The clubhouse at Nationals Park has eight flat-screen TVs - one mounted on each side of two pillars at opposite ends of the football-shaped room - and before Stephen Strasburg's debut last night, all but one of them was turned to ESPN's pregame coverage of the midseason-game-turned-media-sensation. It was the one Strasburg was watching.
Strasburg took one look at the pregame coverage several hours before the game, eying the countdown clock running in at the bottom of the screen like the run-up to a shuttle launch. He turned his head briefly, made note of it, and kept walking back to his locker. And while even his teammates were fixated on the unprecedented hype surrounding the 21-year-old, Strasburg was impervious to it.
"If I were him, I'd probably be pacing around, trying to get myself ready," said reliever Drew Storen, who was drafted with Strasburg last year and has become his unofficial liaison. "And he was just sitting over there, eating, watching 'Animal Planet.' ,,, It was like that and 'Cash Cab.' It was like, 'This is the biggest game this kid's ever pitched.'"
Before the game, Storen talked to Strasburg's father, Jim, who asked the reliever to make sure Strasburg was relaxed. There was clearly no need. But the Nationals did it anyway.
It wasn't as much about deadening Strasburg's nerves as it was about destroying any barrier that might have existed between the phenom and his new teammates. As much of a walking spectacle as Strasburg is, he wants nothing more than to be one of the guys. And knowing that, the Nationals responded with jokes, taunts and shaving cream pies.
"When you've got a lot of teammates in the clubhouse who enjoy the game and play the game for the right reasons, it really puts everything in perspective," Strasburg said.
The laughs started well before the game, when pitching coach Steve McCatty walked out of the bullpen with Strasburg. "I said, 'Watch. When we walk out of here, they're going to give me a standing O,'" McCatty said. "And (Adam) Dunn's down there clapping his hands, so I took my hat off, trying to make him laugh and relax a little bit. He's just a real low-key kind of guy. It's like, if you get it everywhere you go, coming to the big leagues, you're more excited about that. He handled everything in stride."
There was more one-of-the-guys when Strasburg didn't run out a grounder in the third inning, thinking it was a hit - "I was very disappointed he couldn't hit, but we'll get to that later," Dunn said. And when the game ended, he got not one, not two, but three pies in the face, from John Lannan, Scott Olsen (who wiped Strasburg's face off from the first one, only to hit him again) and Nyjer Morgan.
The payoff now comes when the hype dissipates, at least a little. Strasburg will probably continue to be the novelty, the Nationals player everyone talks about and wants to see. But now, he can move a little closer to his teammates, who went out of their way to welcome him with open arms. In the alpha-male sports world, that usually means jokes and backhanded compliments. But the effect is the same.
"You hear stories that he's this big-time personality, and people just assume that he was," Storen said. "It's opposite. He's a humble guy. He's a laid-back guy, and he doesn't get caught up in the hype. He had to have not turned on a TV in the last week to not be nervous."