STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We'll report next on one of the most-hyped baseball prospects ever. Pitcher Stephen Strasburg's fastball made him a number one draft choice last year when he received a record contract for an amateur: $15 million. Not an amateur anymore. Tonight, he will pitch in his first Major League game for the Washington Nationals. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Before he's even thrown his first pitch, on sports talk radio, TV and Internet sites, Stephen Strasburg's been called the best pitching phenom in years. Here's Curt Schilling recently on ESPN.
(Soundbite of TV show)
Mr. CURT SCHILLING (Former Major League Baseball pitcher): I've never seen anything like this.
Unidentified Man #1: Really?
Mr. SCHILLING: No, never. Nothing close.
Unidentified Man #1: Nothing close?
Mr. SCHILLING: No, not at that age, that polished.
SHAPIRO: Schilling should know, or know better. He's a pitching legend himself, the hero of Boston Red Sox World Series victories. Schilling went on to say that Strasburg, when he plays tonight, instantly could become the best pitcher in all of baseball. That's a lot of weight to throw on the shoulders of a 21-year-old.
But here's why there is so much interest in Stephen Strasburg. He really does have the potential to be great. Thomas Boswell is a baseball writer and columnist for the Washington Post.
Mr. THOMAS BOSWELL (Baseball Writer, Columnist, Washington Post): There are very few pitchers who, from the first day they arrive in the Major Leagues, are clearly seen as part of an arc of pitchers in baseball history that they resemble so strongly in their potential that people can't wait to see where they fall along that range of pitchers.
SHAPIRO: Strasburg could be one of those prospects who turn out to be busts, or who shows flashes of brilliances and then, and it's a common hazard for pitchers, has a career-blunting injury.
Mr. BOSWELL: Or at the high end of the most optimistic you can conceivably be, Roger Clemens, all-time great. That's what we're talking about.
SHAPIRO: Boswell knows that even great pitchers often get off to rocky starts.
Mr. BOSWELL: In Roger Clemens' first six starts, he pitched home and away -good teams, bad teams - and got hit by everybody. People in New England were, oh, my Lord. By the middle of the next year, his second season, he was having shoulder surgery to end his season. People thought Clemens was a huge bust.
SHAPIRO: But Clemens came back the next year and pitched the Red Sox to the World Series.
Still, today, in an era of constant sports talk, it's not just Strasburg's blazing fastballs and sweeping curve that will determine greatness, or his competitive streak and ability to understand hitters. Now Strasburg's got to have the skill to deal with the round-the-clock saturation sports news, especially if he doesn't meet all the hyped expectations.
Stan Kasten knows. He's the Nationals' team president. He talked from the team's dugout before a game this weekend.
Mr. STAN KASTEN (President, Washington Nationals): This is unprecedented, the amount of attention he's gotten. I've been in the sports business for 30 years, and I've never been around an occasion where an incoming player had this kind of a spotlight focused on him.
SHAPIRO: The Nationals started Strasburg in the minors, in part so, with less scrutiny, he could experience bad pitching days.
Mr. KASTEN: Yeah, we had a hitch in that plan. Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SHAPIRO: But Strasburg blew through minor league hitters.
Mr. KASTEN: Yeah, we wanted him to work on all the stuff related to having men on base, and alas, he just never had a lot of men on base. And we wanted to see how he would bounce back from a real drubbing. And alas, he never got that drubbing.
SHAPIRO: Strasburg is said to be private, reserved and surprised by all the attention. Still, if Strasburg thinks there's been a lot of hype about him, wait till he meets Bryce Harper. Last night, the Washington Nationals got the first pick again in baseball's amateur draft.
Unidentified Man #2: The Washington Nationals select Bryce Harper.
(Soundbite of applause, cheering)
SHAPIRO: Harper is just 17, but he can hit a baseball so far that last year, when he was still 16, Sports Illustrated put him on its cover and called him the most exciting prodigy in sports since basketball star LeBron James.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.