No Baseball On The Playing Field — But Plenty In The News

We may be deep in the doldrums of January, still months from the start of the regular season, but we still have baseball on our mind. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis stops by to discuss the latest news out of the MLB, including the massive new contract for the Dodgers' ace pitcher and the unfolding saga of Alex Rodriguez.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring. That quote is attributed the Rogers Hornsby, an early 20th century baseball great. Well, we're deep in the January doldrums and staring out the window here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, but fortunately sportswriter Stefan Fatsis is here to talk about baseball matters. Hey there, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So let's get to the news. The Los Angeles Dodgers made baseball history this week. They're the first team to sign a pitcher to a contract worth more than $200 million and that pitcher is Clayton Kershaw. He gets $250 million over seven years. Is that actually a good deal for the Dodgers?

FATSIS: Yeah, actually. Kershaw's dominance the last three seasons has been crazy. Lowest earned run average, most strikeouts, two Cy Young awards in the National League. The most important facts, though, are, one, he's just 25 years old, two, he's had no serious injuries, almost no injuries and that means that the Dodgers are committed to paying Kershaw through his prime years and no longer.

And it's not as if the team can't afford it. The Dodgers recently signed a 25-year cable television deal that's worth $8.5 billion, $340 million per season.

CORNISH: And then, Kershaw's was the second biggest contract of the off-season after second baseman Robinson Cano. He signed with the Seattle Mariners for $240 million. So any more of these big deals in the works?

FATSIS: Yeah. Teams have one more week to land a Japanese pitcher named Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka had a perfect 24 and 0 record in Japan last year. He became available after a new agreement between baseball and the Japanese league. In the past, major league teams had to bid for the right to negotiate with a Japanese player. They had to pay what was called a posting fee to the Japanese team and twice that exceeded $50 million.

Now, it's a flat $20 million fee and the player can choose his team, a dozen or so big league teams from clubs like the Dodgers, Cubs, New York Yankees that have a lot of money, down to smaller revenue teams like Oakland and Houston are said to be among those expected to offer Tanaka more than $100 million.

CORNISH: And then, another issue people were talking about, instant replay. There's going to be more instant replays starting next season, but how's it going to work?

FATSIS: It's going to work a lot like in football. Managers will get to challenge one umpire decision per game and then a second one if the first one is upheld. Umps can check a call on their own only after the sixth inning, included will be safe-out calls at the bases, whether a ball landed fair or foul, whether or an outfielder caught or trapped the ball, whether a batter was hit by a pitch. Balls and strikes not challengeable. The so-called neighborhood play also won't be challengeable and that's where a fielder fails to touch second base while turning a double play. This is a limited system. It is designed to get the potentially game changing calls right, not every call.

CORNISH: And then, just to get back to the players for a second, the saga of Alex Rodriguez continues. The New York Yankees third baseman was suspended last week for the 2014 season for taking performance enhancing drugs. He isn't giving up the fight against baseball. What's going on there?

FATSIS: Well, on Monday, Rodriguez sued Major League Baseball and his own players union in an effort to overturn an arbitrator's decision in the case. The legal consensus on that is fat chance. Yesterday in Mexico City, Rodriguez seemed to accept the suspension. He said that taking a year off could be a big favor so he can rest and start a new chapter of my life. After the suspension, Rodriguez will have three years left on his contract. He'll be 39 years old. The Yankees will owe him $61 million.

CORNISH: You know, Stefan, this is such a complicated case. I mean, what are the key takeaways here for you?

FATSIS: Well, first drug testing is still a cipher. It's hard to believe that Rodriguez didn't take something, but there is no physical evidence presented that he did. It was all circumstantial: stolen notebooks, BlackBerry messages, the testimony of an anti-aging clinic charlatan. It took the lenient standards of arbitration and the unprecedented interpretation of baseball's drug penalties to throw the book at Rodriguez.

Second, baseball's scorched-Earth prosecution of Rodriguez culminating with a victory dance on "60 Minutes" last Sunday has enraged the players union. After 20 years of labor peace, I'd expect some blowback during the next round of labor negotiations.

CORNISH: Stefan, thanks so much for filling us in.

FATSIS: Sure Audie, thanks.

CORNISH: Stefan Fatsis, he joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. You can hear more of him on Slate's sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen."

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