The Next Big Thing: Baseball in 2008

Alan Schwarz, correspondent for The New York Times and author of Once Upon a Game: Baseball's Greatest Memories, talks about the coming year in baseball.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're going to be spending most of this hour talking with Beth Lisick about her book, "Helping Me Help Myself: One Skeptic, Ten Self-Help Gurus, and a Year on the Brink of the Comfort Zone." We're having some technical difficulties arranging the connection with her at our - in one of our member stations on the West Coast.

Instead, we will begin with the segment which we had planned to begin with last. All this week we're talking - looking ahead to people, trends and events that will be huge in 2008. Yesterday, we talked about music and the music business with Bob Boilen. Tomorrow, movies with Murray Horwitz.

Today, who or what is the next big thing in baseball? Will we focus on the field and celebrate Boston dynasties in football and baseball? Or will the big events again be off the field in congressional hearing rooms, federal courthouses and police blotters? And will the small market Minnesota Twins trade away just about the best pitcher in the game?

What's the next big thing in baseball? 800-989-8255. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. Our baseball pal Alan Schwarz joins us from, I think, a cab in New York City. Alan is a reporter for the New York Times. His latest book is "Once Upon a Game: Baseball's Greatest Memories."

And Happy New Year, Alan.

Mr. ALAN SCHWARZ (Reporter, New York Times): Well, a Happy New Year to you, Neal.

CONAN: And the next big things, I guess, we know about are the repercussions from the release of the Mitchell report on steroids.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Well, you know, I wonder if the big thing has already happened when the report is the big thing. Now, the question becomes whether the commissioner, Bud Selig, has any interest in pursuing penalties against any of the players who were accused in the report. Remember, they were only accusations made by people who presumably had some knowledge about this situation. But they're merely accusations by these men and I think that Major League Baseball will have an extraordinarily difficult time giving out any punishment based on that. The union will stall that instantly and that's why you saw Senator Mitchell, when he gave the report a couple of Thursdays ago, basically pleading Bud Selig to not try to levy any penalties.

CONAN: Yet, Roger Clemens, arguing his reputation - he, of course, the most prominent new player to be named in Senator Mitchell's report - saying his reputation has been sullied. He's launching a counterattack. He's bound to appear this Sunday on "60 Minutes."

Mr. SCHWARZ: Yeah, and that's going to be very widely watched, I'm sure. But let's face it. No matter what happens, anything that any of these people say, without the threat of perjury, it's very difficult to take overly seriously. And I'm not saying anything about what I expect Roger to say or Brian McNamee, his former trainer, who made the accusations in the Mitchell Report. That he injected Clemens with steroids and what-not.

These accusations and responses are all made not under oath. And I think that it's very difficult to really know who's telling the truth, what portion of what they're telling is the truth, what portion is not. Let's face it. Not every - you know, not everything is both ways.

So I think that, you know, it's very hard for me to take any of it very seriously.

CONAN: And Roger Clemens, though, may be put under oath if he testifies before the House Committee, which is going to be having hearings on this in the middle of January.

Mr. SCHWARZ: I agree. And it would be fascinating to watch him accept that arrangement. I'd love to see that because then you really can take what he and anybody else, it's not just because he's the accused here. I'd love to see Brian McNamee testify as well. Everybody involved I'd love to see testify under threat of perjury. I mean, that's what we're - we're going to watch Barry Bonds, apparently, you know, go (unintelligible), go to trial and possibly get caught lying. And that's a wonderful disincentive, to lie under oath in these hearings.

CONAN: We're talking with Alan Schwarz of the New York Times. If you'd like to join us in our conversation about the next big thing in baseball, 800-989-8255. And Jack(ph) is on the line from Tallahassee in Florida.

JACK (Caller): Yes, thank you. And I was one of the 90,000-plus at the induction of Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken. I'm a lifelong Oriole fan. And my next big thing in baseball is a yearlong boycott, and let me tell you why, guys. It couldn't get any better than the pinnacle of those two absolutely sterling professionals, both in personal and on the field. And I just need a break. I think that steroids and other kinds of scandals and the limitless trading. I mean, these were two guys that played an entire career for one team. I just need a break. I need a distance. And, you know, at 56, I just think that after 50-plus years of being a fan, I'm going to take the year off. That's my position and I'm sticking to it.

CONAN: Alan, is a boycott of baseball going to be - well, certainly it's going to be watched for, whether it happens or not, who knows?

Mr. SCHWARZ: It will never happen. This fellow's feelings to the contrary - and he's certainly entitled to his own individual approach, but there won't be nearly enough people who feel that way. And I feel this man's frustration. I mean, certainly, I'm as mortified about what has happened in baseball as anybody. But I do feel as if, frankly, the press has made more of it than I believe fans in general care to hear. And, you know, there's all sorts of talk after the '94, '95 strike about fans boycotting. And it didn't happen because the game, the sport, the spectacle, and the fact that a majority of players are honest.

CONAN: Well, the attendance certainly did go down in 1995, after the strike of 1994. And indeed one of the reasons often given for the reason the sport looked the other way and the great baseball homerun chase of 1998 was where they're trying to get fans back in the park. And everybody digs the long ball.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Well, I think that's a part of it, too. I think an awful lot of this though has come down to the dynamic that existed between Major League Baseball and the players association in the late '90s. Major League Baseball couldn't bend at the waist without the union's approval. And everyone knew there was no chance that the union was going to accept any kind of serious drug testing in that time. The union was too powerful at that time.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. SCHWARZ: And so Major League Baseball looked the other way in part, I believe, because the union has such power, there's no point in even trying. Now, they lost the public relations war because of that stance. But I don't think a lot would have evolved a whole lot differently.

CONAN: Jack, thanks very much for the call. I guess we're not going to see you at the ballpark this year.

JACK: See yeah. Bye.

CONAN: So long.

Alan, what about on the field? There were so few significant free agents available this off season. The trades have come back into vogue, and I guess the unconsummated deal everybody's interested in is Johan Santana, the superb left-handed pitcher of the Minnesota Twins, to the Yankees, to the Red Sox, the Mets or maybe the Angels?

Mr. SCHWARZ: Yeah. I mean, no one knows what's going to happen to him right now. And the Twins, even though their general manager has changed - Terry Ryan, their longtime boss has moved on, Bill Smith has replaced him - the Twins have proven that they're more than happy to keep a star player through the end of the year and lose him through free agency. Example, A, being Torii Hunter, their outstanding centerfielder, who moved on recently, you know, from the Twins. So they might very well keep Santana.

And I think it's important in some ways that they do because they - you know, you want to make sure you got the proper trade value. A lot of these teams end up having to dump their players for almost nothing. And I think the Twins are saying, what, you want Santana, you are going to pay us. And it's important to say no to trades before you say yes.

CONAN: The team that did say yes to a huge trade this off-season was the Florida Marlins and all of the sudden the Detroit Tigers looked very formidable in the American League.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Yeah. That was an unbelievable trade, wasn't it? Dontrelle Willis, the incredibly charismatic and talented - although there are some questions as to how much of that talent truly remains, he had a poor year last year. But Dontrelle Willis is the new leftie for that rotation, outstanding young rotation, most of it. And well, the key part of that trade was the third baseman Miguel Cabrera. Outstanding young slugger, filling in now one whole in the Tigers lineup and there weren't many. Yes, the Tigers look outstanding, particularly with the Twins going downhill. It's really going to be an exciting year watching the Indians and the Tigers duke it out.

CONAN: And the phrase we heard so often in the past few years in terms of baseball was money ball, and one of its precepts was that, you know, you can take almost to anybody and make them into a reliever. Certainly, there's no worse odds for bringing up a kid from your minor league system than spending, what, seven million dollars on somebody who had a good year last year because relievers traditionally never have two good years in a row. A lot of teams seem to be taking that to heart.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Well, I've always been of that a matter of frankly. That a closer isn't really a position on the field, it's a role that evolved because managers didn't like being second guessed a whole lot. And when Tony La Russa showed that Dennis Eckersley could get three outs every single time that he aced in the 1990 - in the late '80s and '90s, it evolved to the point where it made manager's jobs easier. But the thing is is that even thrown us about - not anybody, of course, I mean, you need to have some talent, but there are a lot of candidates who can close games on most teams. Therefore, why put your money through - want to lose specifically when, you know, there's no real need to do that.

Now, the Yankees, of course, they always have the outstanding Mariano Rivera during this entire period. But a lot of teams are saying, look, why overspend for a closer, we can get a lot more banks for our buck elsewhere. And it's just a smart way to allocate resources which even in a six-billion-dollar industry are limited.

CONAN: And in an industry, if we're going to call it that, where pitching is a premium, we're seeing the rise of - it just seems to me - a huge number of immensely talented young pitchers.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Oh sure. It's always been cyclical in baseball. I mean, certainly, in the late '90s and early 2000, as we are watching homeruns, you know, shoot through the roof and certainly we were learning now a little bit that some performance-enhancing drugs undoubtedly have something to do with that, let's not forget, though, that one of the reasons there were no young pitchers back then also was, frankly, the fact that the ball parks were getting a lot smaller and the strike zone was much smaller from '95 to 2005.

Also, people forget that everything in baseball comes down to the strike zone. And that's why Sandy Alderson's work with major league baseball was so important before he moved on to the Padres. He was the guy who told the umpires to start calling the proper strike zone. And that's one of the reasons, I believe, that we're seeing more young pitchers exceed these days because they don't have to throw the ball into a rectangle the size of a breadbox anymore.

CONAN: So maybe the next big thing for 2008 is the next big thing for 2006, QuesTec.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHWARZ: Well, I'm not sure if it was QuesTec as much. I mean, QuesTec was a means of - QuesTec being, of course, the computerized…

CONAN: All strike…

Mr. SCHWARZ: …all strike wall and strike call monitoring system that baseball uses to make sure that the umpires aren't wretched. And, you know, I think all that was is just a way of quantifying, hey look, guys, you know, you're really missing the outside corner here. Stop doing that. You know, that a strike is a strike. And I know you guys like having your personals strike zones, but you got to follow the rule book. It was a way of making it a little more objective. And I think once the umpires grew more comfortable with how that system was going to be administered, they accepted that okay, we see what this is about and we were less opposed to it than we were.

CONAN: Alan Schwarz, accompanied by, I think, a tugboat and a small child. Thanks very much for being with us today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHWARZ: My pleasure, Neal. Anytime.

CONAN: Alan Schwarz writes for the New York Times. His latest book, "Once Upon A Game: Baseball's Greatest Memories," with us from a taxi cab in New York City.

We'll be talking with Beth Lisick about her book, "Helping Me Help Myself" when we come back. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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