Before Bob Costas began calling his games, before talk of his imminent induction into the Hall of Fame began, before security guards became a constant companion and before anyone who threw a baseball knew his name, Stephen Strasburg was once a somewhat overweight kid trying to gain attention from Major League scouts.
One game changed it all.
Former West Hills High coach Scott Hopgood remembers it well.
“That’s easy, what launched Stephen was the 12-strikeout performance he had his senior year against El Capitan for first place in the Grossmont League,” Hopgood said.
“We won 4-0 and that was the game that Stephen got noticed. We go into their yard and Stephen throws probably the greatest high school game I’ve ever seen. El Cap finished with one hit, and not one ball went to the outfield. Their one hit was an infield single, and I think it was a dribbler. Stephen was that commanding that day.
“What I liked about that day was how Stephen adjusted. We knew El Cap was a fastball-hitting team. Stephen had to throw his slider the first time through, and the second time through he threw his change-up for strikes. It was a totally dominating performance.”
There were signability issues with Strasburg his senior year, not to mention some other issues. Strasburg was roughly 250 pounds as a senior at West Hills. He was coming off a harrowing junior year in which he pitched with some hard luck, sometimes lacked run support, but mostly hurt himself.
He pitched well enough to have a 3.50 ERA, but it still wasn’t good enough to win.
He didn’t like to run. He wasn’t a conditioning demon then. To say he was a late bloomer is a drastic understatement. Strasburg wasn’t even on the map.
He had hoped to get into Stanford, and had the grades to get in, according to Hopgood, but he wasn’t accepted.
That’s when San Diego State came into the picture and swooped up the unpolished Strasburg.
No one knew what an unknown gem Strasburg was.
“San Diego State deserves a lot of credit for Stephen,” Hopgood said. “I told people if you want to see what Stephen can really do, wait three years after high school. He was just learning his change-up and I have to give a lot of credit to Rusty Filter (now pitching coach at Stanford and former pitching coach at San Diego State) for really bringing out the best in Stephen.”
But Strasburg did a lot of growing up his senior year at West Hills. He posted a 1.36 ERA his final year of high school, with 74 strikeouts in 62 innings and seven complete games.
“Weight issues were a big deal to Stras,” Hopgood said. “It wasn’t until he felt better about himself physically that you started to see some things change. Running was an issue; Stephen didn’t like to condition too much then. If you asked him to sprint, it wasn’t like he was defiant, he was a big guy. He just didn’t do it.
“After he graduated, I ran into him a year-and-half later and he looked great. He was down to around 220, 225. It came to him finally to dedicate himself and to do this. Once that happened, you see the results today.”
Strasburg is still getting a little used to the hoopla surrounding each of his starts. Every time he pitches for the Washington Nationals, it’s an event. Everyone wants to see him. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of him.
It grew to the point that the Nationals restricted the media wanting to talk to Strasburg. Now he only speaks to the media after games he pitches, just about those games.
It’s grown so ridiculous that Cleveland fans waited two hours for him after a start June 13 in the team parking lot. They chased him down the street in his car like he was a rock star.
“This attention is kind of crazy,” admitted Strasburg earlier this season. “I heard how intense things would be up here [at the Major League level], but it’s certainly a lot different when you deal with it in person, and a lot different from [West Hills] when I played in high school. I just don’t want it to change who I am. I just want to pitch and help these guys win. This is all really overblown, in my opinion.”
That attitude doesn’t surprise Hopgood. He saw it develop at West Hills.
“The Nationals will turn it around, and Stras will be right at the center of it, you watch,” Hopgood said. “Stras has a habit of making people around him better. He did it at West Hills, he did at San Diego State and he’ll do it with the Nationals. Stras is a star, but doesn’t act like it, not among his teammates. He’s what a real superstar should be, someone who makes everyone around him better. The Nationals will get better and it’ll be because of Stras.”