Work Samples

Baseball: Iowan helped guide phenom Stephen Strasburg to majors

June 7, 2010

By David Driver
For the DesMoines Register
Used with permission

Washington, D.C. — When Mark McGwire of the Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Cubs waged their home run battle in the National League in 1998, lifelong Iowan Donald “Spin” Williams crossed paths with both as a a bullpen coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Williams, 54, recalled the excitement of that season when he talked about Stephen Strasburg, the overall No. 1 draft pick of the Washington Nationals in 2009.

The minor league pitching coordinator for the Nationals has worked extensively with Strasburg, who is slated to make his Major League debut Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“It’s not to that magnitude, but I have been really impressed with people showing interest,” Davenport native Williams, inducted into the Iowa baseball coaches Hall of Fame in 2002, said of comparing Strasburg’s debut to that 1998 season. “It is good for baseball. He handles it well. He is a wonderful guy.”

The Nationals signed Strasburg to a record-breaking $15.1 million deal, including a signing bonus of $7.5 million.

Washington general manager Mike Rizzo told that Williams and Steve McCatty, the Nationals’ pitching coach, put a plan in place with Strasburg during spring training and stayed on course.

“He has really, really good stuff,” Williams said. “He has a devastating change up. The biggest thing that impresses me is the command of his pitches.”

In Strasburg’s first 50 1/3 innings of professional baseball, he walked just 12 batters with 60 strikeouts and allowed 28 hits.

Hype surrounding the youthful Strasburg, 21, may remind some fans of Bob Feller, the Van Meter native who made his big league debut with the Cleveland Indians on July 19, 1936, at the age of 17.

Feller, in a May interview in May with the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, said of Strasburg: “I’ve seen the young man pitch on television, and he’s quite impressive. Great fastball, with good movement, too. But I think the expectations are far too high at this point.”

The debut will come against the Pirates, a club Williams spent 27 years with as a coach in many roles, including big league pitching coach. Williams pitched in the minors for the Pirates from 1979-81 before he began his coaching career.

Strasburg’s debut includes other Iowa connections:

Des Moines native Joel Hanrahan, a Norwalk graduate, is a reliever for the Pirates and a former closer for the Nationals. Jeff Clement, an infielder for the Pirates, is a 2002 graduate of Marshalltown and set a national high school record with 75 career home runs.

Williams played junior college ball at Muscatine and was drafted out of Winona State in Minnesota in 1979 by the Pirates. He has operated a baseball school in Davenport, Spin Dogs Batting Cage & Instruction. His colleagues have included long-time scout Joe Murphy, a former coordinator of Grand Slam USA in Des Moines.

After years as a coach in the Pittsburgh system, Williams joined the Nationals as an instructor prior to the 2006 season.

Williams has spent the first two months of this season traveling between the Nationals’ four full-season minor league teams, with short trips back home to Davenport on off days.

He was on hand for two of the five starts Strasburg made for double-A Harrisburg this season and two of the first five starts with triple-A Syracuse. Strasburg was 6-2 with an earned-run average of 1.43 in his minor league career.

“Spin has been outstanding. He has been a great resource for me,” said Doug Harris, in his first season as the Nationals’ director of player development. “He has been a guy I can go to, not just with pitching help.”

Harris said Williams first met the pitching star in Florida last season after Strasburg joined the Nationals. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound righty signed too late to play in 2009 but reported to the Nationals’ spring training and minor league site in Viera, Fla., before pitching in the Arizona Fall League.

He connected with Williams along the way.

“I think they have a great relationship,” Harris said. “Stephen was around him from the time he signed. (Williams) was in Florida in August when Stephen came into the program. All of our coordinators establish programs that our coaches carry out. The coaches do the day-to-day maintenance. Significant changes has to go through the coordinators. Our coaches are not robots.”

Williams said Strasburg, drafted out of San Diego State, left a strong first impression.

“First of all I think he handled himself well. It was the first time he was away from home,” Williams said. “We tried to make him as comfortable as we could.

“As an organization we want to win a championship and he is going to be a big part of that puzzle. We don’t want to rush him.”