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Stephen Strasburg(notes) (top left) and Mike Leake(notes) (top, fourth from left) led the San Diego Sting into the 11-under nationals in 1999. Thomas Neal (top, second from left) and Brett Bochy (bottom left) are also professional ballplayers.
(Courtesy of Vicky Polk)
During a national youth tournament a decade ago in suffocating August heat, hard-throwing 11-year-old Stephen Strasburg melted down. A couple of hits, an error and a wild pitch caused emotions to well up and explode. His catcher, an undersized whippet named Mike Leake, tried unsuccessfully to console the pitcher. Strasburg left the sprawling sports complex in Shawnee, Kan., after being removed from the game, and went home to San Diego by mutual agreement of his parents and coaches.
That kiddy battery is now the two most highly regarded rookie pitchers in baseball, the poised Strasburg striking out 53 in his first 36 2/3 innings for the Washington Nationals and the savvy Leake going 6-1 for the Cincinnati Reds. Strasburg blends a filthy three-pitch arsenal with an immaculate temperament, exceptional composure neatly complementing the fury of his triple-digit fastball. Leake is more pluck than power, boldly picking hitters apart with uncommon command, enabling him to become the rare player to jump directly from a college campus to the big leagues.
It is gratifying to former teammates and coaches from their youth travel team that these extraordinary yet dissimilar pitchers emerged from the same wellspring, the San Diego Sting. They recall Strasburg as a pitcher a head taller than everyone else struggling to hold back tears while delivering blistering heat, and Leake as the catcher precociously calling his own game and showing off a rifle arm powered by daily long-toss sessions with his older brother Ryan and dad, Chris. Everybody called him Mikey and he rarely pitched.
[Photos: Stephen Strasburg in action]
The Sting was stacked. Brett Bochy, son of big league manager Bruce Bochy and a future closer at Kansas, played second base. Thomas Neal, a Double-A outfielder and top prospect with the San Francisco Giants, played shortstop. The first baseman was Xavier Scruggs, now a St. Louis Cardinals prospect who ranks second in the Florida State League in home runs. They all fondly recall the sweet innocence and steep competition of youth travel ball: crowding around a restaurant table filled with pizza and soda, cannon-balling into hotel pools at dusk, the memories of that day's doubleheader lingering and the anticipation of another game the next morning.
The Nationals' Stephen Strasburg was the first overall pick in the 2009 draft.
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
"That was kind of like the start of everything," Leake said. "That was a group of guys that developed relationships over time and had fun playing together. It's something to look back on now and see how everyone has grown."
Strasburg has matured the most, an inspiring lesson for any young player struggling with the failure inherent in baseball. He is considered by many the best pitching prospect ever, and his development from an overweight, out-of-condition San Diego State freshman into a feared strikeout machine was described by Yahoo! Sports more than a year ago. He used to talk openly of his immaturity in high school but since joining the Nationals speaks to the media only after his starts. He said Wednesday through a team spokesman that he doesn't remember much about his time with the Sting.
The 1999 incident in Kansas marked Strasburg's last game with the club, although he occasionally bumped into former teammates – and even faced them while climbing the ladder to the big leagues. Every at-bat is memorable to the hitters. Scruggs went 1-for-3 with two strikeouts against Strasburg while starring for UNLV in 2008, and Neal got the first hit off Strasburg in the Arizona Fall League last year, "It was a line drive," Neal said proudly. "He threw me a 1-2 breaking ball. First I swung through a fastball, then took 99 mph on the inside corner for strike two."
Watching his former teammate on TV, Neal is amazed at his emotional strength. "It's kind of like night and day," he said. "Like after the game at Cleveland where the mound was a problem, I listened to him talk and thought, wow, he's really matured."
Leake's swift ascent to a major league rotation is equally remarkable, but for a different reason. He had the sensibility of a player-coach from the day he stepped on a youth field, but teammates and coaches wondered whether he would develop enough physically. Today he is 5-foot-10½ 175 pounds, (even though the Reds list him as 6-1, 190), and that's big enough.
The Reds drafted Mike Leake in 2009 with the eighth pick in the first round.
(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
An All-American at Arizona State at the same time Strasburg was at San Diego State, Leake is only the 21st player to skip the minor leagues since the draft began in 1965.
"He always had a natural understanding of the game," said Bill Lawbaugh, manager of the Sting. "We could put him at shortstop, center field, catcher, pitcher. Whatever you needed Mikey Leake to do, every glove fit that kid."
Lawbaugh also has fond memories of Strasburg, saying that his parents were supportive and that his potential was obvious. Most youth leagues use an Aug. 1 age cutoff date, meaning Strasburg's July 20 birthday made him the youngest member of the Sting. No wonder he battled his emotions.
"You could see the talent he had," Lawbaugh said. "He was a wonderful boy. But I would say, based on the emotions he was going through in Kansas, he wasn't being helpful to himself or the team. It was a mutual decision, but I guess looking back it was like kicking Michael Jordan off the high school basketball team."
The Sting became one of the best travel teams in the country as the players grew older, advancing to national tournaments every year through age 14. Former San Diego prep and Oklahoma State star Beau Champoux was brought on as coach before the team transitioned from a youth-sized to a regulation-sized field. Scruggs and Neal were the stars – they pitched and hit with power – and Leake and Bochy continued to be the versatile, scrappy heart and soul, what Neal described as "sneaky athletic."
Despite the success on the field, every player's most vivid memory is the time they shot off fireworks at a tournament in Nashville and a bottle rocket went up Neal's shorts and tore skin off …
The rest of the story can be skipped, although Bruce Bochy thought it was so hilarious that he had Neal recount it in the San Francisco Giants clubhouse during spring training. Bochy was manager of the San Diego Padres during Brett's time with the Sting, and more than once he pitched batting practice to the youngsters in the cages behind the dugout at Qualcomm Stadium.
The Sting won a string of tournament championships, and the winning mentality followed the players through high school and college: Leake, in fact, is an astounding 69-11 as a pitcher since his sophomore year of high school. But provided the lens of a decade gone by, the unforgettable aspect of the Sting is that for a time, a scrawny Mike Leake went into a crouch and a pouting Stephen Strasburg went into a windup. Ten years later, Strasburg was the No. 1 pick in the draft and signed for the largest bonus in history. Leake was the No. 8 overall pick and beat Strasburg to the big leagues.
And, perhaps, Neal, Scruggs and Bochy will join them someday.
"That's a big motivating factor," Scruggs said. "Guys I played with are at that next level, so there's no reason I can't get there."
Bochy, a 20th-round pick of the Giants last month, is recovering from Tommy John surgery. Watching his former Sting teammates on TV buoys his spirits. His thoughts drift back to the fountainhead.
"It's amazing to see Stephen and Mike living up to it," he said. "Mike always had it in him. He just had to grow. Strasburg was a typical kid who couldn't handle failure at that young age. He just had to grow up. And he did. He doesn't have to deal with too much failure any more."