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Nats Sign No. 1 Draft Choice

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The Washington Nationals had the league's worst record last year, but that gave them a shot at the No. 1 draft choice. The team signed pitcher Stephen Strasburg on Monday to a 4-year, $15 million contract, the largest contract ever given to a player coming out of the draft. Thomas Boswell, a Washington Post sports columnist, offers his insight.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

On days like this, when it's 92 degrees and humid in the nation's capital, you realize two tough things about living and working in Washington: weathering the summer heat and rooting for the Nationals. Our local baseball team is mired in last place, and they average fewer fans at the ballpark than the Kansas City Royals.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

So today, big news for the hapless Nats: They signed Stephen Strasburg, the number one overall draft pick, for $15 million. And if that investment pays off, writers, like Washington Post sports columnist Tom Boswell, may actually have some upbeat columns to write in a year or two.

Tom Boswell, how important was it for the Nats to sign Strasburg?

Mr. THOMAS BOSWELL (Sports Columnist, The Washington Post): Well, when the president of the United States comes to the All-Star Game, goes on national TV and makes jokes about the Nationals, you know you need help.

The Nats, since they came back to Washington, have really wasted an opportunity to hold on to the interests and imagination of the fans in the district. But the team has started to turn around as this season's gone along. Ownership maybe was entirely too frugal for a couple of years. And now, it seems like they're willing to spend at the level of a normal Major League team. And maybe, as you say, they'll be competitive in a year or two.

SIEGEL: Fifteen million dollars is a record for signing a baseball prospect, I gather, or at least a draft, a number one draft pick. How good is Stephen Strasburg?

Mr. BOSWELL: He certainly has the raw, native ability to be compared with players like Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Tom Seaver. He also, however, can be compared to other players who had wonderful fastballs and flashy pitches, like Ben McDonald - or even Pete Broberg out of Dartmouth 40 years ago.

In other words, everyone who has these kinds of tools does not necessarily become a star. There are issues of composure and intelligence, of your arm continuing to stay strong. And some players, like Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson, become great Hall of Fame players, but it sometimes takes them four, five or six years to learn to harness all their natural talent, their 100-mile-an-hour fastball.

Strasburg has been timed about to 102 miles an hour, and he does have one of the best curveballs I've ever seen.

SIEGEL: Why did it come down to 11:58 and 43 seconds last night, just before a midnight deadline, for the Nationals and Strasburg and his agent to come to an agreement?

Mr. BOSWELL: The drafting system that baseball has is really a form of price fixing. It is unilaterally imposed on college students in the United States who are baseball players, and on high school players who want to enter that draft. It is never negotiated in any labor management sense of the term, simply imposed by Major League Baseball. And they slot players by where they're picked, and give the teams an arbitrary sense of the range in which how much money they should pay those players.

Well, I mean, how un-American can it get? And the agent for Strasburg, Scott Boras, is one of the toughest, hardline agents who is always looking for a way to find something in the baseball structure that essentially is wrong and fight it. I don't want to make him appear too noble. He certainly has mercenary interests, too.

But the reason it came to such a pitched battle was Strasburg is an absolutely unique talent. I would say that he probably is the most hyped and visible non-professional player of the last 50 years.

When players like Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan came out, they were not nearly this famous. And so, Scott Boras saw this as an opportunity to change the slotting structure of the draft, and really have a crusade here to raise the prices that high school and college players got. And so there was a real pitched battle down to the last 77 seconds, and there was a compromise reached.

This was the biggest contract, by almost 50 percent, that an amateur player ever got. On the other hand, it was considerably below, probably 6 or $8 million below, what Boras thought he was going to get. So I suppose it's a case of real negotiation.

SIEGEL: And you think it's at least possible that Stephen Strasburg could bring Major League Baseball back to Washington?

Mr. BOSWELL: Real Major League baseball, absolutely. We've - the team is back, but real MLB Baseball, maybe not yet.

SIEGEL: Tom Boswell, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. BOSWELL: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's sports columnist Tom Boswell of the Washington Post.

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