Duke's Marcus Stroman Making A Run At History

DURHAM, N.C. You probably don't remember Steven Kesses. He was the Mets' first-round draft pick in 1976.

Kesses never came close to making the majors. But Kesses is the answer to another trivia question. He is the only former Duke player to be selected in the first round of the baseball draft.

That shouldn't be a big surprise. Duke hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 1961, when it advanced to Omaha. You don't have half-century droughts with first-round talent.

What's more surprising is how a premium talent like Marcus Stroman ended up at Duke. The hard-throwing junior righthander is having a banner season, one that almost certainly will result in first-round status this June. Through 10 starts, Stroman is 4-3, 2.22 and leads the nation with 102 strikeouts against just 21 walks in 73 innings.

Stroman grew up in Medford, N.Y., in Suffolk County. His parents split up when he was in elementary school but still have a good relationship, living barely a mile apart and working together to raise Marcus and his two siblings.

Earl Stroman is a police detective. He coached his son's football, basketball and baseball teams when Marcus was young, before passing him along to more advanced coaching.

From the beginning, Stroman was an outstanding athlete, smart and skilled. But he was never the biggest kid on his teams. Stroman has topped out at 5-foot-9 and has vivid memories of being told he was too small. In fact, he still hears it.

That kind of thing can motivate an athlete. But the family also took a rational approach.

"Like any parent, I tried to give him guidance," Earl Stroman said. "Football? We steered him away from that. Basketball? He's a 5-9 guard. He wasn't going to get recruited heavy for basketball. Once we sat down, we decided that baseball was the best bet."

Marcus agrees with the logic.

"Basketball was my first love," he said. "But I realized I could go further in baseball. I still miss basketball. But it was the right decision."

Stroman did play point guard in high school through his senior year. He was second-team all-Long Island as a senior.

But he spent his summers on the diamond, working with former big leaguers Paul Gibson and Neal Heaton. Playing pitcher and shortstop, Stroman was voted the top player in Suffolk County as a junior and New York state player of the year as a senior.

He was just as successful in the classroom.

Earl Stroman says he pushed academics at every opportunity. Marcus says he couldn't play or practice until his homework was taken care of. He made the National Honor Society. Both say a "baseball factory" was out of the question.

Duke coach Sean McNally said he heard good things about Stroman from his local contacts. Stroman visited Duke for a basketball weekend in the middle of his junior year, and he said it was love at first sight.

"It was Duke all the way," he said. "I knew I could get a good education and I liked the idea of playing in the ACC."

He committed to Duke shortly afterward, prior to the beginning of his junior baseball season.

McNally had never actually seen Stroman play, but assistant Matt Boggs had, and Boggs was enthusiastic.

"The more we poked around, the more we liked him," McNally recalled. "He has a great support system and that's incredibly important. We were really lucky. It helped us that we got in early. He committed to us when not as many people knew about him. It didn't take long to get a sense of what a great kid we were recruiting."

The Nationals drafted Stroman in the 18th round in 2009, but signing was never a serious consideration.

Stroman expected to be a two-way player when he came to school, and Duke used him that way for his first two seasons. He played shortstop, second base and DH, as well as starting and closing. The trend lines kept saying pitcher, though.

Stroman gained command of his mid-90s fastball and added a knee-buckling slider. After he dominated last summer as a closer with Team USA, Stroman came into this season as Duke's Friday starter—and nothing else.

Duke hasn't always given Stroman great run support, so his record isn't spectacular (he is 12-11 in his career despite a 3.30 ERA and 247 strikeouts in 188 innings). But McNally said that the name recognition Stroman is bringing to his building project should pay dividends.

"He's so energetic and so charismatic," McNally said. "We couldn't have a better kid to be the face of the program."

A two-time academic all-ACC selection, Marcus should finish the season a semester from his degree in sociology. He calls the upcoming draft "the ultimate goal. It's always in the back of my mind. Duke has prepared me for that goal."

Earl Stroman has maxed out his vacation days, attending all but a handful of his son's college games. He says the family has no regrets. "When you come to Duke, your degree means something. He can walk into an interview room and hold his own with anyone. I love everything Duke has done for him. His degree, his education. What is there not to love?"