I blame the World Baseball Classic.
Ever since the WBC filled my head with notions of baseball as a regional conflict, a geopolitical grudge match in which pride and passion are personified by pitching and power and probably some other words beginning with "P" that I couldn't even wedge into that sentence, my mind has been consumed with thoughts of crafting baseball teams based on place of origin.
Consumed and, thanks to the wonder that is Baseball-Reference.com, which actually lists ballplayers by place of birth, quite busy figuring out exactly how it would work.
If you poke around B-R for any length of time, you'll quickly realize you can't just make one team of Major League-caliber ballplayers per each state.
Actually, if you watched the WBC, you probably know this intuitively: Every now and then you'd get a Team Netherlands, a scrappy underdog making a championship run with strong infield defense and, I dunno, lucky tulip bulbs or something.
But if you really try to match, say, the best baseball players ever to hail from Montana against the best ballplayers from California, I say you're much more likely to end up with Team Roadkill.
So you dig a little deeper. I won't bore you with the details, since you're probably slightly bored, if you haven't already clicked off this page to view the latest Celebrity Apprentice news, but suffice it to say, if around 100 major-league players have been born in a state, you can usually make a respectable team.
When the number gets up toward 300, you can actually make a good team. And when you get up into the thousands, it's time to start making additional teams by city and region.
Wait, wait! Don't surf back to the Apprentice page yet! Dennis Rodman isn't even on that show anymore! One more paragraph, and we'll get down to business.
The point is, it's fun to compare baseball players by their native region, and I've developed a logical and unnecessarily complex playoff bracket for so doing. It includes 64 slots arranged by region: Southeast, Northeast, Eastern Seaboard, Central, Midwest, West, California (yes, a whole bracket!) and International.
Since I'm fascinated by this stuff and quite possibly clinically insane, I thought I'd write it up as an actual tournament, beginning with two states on the bubble of making the Southern bracket: Team Arkansas and Team Mississippi.
We'll compare these theoretical, state-based baseball teams at 18 positions: Starting Lineup, Designated Hitter, 5 starting pitchers, closer, bullpen, bench, and manager.
Nine points or "games" will be assigned to each position, which multiplies neatly to 162, the same number of games played in a baseball season. The team with the better record at the end of this comparison will gain entry to our Southern bracket, which means I'll write about them again sometime.
Confused? Am I fired yet? Aw, just read:
The Natural State (that's Arkansas, not nudity, if you were wondering) has given birth to a number of fine catchers, including 1950's slugger Sherm Lollar, solid left-handed bat Earl Smith (ranked No. 100 all-time behind the plate by Bill James), and Cleveland Indians receiver Glenn Myatt, who once hit .342 even if it was during the 1920's when they gave away three base hits in every box of Cracker Jacks.
You can make a pretty decent platoon arrangement out of that.
On the other hand, the finest backstop ever to hail from the Magnolia State, Mississippi, was one Sport McAllister, who was... well... heck if I know. This is a clean win for the land of the Clintons. 8-1 Arkansas.
The reverse situation holds true at first base. Mississippi has given us right-handed slugger George Scott, who played outstanding defense for several seasons as a member of the Boston Red Sox, although they probably would have paid him much better had he been an immobile slugger.
Arkansas has never spawned a first sacker more highly regarded than Tommy McCraw. In McCraw's defense, it was the 1960's, and the White Sox were freezing the baseballs. (You see? It's not the steroids causing cheap home runs! It's all due to global warming!) I make this 8-1 Mississippi.
Mississippi gave us Frank White, cover boy for this article and all-around Robin to George Brett's Batman. The trick is to figure out whether it's the slick-fielding, doubles-hitting White from the early 80's or the slower, power-hitting version from later in the decade.
Either one was better than Aaron Ward, who is probably no relation to Burt Ward, who also played Robin. It all fits together, cosmically speaking. 7-2 Mississippi.
Arkansas, fittingly, is the birthplace of all-time great shortstop Arky Vaughan, who is probably just glad he wasn't born in Boston. Current Brewer Bill Hall and 1930's Athletic Eric McNair could fill out this position adequately for Mississippi, but heck, they're no Massachuttsey Vaughan. 6-3 Arkansas.
Here's where The Natural State—and no, it's not Roy Hobbes' homeland either—really shines, because both Brooks Robinson and George Kell come from Arkansas.
Do you want a third baseman who hits .350, or one who won an estimated 37 Gold Gloves? (In real life, Brooks won only 16 of those, but we're assuming he would have remained the best defensive third baseman in the AL through the mid-nineties, if only he'd kept playing to age 58. Also, at the request of Sparky Anderson, we're counting 1970 twice.)
Mississippi did give us Beltin' Bill Melton, the best third baseman in White Sox history until Robin Ventura. This is slightly, but not much, more impressive than being the most reliable member of the management team at AIG. 6-3, Arkansas.
Arkansas boasts Hall of Famer Lou Brock, who you may have heard is no longer the greatest of all time according to Rickey Henderson. But he ain't bad, either.
Mississippi can counter with Ellis Burks, a solid hitter and a borderline star, but it's not going to be enough unless Burks gets to take all of his at-bats in 1996 at Coors Field.
Come to that, Queen Elizabeth II probably could have popped 35 homers in 1996 at Coors Field, and it's been some time since Her Royal Highness even showed up for BP. 6-3, Arkansas.
Here's where it gets tricky. In Torii Hunter and Lloyd Moseby, Arkansas has given us a pair of American League center fielders of recent vintage, both All-Star caliber.
On the other hand, Mississippi is stuck with Chet Lemon, who is in the same class but there's only one of him...unless we give them credit for Cool Papa Bell, the great Negro League outfielder, who was reportedly so fast, he once flipped a switch, turning on American Idol, and then got into bed before Simon Cowell was able to say anything snarky.
No, seriously, he was very fast. I just have no idea how fast and the records are sketchy. But he's in the Hall of Fame, and that counts for something. 6-3, Mississippi.
Mississippi rounds out its outfield with Dave Parker, while Arkansas counters with somebody from their assortment of spare left fielders, probably newly minted Tampa Bay Ray Pat Burrell.
As a Mets fan, I hold Burrell's hitting prowess in near-superstitious awe, but I also have a common-sense aversion to dissing any man with 300-plus homers and the nickname "Cobra." Common sense trumps superstition every time. 7-2, Mississippi.
For Arkansas, it's probably either Willie Davis or Wally Moon, who are—Fun Fact!—both on the list of "Top Five Career Hits By Dodgers Whose Given Names Start with W." (Wes Parker, Willie Crawford, and Wee Willie Keeler, that's who else.)
Down on the delta, the choice is Luke Easter, who is second to Cool Papa Bell on the list of "Talented Mississippians Who Were Denied a Fair Chance for Being Insufficiently White." The Dodger list is more fun to calculate and less likely to make you despair of human nature when you think about it.
With or without a full career in the majors, Easter's a better pure hitter, but the overall contributions of the other two win out. 6-3, Arkansas.
In addition to those listed above, Mississippi can call upon ex-Senator Buddy Myer, Gee Walker, and Harry "The Hat" Walker. There's a Dr. Seuss joke lurking with those last two guys, but my mind's gone blank.
Meanwhile, in the Ozarks, Travis Jackson, Rick Monday and Kevin McReynolds ride the pine. Also, Randy Jackson is a pretty good third-best third baseman to have. Considering Arkansas also has the better platooning options, I make it 6-3, Arkansas.
Starting Pitcher No. 1
The best pitcher born in Arkansas was a rather equilibrium-challenged fellow named Jerome Hanna Dean. Perhaps you've heard of him? Ol' Diz is probably the most famous player ever born in either of these states.
Although Mississippi's Roy Oswalt has nearly matched him in career wins and has been a top-flight pitcher for longer, making this fight closer than you'd expect.
Right now I make it 5-4, Arkansas, but catch me in two years and I might flip.
Starting Pitcher No. 2
Arkansas' Lon Warneke and Mississippi's Guy Bush both pitched in two World Series for the Chicago Cubs, which only goes to show they also pitched a really long time ago. From their stats, it would appear that Warneke was superior. I have no evidence to the contrary. 5-4, Arkansas.
Starting Pitcher No. 3
Before there was the Eck, there was Arkansas' Johnny Sain, who won 20 games and then led the league in saves and, in his spare time, had rhymes composed about himself. You can't do that for Dennis Eckersley, unless you want to end a line with "What the Heckersley?"
Speaking of names, I'd be better-disposed toward Mississippi's Claude Passeau if he were called "Lefty," like Claude Williams. It just sounds good. Too bad Passeau threw righty. 6-3, Arkansas.
Starting Pitcher No. 4
Preacher Roe of Arkansas spent the latter half of his career surrounded by Boys of Summer. Reb Russell from Mississippi spent it with future Black Sox. Which team do you think really needed a preacher? More saliently, Roe posted 50 percent more wins. Easy call. 6-3, Arkansas.
Starting Pitcher No. 5
It's kind of early to pass final judgment on Cliff Lee from Arkansas, but having the reigning Cy Young Award winner as your swingman...well, that could be a lot worse.
Boo Ferriss was only good for a couple of years, but he put two great ones back to back in '45-'46, which is more than Lee has yet managed. I'll say 5-4, Arkansas, based on potential.
Arkansas has Ellis Kinder, whose credentials are sort of like Sain's in reverse—a good starter as opposed to a great one, a great reliever as opposed to a good one.
I'm not entirely sure who you'd get to close for Mississippi: Jay Powell, a top-flight setup man with the '97 rent-a-Marlins who never closed? Marshall Bridges, who helped the Yankees win a World Series in 1962? (They had Mantle and Maris. How much help did they need?)
This is a big win, as the Natural State's pitching edge widens further. (Seriously, who in the Arkansas tourism bureau said the words "Our state nickname should sound like a brand of face cream?") 7-2, Arkansas.
Besides Bridges and Powell, the Magnolia State—which isn't much better, but at least I'm used to that one—can call upon right-handed submariner Chad Bradford, current Pirate ace Paul Maholm, war-era Yankee Atley Donald, who would totally have been known as "Atley Shrugged" if only Chris Berman had been around.
Of course, there's also the immortal Oil Can Boyd, plus some older pitchers you've probably never heard of, mostly for good reason.
Arkansas, again, has the better of it: 20-game winner Gene Bearden, Dizzy's brother Paul, who may or may not have been Daffy, present-day Cardinal Ryan Franklin, Joe Berry, who led the league in saves in 1944, and newly-minted wealthy New Yorker A.J. Burnett. Huh. Looking at those names, I'm not sure it's as clear-cut as I thought. I'll just make it 5-4, Arkansas.
There's really never been a great Major League manager born in either of these states, but Mississippi had the aforementioned Harry Walker, who stuck around for a while in the majors and minors, not to mention Harry Craft, who got a favorable mention in Bill James' book on managers, plus Don Blasingame managed for a while in Japan.
You can make a coaching staff out of that some way. Arkansas really has nobody but Don Kessinger, who was briefly a player-manager for a bad team. Sain was a successful pitching coach, which I guess counts for something here.
They might need help from the Clintons; compared to the State Department, how hard can it be running a baseball team? 6-3, Mississippi.
Picturing this match-up as a confrontation between actual teams, one can see Brock and Bell putting on a highly entertaining display of baserunning prowess. Dizzy Dean might baffle the Mississippians for a few starts, but there never was a pitcher Dave Parker couldn't figure out in time.
I see the Mississippi Magnolias—finally a context in which "Naturals" sounds better—as having the advantage in slugging, and their relative lack of left-handed pitching might actually work to their advantage, as Arkansas would be a stronger team with Lollar catching and Torii Hunter in center field than with lefty bats Smith and Moseby.
The infield defense would be a thing to see: Robinson, Scott, White, and Kessinger were all among the best ever to play their positions. Arkansas might get a boost from devoted St. Louis fans traveling down from neighboring Missouri to see Cardinal greats Brock and Dean.
Over time, I think Arkansas' pitching depth would begin to show, and that's backed up by the numbers. Adding up our position comparisons, the final count is 88-74 in favor of Arkansas.
Our victors resemble their regional neighbors, the Atlanta Braves of the early 90s, winning with a staff full of aces, a couple of canny platoons, and an MVP-caliber effort from third base.
Arkansas will advance into the South bracket for a meeting with Todd Helton and Team Tennessee.
Our next contest will be in the Eastern Seaboard bracket, a complicated play-in between West Virginia, Delaware, and Washington D.C. It might take some Dizzy Dean math to figure that one out.
So, Arkansas, go celebrate! Go enjoy your Natural State, secure in the knowledge of your first-round geographical superiority. Just remember not to get complacent, you're in a tough bracket. Willie Mays and Hank Aaron are from Alabama.
Mississippians, I know it hurts, but there's always next year. All you have to do is give birth to a couple of crafty left-handers, and you'll be back in contention by 2030!
Meanwhile, you can go ahead and click over to Apprentice.
I'll bet Dennis Rodman feels your pain.