Baseball Enters Spring in Shadow of Drug Use

A month before Opening Day, Michele Norris talks about Major League Baseball with Stefan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal. Fatsis says the specter of performance enhancing drugs still hovers over the game — and Barry Bonds' attempt to break Hank Aaron's home run record.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Opening day is exactly 30 days away, and Major League Baseball's 30 teams this week, began getting ready with a full sleight of spring training games in Florida and Arizona. Stefan Fatsis of the Wall Street Journal joins us, as he does most Fridays. And hello Stefan.

Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (Staff Reporter, Wall Street Journal): Hey Michele.

NORRIS: Now, before we get to the game on the field, I'd like to talk about some of the other issues. One is the continuing investigations into the use of performance enhancing drugs by players.

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah. The main one that we have is the internal probe in baseball that's being led by George Mitchell. Now, the former senator's investigators have interviewed hundreds of witnesses, but they don't have any subpoena power, and they're not getting much help from players. Detroit Tigers' outfielder Gary Sheffield, for one, this week said that the players union is telling its constituents that they shouldn't cooperate.

Barry Bonds was asked by Mitchell to cooperate for the sake of the game, but his lawyer said there's no chance of that happening, as long as Bonds is still under investigation for a possible perjury indictment stemming from the BALCO performance drugs case out in California.

NORRIS: And Stefan, all this happens while Barry Bonds needs a few more homeruns to break Hank Aaron's all-time record.

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah. He's got 734. He needs 22 more to pass Aaron. If it happens, it promises to be one of the most bizarre and awkward moments in sports history, I think. When, or if, he starts to get close to the record, I'd bet that his team, the San Francisco Giants will try to ensure that he'll be playing at home where fans still like him, when it happens.

NORRIS: And this week, we also had a Big League player Gary Matthews Jr. of the Los Angeles Angels, named in connections with an investigation into an online distribution network of performance enhancing drugs.

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah. There were reports that Matthews received human growth hormone in August of 2004. Now, that substance was added to baseball's list of banned substances after that season. But illegal is illegal, regardless of whether a sport bans a drug. Now, Matthews and the Angels aren't commenting, but Major League Baseball says it is talking to investigators in the case, which I think shows how law enforcement is doing more of the work that leagues can't or won't do.

NORRIS: Now finally, on the field, the player who drew the most attention this off season is scheduled to make his debut, and that would be Daisuke Matsuzaka, a Japanese pitcher who was signed by the Boston Red Sox.

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah. He was supposed to pitch two innings tonight against Boston College in an exhibition game. He's been attracting a giant pack of Japanese media, of course, endless stories on whether he throws something called the gyro ball. And the Sox have invested more than $100 million in him, $51 million that they paid the Japanese Baseball for the right to negotiate with him, and then a six-year contract worth $52 million.

NORRIS: Mm-hmm. And it sounds like he's hoping to internationalize that rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees.

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah. The Yankees have a star Japanese outfielder, of course, Hideki Matsui. He was recently asked by a Japanese TV network, whether he could hit Daisuke's fastball. Now, I warn you that this is a translation that comes from a fan who lives in Tokyo as it was posted on the Sox fan board, Sons of Sam Horn. But apparently, Matsui said when he throws me a good fastball I'll swing. It will go deep into the Sox bull pen. And I thought this is fabulous, and I was reading this online comics strip called the "Soxaholics" this week. And one of the Sox fans says in the strip, I love Matsui for saying that. Bring it on dudesome(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: There's actually a Web site called "Soxaholic?"

Mr. FATSIS: There is indeed, a daily comic strip about life as a Boston Red Sox fan.

NORRIS: Oh well, thank you Stefan.

Mr. FATSIS: Thanks Michele.

NORRIS: That was sports writer Stefan Fatsis, who speaks to us on Fridays about sports, and also the business of sports.

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