Baseball is an Instant Success in Washington

Baseball season is in full swing and the Washington Nationals are winning, and drawing good crowds. Michele Norris talks sports with the Wall Street Journal's Stefan Fatsis.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Imagine a baseball season when the New York Yankees are struggling in fourth place, the overall number of home runs is declining, and a major league team from Washington, DC, is a hit. Oh, that's right, that's this baseball season. Well, sportswriter Stefan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal joins us, as he does most Fridays, for a glimpse of the season at the one-third mark.

Stefan, let's start with the home run totals which are down around 25 percent from their peak in 2000. Now do we think that this has something to do with fewer players now taking performance-enhancing drugs?

STEFAN FATSIS (The Wall Street Journal): Yeah. Regardless of whether you think baseball's drug-testing policy is tough enough or not, the reality is that is has been testing for two years now, and it's a deterrent. If players stopped taking steroids or other performance enhancers last year, the results are going to start to show up now. There was a terrific piece in Sports Illustrated last week by Tom Verducci that documented some changes in how baseball's being played this year. It's not just fewer home runs. You're seeing more complete games from pitchers, more shutouts, lower earned run averages, more base-stealing and bunting. Frankly, it's just more interesting.

NORRIS: And there's a new team in this town, in Washington, DC, the Washington Nationals. And they're doing pretty well. They still don't have a new owner, though. What's going on with that?

FATSIS: Well, they're averaging around 29,000 fans a game. They play in RFK Stadium, which is just an old and not terribly hospitable place. So those are good numbers, I think. Also lucky for the team, they're playing in the most competitive division in baseball, the National League East. The Nationals have 28 wins and 26 losses, but they're just a game and a half out of first place.

On the ownership side, the big hang-up for months has been placating Peter Angelos, who's the owner of the Baltimore Orioles and who believes that the Nationals have invaded his territory. Angelos got the lion's share of a new regional sports cable TV network. Now baseball can get down to picking a new owner for this team, which used to be, of course, the Montreal Expos.

NORRIS: Now looking ahead, Stefan, major league baseball has been trying to organize a world cup tournament that would be played during spring training next year. But I understand not everyone's on board.

FATSIS: Yeah, this would be a 16-team tournament--teams from 16 different countries. The best players from major league baseball would scatter to their homelands to represent those teams. It would be played next March. Some of the games would be in Asia; most of the games would be in the United States. The Japanese Baseball Federation is arguing that MLB, major league baseball, is trying to keep too much of the revenue from the event. MLB argues that we're organizing it, it's mostly our players, we're taking most of the risk; we deserve most of the money.

Another issue that's going to surface for sure is whether baseball teams are going to allow their very, very expensive investments to take a few weeks off and play in this tournament. The Yankees have already said that they were the only major league team to vote against this tournament. Participation is supposed to be up to the players, but the teams are definitely going to be influential.

NORRIS: And right now it looks as if the Yankees certainly could have used a bit more practice before this season.

FATSIS: Two-hundred-million-dollar payroll, but right now their just one game over 500.

NORRIS: Finally, the National Collegiate Athletic Association's women's softball World Series is being played right now in Oklahoma City and, my, is it hot.

FATSIS: Yep. Exposure's been building in recent years. You have the gold medal-winning US team--ESPN is showing every game of the College World Series, and it's getting good ratings. To me as a viewer--and I have tuned in to some of these games--the big issue is the dominance of pitchers. You've got women that throw the ball 70 miles per hour and faster. They allow as few as 3/10ths of a run per game on average. The overall batting average in the sport is 250. And during the World Series, you're going to get the best pitchers, so you're going to see even fewer hits, I think.

NORRIS: Yeah, the physics of that throw is just amazing. And of course, they're not even standing as far back as a baseball pitcher.

FATSIS: No, 43 feet from home plate, and the ball leaves the pitcher's hand about five or six feet closer. A lot of people in the sport feel that what needs to be done is move the pitching rubber back a few feet.

NORRIS: Always good to talk to you, Stefan.

FATSIS: Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: Stefan Fatsis covers sports and the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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