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From One Pitching Phenom to the Next

Washington rookie pitcher Stephen Strasburg catches the attention of Bob Feller

Editor's note: Cleveland's Bob Feller, 92, died of acute pneumonia on Dec. 15, 2010.

In the second major league game of his well-chronicled professional career, Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg took the mound at Cleveland’s Progressive Field to face the Indians before the home team’s biggest crowd since opening day. The reason was Strasburg, who in a very short time had become the talk of baseball.

Among those eager to catch a glimpse, appropriately, was 91-year-old Bob Feller, the greatest pitcher in Indians history and one of the best of all time.

The 21-year-old Strasburg began his major league career inundated by hype, attention and superlatives. He has been compared with such legendary pitchers as Walter Johnson, Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax.

And Bob Feller.

But Ryan and Koufax and others destined for greatness struggled early in their careers. Feller was an instant hit at the age of 17. In his first start in 1936, he had 15 strikeouts. Three weeks later he struck out 17. In 1939, he became the youngest pitcher to win at least 20 games in a season. Seventy years ago, at 21, he pitched the only opening day no-hitter.

Feller pitched 18 years in Cleveland and was considered the dominant pitcher of his generation, despite losing nearly four complete seasons to military service during World War II. He enlisted in the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor and spent 26 months as an antiaircraft gunner aboard a battleship. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

‘Overpowering fastball’

Strasburg is four years older than Feller was when he made his debut, but he is still just a kid barely a year out of San Diego State University. With all eyes upon him and expecting to see something special, Strasburg delivered. He struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates and walked none in seven innings to record his first victory. No other pitcher has ever achieved such a combination his first time out.

It was no fluke. His 41 strikeouts in his first four starts is a major league record. Betrayed by the Nats’ hitting and fielding deficiencies, Strasburg’s record is just 2-2, but his 2.45 earned run average is among the National League’s lowest for starting pitchers. Perhaps most impressive are the 53 strikeouts and just 10 walks. He not only has met exceedingly high expectations, he has surpassed them and impressed nearly everyone, including Feller, who is not easy to impress.

“He has an overpowering fastball,” Feller told a Cleveland TV station after watching Strasburg pitch into the sixth inning against the Indians, giving up one run. “He’s worthwhile to go to see. He probably throws harder consistently than anyone in baseball at the moment.”

Feller added, “He’s a very refreshing breath of fresh air.”

As Bob Feller once was.

“I don’t think anything had ever happened like Feller,” Cleveland writer Bob August recalled a few years ago in Sports Illustrated. “It was the Depression and things were pretty bad here, and then this amazing kid came along. What a lift it gave us all. People today who don’t know exactly what he did still seem to sense how special Bob Feller was to Cleveland.”

Comparisons abound

Where Feller was a ready-made teenage phenom, Strasburg needed more time to develop. He had to slim down (he’s now a solid 6 feet 4, 220 pounds), get in shape and refine his mechanics. But like Feller, he is blessed with rare pitching gifts, skills that can be honed and improved but not taught. Also like Feller, he possesses laser-like intensity and a bulldog competitiveness.

Perhaps the strongest thread between the pitchers is that Feller threw very, very hard—triple-digit hard—and so does Strasburg. The 100 mile-an-hour fastball is baseball’s he-man pitch, and only a select few have been able to throw it. Strasburg was timed by radar guns in college at 103 mph (so far with the Nationals he has topped out at 100). “Rapid Robert” Feller, four inches shorter and 35 pounds lighter than Strasburg, had a fastball that would have been clocked above 100 mph if a suitable timing device had existed.

It so happened Feller was timed, first against a motorcycle (it’s true), then by a device borrowed from the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. The motorcycle started in center field and roared past Feller at 86 mph as he began his windup. But his pitch reached home plate before the motorcycle—proof, as it were, that the ball was likely traveling in the 100 mph range. In 1946, on a trip to Washington, D.C.’s old Griffith Stadium, an artillery velocity meter—usually used to measure the speed of missiles and rockets—was shipped in from Aberdeen. Before a battery of press photographers, Feller’s pitches were recorded at 98.6 mph by the Army’s machinery, a finding that’s still debated.

The inexact times have since been translated into 101 to 104 mph by today’s standards. Regardless of any recorded or surmised speeds, nobody threw harder than Feller during his day. The same might be true of Strasburg. But throwing heat isn’t enough. Feller eventually developed a sharp-breaking, baffling curve ball. Strasburg has shown he might already have one. He has a nasty change-up, too.

Strikeout musings

There also is a certain orneriness about Strasburg. Feller had that and still does. Perhaps he learned a bit of it from Walter Johnson, a flame-thrower in an earlier era and coincidentally a Washington ace for decades. Johnson saw Feller pitch once and offered one cryptic remark: “I was a little faster than you.”

Feller remains a prickly curmudgeon today, reminding anyone who will listen that he won 82 games by the time he was Strasburg’s age or that he used to regularly pitch all nine innings (unlike pitchers today) or that the strikeouts he piled up were harder to achieve than they are now.

“It’s much easier to strike out now than it was during my time because when they got two strikes on them they’d put the ball in play,” Feller said. “Now they swing hard three times. They know there’s more money in hitting a home run. Striking out is not an embarrassment today. It used to be an embarrassment during my career.”

Asked if he believes Strasburg will go on to have a great career, Feller says, “It’s too early. He can give me a call when he wins his 100th game.”

It is early. Yet Strasburg already is approaching iconic status. He sells tickets, T-shirts and anything else associated with his name. The Nationals rank near the bottom of the National League in attendance, but not when Strasburg pitches. The home crowds that watch him average more than 37,500. In their other games, the Nationals average about 22,000.

Strasburg is intensely private, and the Nationals have taken great pains to keep him sheltered from the media beast, yet every baseball move he makes has been observed and recorded. After two games he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. His last minor league start, in Buffalo, N.Y., on a weekday afternoon, drew more fans than three major league games the day before.

“He has a few things to learn,” Feller says. “He’ll learn. He’s a smart kid, he behaves himself and he doesn’t believe all the hype about him.”

But we can.

Bob Cohn is a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He did not see Bob Feller pitch but he has witnessed Strasburg, and he is a believer.

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