American Pastime's Season Starts Off, In Australia

The Major League Baseball regular season began last week in Sydney, Australia. As sportswriter Stefan Fatsis explains, it resumes with one game on Sunday and a full slate on Monday.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

So long winter, so long spring training, the American past time gets back in full swing on Sunday and Monday, as Major League baseball begins around the country. But actually, officially speaking, it began already halfway around the world on a cricket ground in Australia. That's where the Los Angeles Dodgers won two games from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Sports writer Stefan Fatsis joins us now. Hey there, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So let's talk about how the season is shaping up, right. We're going to start with one of the best players in baseball the last few years, Detroit Tigers' first baseman, Miguel Cabrera. He's getting an 8-year contract extension worth $248 million. That's a lot of money.

FATSIS: Yes, it is. And here are the big numbers. Including the two years that are left on Cabrera's current contract, he's going to be due 292 million. The new deal includes two option years at the end worth 30 million a year if he finishes in the top 10 in MVP voting the previous year, bringing the total possible from this contract to 352 mil.

There is no doubt that Cabrera has been one of the best hitters in baseball - back to back American League most valuable player awards, in 2012 the first Triple Crown since 1967, and he's one of the durable players in baseball. But there is a lot of head-scratching and some outright anger about this deal.

CORNISH: Head-scratching - how come?

FATSIS: Well, Cabrera still has two years left on his contract and Detroit was under no pressure to sign him now. So it's assuming some risks for this next two years. He turns 31 in a few weeks. A performance decline over the next decade is all but guaranteed. And the last few long-term, mid-career, mega-contracts - think Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez - they have not gone very well.

But there's another hand here. Tigers' general manager David Dombrowski noted that player values generally don't go down. The team no doubt factored what it would have cost in a year or two if Cabrera were to keep performing the way he has. And Detroit's billionaire owner, Mike Ilitch, is 84 years old. He'd like to win a World Series. Let's be clear, baseball is flush with cash. They could do this.

CORNISH: And it does seem like we forget that when these big deals come around. I mean, teams wouldn't be handing out the money if they couldn't afford it.

FATSIS: Right. So from a fan's perspective, the issue becomes whether a huge commitment to one player will hamstring their team from spending on other players, especially in the later years of a contract. But these are boom times. Baseball's new national TV deals are worth twice as much as the previous ones. Teams are negotiating multibillion-dollar local television contracts and giving top players 20 million a year.

Now with Cabrera and Dodgers' pitcher Clayton Kershaw, who also was signed this off-season, the salary bar has been reset at $30 million a year. And when the Los Angeles Angels' Mike Trout comes on the market, the bar is going to go up even higher.

CORNISH: Another thing, Stefan, the season's going to start without Alex Rodriguez. Of course, he is suspended for all of 2014 for violating baseball's steroids policy. Change might be coming to that policy. Tell us more about it.

FATSIS: Yeah. Baseball's owners and the players union are finishing negotiations that reportedly will toughen penalties for steroids use. Under the new policy, a first positive test is going to earn an 80-game suspension, up from 50, a second will be full season, up from 100 games, and a third is a lifetime ban.

Plus, the sport is reportedly adding new tests for synthetic testosterone. Most interesting change is going to be a reduction in penalties for inadvertent or unintentional positive tests. That will introduce intent into the process. Could make for some interesting adjudications.

CORNISH: So any other major changes in policy this season?

FATSIS: Yeah. New rules for runners and catchers that are designed to reduce collisions at home plate. That's a concern about head injuries, particularly for catchers. Expanded instant replay is going to debut. We'll see whether that proves intrusive. Finally, after the frightening spring training line drive to the head of Cincinnati Reds' pitcher Aroldis Chapman, there are going to be new protective caps approved for pitchers.

CORNISH: Stefan, thanks so much.

FATSIS: Thanks, Audie.

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

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