Valenzuela, listed as 20, won his first eight starts for the Dodgers, five by shutout, and wound up the first rookie Cy Young Award winner.
"When Fernando came up," recalled Baker, "we had a packed house every night. We had a packed house on the road because everyone was curious to see. I mean, let's face it, the pitcher is the star of the show, especially when you got a star like Strasburg coming up here, and I'm sure people all over the league are going to be interested to see this young man."
Another young pitcher who created that kind of following was Vida Blue of the 1971 A's. (He wasn't a rookie that season because of call-ups in 1969 and '70, the latter including a no-hitter).
Blue went 24-8 with a 1.82 ERA in '71, started the All-Star Game and won the AL Cy Young and MVP award. Blue, who turned 22 that summer, got 40,000 fans to show up in Washington for the lowly Senators. Oakland's season attendance went up 18 percent from 1970.
"It was definitely an exciting time to be at the ballpark that year when Vida was going," said Dave Duncan, then Blue's catcher and now the Cardinals pitching coach. "You talk about a pitcher dominating hitters, that was Vida that year."
Back then, Senators vice president Joe Burke told Time magazine, "Give me a day with Vida Blue, and 20,000 people will find their way to the stadium."
Lifting the Team
A pitcher can create a craze unlike that of a position player. While Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds have been drawing cards in recent years, they only batted three or four times a night. The pitcher is in every play, and while he plays only every fifth game, that allows the anticipation to build.
Grilli told the story of a Tigers series in Minnesota in the summer of 1976. July 19 was 10-cent beer night, and attendance was 5,005. For cheap beer.
The next night, Fidrych started. And with beers back at full price, 30,425 showed up.
"There was just that type of interest," Grilli said. "A phenomenon that people want to see. Is this guy real? They want to see if what everybody is talking about was real."
The fans weren't the only ones excited.
"We couldn't wait till he pitched," former Tigers infielder Jerry Manuel said.
On the 1998 Cubs, Kerry Wood became a happening after his fifth big-league start -- in which he tied the record with 20 strikeouts.
"They had a lot of walkup crowds, so there was definitely anticipation," Wood said recently. "Guys feed off that. We fed off that as a team. Obviously it takes more than one starting pitcher to get your team in the playoffs, so guys stepped up and had good years. It was a fun summer."
So the phenom hurler can raise not only the team's performance at the gate but the team's performance on the field.
"A pitcher like that will make the players better behind him," said Mark Grace, who played with Wood. "Guys will really look forward to playing behind him. And it will be a challenge to the other pitchers on that staff."
Giants manager Bruce Bochy saw it when Tim Lincecum arrived in 2007.
"You throw a guy like that out there, it gives you a lot of presence," Bochy said. "The other team's got to go, 'Oh, we've got to face that guy.' It does something. It'll do something for their club [the Nationals]."
|Vida Blue||1971 A's||89-73
2nd in AL West
Won AL West
|Mark Fidrych||1978 Tigers||57-102
6th in AL East
5th in AL East
|Fernando Valenzuela||1981 Dodgers||92-71
2nd in NL West
Won World Series
|Dwight Gooden||1984 Mets||68-94
6th in NL East
2nd in NL East
|Kerry Wood||1998 Cubs||68-94
5th in NL Central
Won NL Wild Card
"They're going to fill the ballpark the day he pitches," Wood said of Strasburg, "and they're going to see other players doing things and they're going to like that [other] kid and come back and watch him play. And that's how it all starts."
What some of those previous phenoms has that we have yet to see out of Strasburg is a uniqueness, a calling card. Something unusual -- more than just ability -- that makes him stand out.
Valenzuela had his eye roll toward the sky as he delivered a pitch. Gooden had violent stuff. Blue had that unusual name, Vida Rochelle Blue Jr. (huckster owner Charlie O. Finley tried, unsuccessfully, to get Blue to legally change his name to Vida True Blue).
And Fidrych -- well, people came to see him talk to the ball and groom the mound with his bare hands as much as to see him pitch.
"I don't think anybody will ever have that type of impact," said Manuel, now the Mets manager, "because of the fan and player relationship that he [created]. It was almost like he was dealing with them more than he was dealing with the opposition. He didn't care about the opposition. He didn't know who they were, but he was so charismatic on the mound."
Darling said what made Gooden attractive was both his delivery and his sheer youth.
"To be that young," Darling said, "to be able to do what he was doing against adults while he was still a teen-ager. The way he did it was almost Nijinsky or Nureyev, [the way] his body moved and unfolded and twisted and turned and at the end it came this unleashing of fury that I had never seen before."
Valenzuela threw a screwball, already a rarity in repertoires, and created something of a mystique by communicating only in Spanish. But his trademark was that momentary upward glance, his eyes clearly leaving his target at the plate.
"Everyone was curious how he could throw strikes looking up into the sky," Baker said, "or who he was looking up to or why he was looking up there. We started looking up in the sky.
"There was nothing like Fernandomania."
An added factor in Fernandomania was his appeal to the large Mexican population in Los Angeles.
"They needed a hero," then-Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda said, "and they found one in Fernando."
We Saw This Coming
But Strasburg does have something that sets him apart from the others: the buildup. Fans nationwide had not heard of Fidrych, Gooden or Valenzuela before they arrived. Gooden's debut drew all of 18,925 to the Astrodome. (Teammate Darryl Strawberry, like Strasburg a No. 1 overall draft pick, did have some of that pre-debut anticipation in '83.)
Baker said Fernandomania "just built. That built and built and built, because Fernando didn't have the hype coming out of the minor leagues that this man [Strasburg] does and because he didn't get the money coming out of Mexico that Strasburg did. I mean, he didn't have [agent] Scott Boras helping the hype machine either, so Fernando did it just by sheer winning on the field."
A quarter-century later, growth in the interest in prospects and the draft, combined with the Internet, have made Strasburg a household name before he throws his first big-league pitch.
"There's a lot more hype now," said Jim Riggleman, who managed Wood in 1998 and will manage Strasburg tonight. "When Kerry came up, Kerry had been two or three years in the minor leagues. With Strasburg, it's been from well before he got drafted. It was understood Strasburg was going to be the first player drafted. It was understood he was going to be an elite pitcher -- all of that stuff. With Kerry, the coverage wasn't like that. Fans -- nobody -- saw Kerry throw a pitch on film until he got to the big leagues."
Does Strasburg know what he's in for?
"They all wanted a piece" of Valenzuela, Lasorda said.
"After my fifth start," Wood said, "my life changed as far as being in that city, and even nationwide a little bit. My face was everywhere. It was overwhelming. I was 20 years old, and that's a lot to take on."
As Blue told Time nearly 40 years ago, "It's a weird scene. You win a few baseball games, and all of a sudden you're surrounded by reporters and TV men with cameras, asking things about Vietnam and race relations and stuff about yourself. Man, I'm only a kid. I don't know exactly who I am. I don't have a whole philosophy of life set down."
Strasburg, who turns 22 next month, has gotten a small taste of it in the minors. His May 24 start drew 13,288 in Syracuse; attendance the night before and night after was 5,541 and 4,844, respectively.
"He's handled it," said Jewett, the Syracuse manager. "He'll handle that [the majors] too."
Johnson, who managed Gooden as a rookie, said he sees some similarities between Strasburg and Gooden in their stuff and their rapid rise to the majors.
"It's all going be on how they perform, and how they handle adversity and bounce back," said Johnson, who had Strasburg when he managed the U.S. team in the 2008 Olympics and now is a senior advisor for the Nationals.
"I enjoy watching [Strasburg], I enjoy him learning through adversity."
Much is expected, but Strasburg might be able to deliver.
"I think that he can, " Darling said, "with [third baseman Ryan] Zimmerman, provide a 1-2 punch that puts Washington where the Mets though they'd be after 2006 [with David Wright and Jose Reyes]. Two homegrown talents, which fans love, and they have a chance to put Washington on the map. And that's a power city anyway. In 2005, when they were doing well ... people were going crazy. Every politician in the world was there. Movers and shakers."
Before his penultimate minor-league start, Strasburg was asked what advice he'd give to the next big thing.
"Definitely just enjoy it," Strasburg said. "It's going to have its up and downs, but you've really got to focus on enjoying the things not everybody cares about.
"Just enjoy the ride, enjoy the players that you're playing with, the coaches that you're learning from, the people that you meet along the way. It's a lot of fun. Those are the things that I enjoy and enjoy a lot more than just being successful on the field."
Includes reporting by Andrew Johnson, Jeff Fletcher, John Hickey and Tom Krasovic.