Strasburg's debut up there with the biggest
Nats phenom's premiere may surpass those of game's top stars
Joe Mauer remembers his Major League debut, a marquee event in Minnesota for the homegrown No. 1 Draft pick. Fewer than three years out of Cretin-Derham Hall High School, Mauer was suiting up for the Twins in a huge coming-out party.
In fact, it was such a big deal, bunting lined the railings at the Metrodome, and there were pregame ceremonies, introductions on the base lines and everything.
Oh, sure, the fact it was Opening Day -- not just the ascension of one of the game's best prospects -- had something to do with the pomp and circumstance surrounding Mauer's debut on April 5, 2004.
Still, Mauer knows a little bit about what Stephen Strasburg is going through heading into his first Major League game on Tuesday.
"It was a little different for me because Opening Day's kind of crazy whether you're a rookie or a veteran," Mauer said. "I'm sure it's all going to seem kind of crazy for him. It's an exciting time, and you know a lot of people are looking forward to it."
No doubt, when the Nationals' 21-year-old pitching phenom steps to the mound in front of a packed house at Nationals Park to make one of the most heralded debuts in years, it will be a big deal, and then some. It's a debut that in terms of attention-wrenching anticipation ranks with those of Ken Griffey Jr. in 1989, Mark Prior in 2002 ... and Mauer, whose promise was recognized well beyond the Twin Cities, just as Strasburg's is outside the Beltway.
In a way, Mauer might have had it easier in that all the festivities surrounding Opening Day kept the attention from being focused directly on his performance. Still, it was a big day.
"I was nervous, that's for sure," Mauer said. "Obviously, for me growing up there, it's like hearing the same song, everything was so familiar for me. And I realized that I wasn't there sitting and watching, I was actually playing."
That's a storyline that played out again this year with Jason Heyward, the Braves rookie whose three-run homer in his first at-bat on Opening Day showed he'd arrived on his hometown team's roster just in time to shine.
The much-ballyhooed premiere is a storyline that has played out for decades in baseball. It's part of the fabric of the game -- the big prospect taking his first steps into the Majors.
There was the ultimate debut, by Jackie Robinson on April 15, 1947, and others that resonated through time like Joe Nuxhall's with the Reds at age 15 -- or 60 years before he'd retire from broadcasting Reds games -- and those of sure-fire greats like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. More recently, future stars like Dwight Gooden and Pudge Rodriguez came in young and with a lot of fanfare.
Indeed, many of today's superstars' arrivals were celebrated, but to different degrees.
Starting pitchers like Justin Verlander, Tim Lincecum and David Price have entered the Major Leagues within a short time after being drafted, arriving with some serious hype of their own, albeit none quite rivaling Strasburg's on a national level. Then there was the case of Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Japanese right-hander whose arrival in Boston was the biggest in that city since Nomar Garciaparra in 1996 or perhaps Roger Clemens in 1984, and was much more of an international phenomenon.
"I think that the expectations placed on [Strasburg] are even higher than what was placed on me," Matsuzaka said through a translator to The Associated Press last week. "But the fact that expectation exists means that there's talent there."
Whether that talent translates to long-term success is another matter entirely, especially with starting pitchers.
Perhaps one of the splashiest debuts ever was that of David Clyde of the Rangers, a No. 1 overall pick from a Texas high school whose debut ... well, it couldn't be as well described as it was by the late Ron Fimrite in Sports Illustrated:
"It remained for the mayor of Arlington, Texas, himself to put the Big Event in historical perspective. 'From now on,' said the Hon. Tom Vandergriff, 'time here shall be marked from June 27, 1973.'
"It is a date that shall live in infancy, for on this night in Arlington Stadium, David Clyde, a stripling of 18, began his Major League baseball career by pitching the Texas Rangers to a 4-3 win over the Minnesota Twins."
Clyde threw 112 pitches, struck out eight and walked seven in five innings, allowing just one hit, a "startling performance for a youngster only 19 days out of Westchester High School in Houston," as Fimrite wrote. But it wound up being Clyde's greatest highlight. Clyde finished his Major League career with an 18-33 record and 4.63 ERA over parts of five seasons.
Other top picks like Ben McDonald of the Orioles rose quickly but didn't quite live up to the hype over the long haul.
And then there's Prior, who lived up to his billing in a big way from his very first start -- striking out 10 and setting Chicago into a tizzy. Even in comparison to the Kerry Wood debut four years before Prior's, this was a big deal in Wrigleyville.
"We get to see the No. 1 guy who everybody's been waiting for," then-slugger Sammy Sosa said before Prior's first outing.
Prior delivered on that promise until arm problems derailed his career, but his debut stands out as a superb start to a career.
Maybe it's the nature of the beast, but not every position player came in with the attention showered on Mauer, even if their debuts were eagerly awaited. In recent years, debuts from the likes of Evan Longoria with the Rays in 2008 and Matt Wieters of the Orioles last year turned some heads, but didn't shake up the game like, say, Dice-K.
Albert Pujols' debut obviously was anticipated as he'd rocketed up the Cardinals chain by age 21, but he was on the bubble to make the 2001 Opening Day roster for the Cards. He started as more of a role player -- knocking that notion out of the park quickly, mind you. Ryan Howard made a pretty big splash in 2004 as a September call-up, but his first two homers were as a pinch-hitter.
Before that, Seattle was home to two debuts that were among the most memorable of their era, with Junior becoming a household name at age 19 on Opening Day 1989 and Alex Rodriguez making his debut at age 18 as a skinny shortstop barely a year out of Westminster Christian High in Miami.
"I was young. It was a long time ago," Rodriguez recalled Sunday before he took the field for the Yankees. "I was nervous. I was 18 years old, right out of prom, right after my high school graduation. It was definitely a wet-behind-the-ears thing. Yeah, real nervous."
And then there was Mauer, back in 2004. You'd say little did they know what was to come from that day, but everybody knew what would come: Gold Glove, Silver Slugger and MVP hardware.
Naturally, he was 2-for-3 with two walks in his debut, while batting (ahem) eighth. He also tagged out the potential tying run for the final out in the 11th inning. Unfortunately, he suffered a knee injury the next day and was limited to 35 games in his rookie season, but the rest has been a history of success in Minnesota.
And like Strasburg, he had only one debut, and it'll be with him the rest of his career.
"There was a lot of excitement," Mauer says in an understated tone, "and it's something I'll never forget."
A-Rod's advice to Strasburg? "Enjoy it," he said.
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. Tim Britton contributed. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.