Spring Brings Baseball And March Madness

Baseball's spring training is upon us, time for exhibition match-ups, autograph signings and bullpen sessions, all leading up to Opening Day. It's also time for March Madness to begin, with Selection Sunday this weekend. Guest host Jacki Lyden talks with sports writer Howard Bryant of ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine about baseball's spring training season, controversial comments made by Los Angeles Angels' outfielder Torii Hunter, and the beginning of March Madness.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden. Coming up, a conversation with British jazz musician Jamie Cullum, but first, time for sports.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: It's baseball's spring training season. Time for exhibition matchups, autograph signings, and bull-pen sessions, all leading up to opening day.

Howard Bryant, sportswriter for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine, is on the line. Howard, thanks for joining us.

Mr. HOWARD BRYANT (ESPN): Good morning, Jacki, how are you?

LYDEN: I'm great. So here's your chance. Give us the spring training report.

Mr. BRYANT: Well, the most important thing about the spring training report is that it means that the snow around my house will soon be melting. It's going to be a great year. Once again, you have the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees doing what they do, going head to head with each other, but I think the one thing that I like about this year is the phenom down with the lowly Washington Nationals, Stephen Strasburg. Everyone is waiting to see what this young kid's going to do. He's supposed to be one of the great young arms coming up this year...

LYDEN: Making of a legend, yeah.

Mr. BRYANT: Very interesting to have a Washington team have a player that people actually want to watch.

LYDEN: Well, we will hope so. This week, Howard, Los Angeles outfielder Torii Hunter made what some consider to be disparaging comments against Latino ballplayers. He was making a point, I guess, about the relative lack of African-Americans in Major League Baseball. Would you tell us what happened?

Mr. BRYANT: Well, Torii has always been very outspoken about the lack of African-American ballplayers in the game. It's right around eight percent, and I think one of the things the mistake that he made was he was imprecise in his language. When he was talking about not being able to - for the sake of statistics, lumping in the African-American ballplayer with the black Latino ballplayer.

They have different histories, different legacies that come from different countries, and I think what Torii's point was, was that you can't take just because you have African-American and Latino and dark-skinned Latino players, they're not the same people. But the way it came out was much, much different.

LYDEN: And he didn't seem to back down from his comments, despite the controversy.

Mr. BRYANT: Oh, no, he used the word imposters, and I think that's the problem, and I appreciate the fact that he didn't back down because in a way he's right.

If you look for talent, you're going to find it, and what his point really is, is an economic one. Major League Baseball, over the last 40 to 45 years, has been investing heavily in Latin America because Dominican players and Venezuelan players are not subject to the draft. So therefore you can take a lot of money and you can spend it down there to get many more players than if you invested in an African-American community because that player would be subject to the draft, and you'd have to pay him a lot more.

So Torii's point is, is that you, that baseball has done what it's been doing for all of these years, which is to spend heavily, invest heavily in Latino America at the expense of the African-American ballplayer.

LYDEN: We've got just a minute before we let you go, and as you know, March Madness, college basketball coming. What teams seem like a lock in the NCAA tournament this year?

Mr. BRYANT: Well, obviously you've got the big cats in there. Kentucky is probably the best team in the country, even though they're ranked second to Kansas. Syracuse is obviously going to be a very, very good team.

I'm going to give a big plug for my Temple Owls. They're ranked 16th, and they're going to be in the tournament for the first time and have a chance to win a game for the first time in many, many years.

LYDEN: You're getting all emotional.

Mr. BRYANT: You get all emotional because finally I have a team I can sit and watch, but I do have to say, as much as I don't want to say it, I do think that Kentucky is the team to beat.

LYDEN: All right, well, we heard it here. Howard Bryant, sportswriter for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. BRYANT: My pleasure.

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