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Strasburg cool under microscope

Bob Nightengale USA Today

SAN DIEGO – Stephen Strasburg is lying on the dusty floor of the cramped trainers room, the locker room door banging into him each time his teammates walk out, unaware he’s on the other side.

He slowly gets up, unfurling his 6-foot-5 body, and minutes later is standing in line at the concession stand. He reaches into his uniform pocket and shells out $7 for a Tri-Tip sandwich. It’s $9 for the combo plate, which includes beans and potato salad, but he passes.

“Good food,” the San Diego State University pitcher said, “just too expensive.”

Strasburg walks back to the locker room carrying his beef sandwich, past the kids standing in awe, past the parents wearing T-shirts bearing his name and past all the scouts, agents and marketing representatives clustered inside the stadium.

“It’s been a strain,” said Tony Gwynn, the Hall of Famer and head coach at SDSU. “He’s only 20, and the guy can’t even get a burger. The guy can’t sit in the library. He’s got collectors hanging outside the ballpark, trying to get his autograph so they can put it on eBay.

“People are building him up to be this messiah, but in this game they love to build you up just so they can tear you down. Can’t we just let him enjoy his junior year before everyone gets their piece of him?”

Too late. Anonymity and privacy vanished the moment Strasburg hit 102 mph on the radar gun, to go along with a devastating, knee-buckling curveball. He is 7-0 with a 1.49 ERA averaging nearly 171/2 strikeouts per nine innings.

Strasburg, whose effortless 98 mph fastball already is considered the best in baseball by some scouts and executives, is being heralded as the greatest collegiate pitcher of all time – perhaps the best player in any June draft.

No one is bothering to argue.

“Right now, just talking about pure stuff,” San Diego Padres general manager Kevin Towers said, “he could step in and be a top-three starter in any rotation. He can change the face of your entire organization.”

The Padres pick third this year, behind the Washington Nationals and Seattle Mariners.

“I can’t see him falling to us,” Towers said, “but it just doesn’t seem right to see a San Diego kid go to Washington, does it?”

Agent Scott Boras, whose company is advising Strasburg, can’t comment publicly on the asking price for Strasburg but does not deny seeking a signing bonus that could forever change the amateur market.

No draft pick has received more than a $10.5 million bonus. Strasburg could.

“I’ve been watching the player draft the last 36 years,” Boras said, “and he’s the best amateur player I’ve ever seen.”

“If he stays healthy and masters his changeup, he’s going to be a 20-game winner,” Chicago White Sox scout George Kachigian said.

Just three years ago, the baseball world almost was deprived of this right-hander’s golden arm. Strasburg came close to quitting, thinking that Dave Ohton, SDSU’s strength and conditioning coach, was right. Maybe he was just wasting everyone’s time.

“Can you imagine?” Ohton said. “I nearly ran off maybe the greatest athlete in this school’s history. … But how did I know?

“When I saw this guy and saw how out of shape and how unmotivated he was, I thought someone was playing a joke. This guy was throwing up every day we trained. I thought he had a medical condition, it was that bad. I finally told him, ‘You need to consider quitting. You’re wasting your time.’ ”

Strasburg concedes he was at least 25 pounds overweight and had never lifted a weight. He was immature, prone to yelling at teammates and umpires in high school. He was soft, unable to handle adversity.

“They say everything happens for a reason, and maybe I was meant to come here,” said Strasburg, whose parents also attended SDSU.

“People doubted me. People questioned my makeup. And I understand why they did. But there’s such a difference in maturity now than when I was in high school, it’s amazing.”

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