Baseball has been back for two weeks now and it’s great, isn’t it? It could be 37 and cloudy in Cleveland, but you turn the game on and see bright blue Arizona skies and fans in shirt-sleeves. Those lucky fans behind home plate in Goodyear remembered to bring their Chief Wahoo sun visor and their sun screen. Good for them. Or you’ve got the game on the car radio, you’ve got Tom Hamilton, and you’ve got your summertime companion back again. Faaaaantastic.
But admit it, and this may sound harsh, but you’re already sick of Spring Training. The wins and losses mean nothing and even the broadcasters don’t know who’s in the game sometimes. We want games that count, and pennant races, and stats that go into the historical ledger. Did you know that Ichiro’s next regular season hit gives him 2,936 and moves him out of a tie with Barry Bonds, who happens to be his current hitting coach? Wild. However, Ichiro’s next Spring Training hit could be a game-tying pinch hit home run in the bottom of the 9th and they’d probably just call it a draw and immediately head out for chicken wings in Scottsdale.
So let’s take a break, baseball fans, and embrace March Madness. The brackets are out and the full slate of games tip off on Thursday at 12:15pm. Even your boss knows that Thursday and Friday are a wash, so it’s time to spend 3 days catching up on a season’s worth of basketball so that you can pretend you know what you’re talking about. So go ahead, read all the experts, study up on Seton Hall’s full court press and break down Yale’s Princeton offense. Then just go ahead it and throw it all away. We’re all cooked and I guarantee that you won’t make it out of Day 1 unscathed. If Warren Buffett is willing to bet a billion dollars against you, I can tell you that I am not with you.
I’m taking a new tact this year and, you guessed it, baseball is the key. I’ve had my team of assistants pour through each team’s baseball pedigree to highlight players of note and look for any clues that I can use to win my office pool. Could this be the ticket? Who knows, nothing else has worked, so let’s give it a shot. I’ll break down the four regions below with a brief blurb on each school’s baseball credentials, followed by a bold prediction at the bottom. So come along and let’s see where this idea goes.
#1 Kansas – The tourney’s top overall seed has a pretty lackluster baseball pedigree. Tom Gorzelanny was drafted out of Kansas in 2003 and is in camp with the Tribe as a potential LOOGY option. Sam Freeman is a guy I’ve heard of as part of a lethal Texas bullpen. Steve Jeltz had the most pensive Rated Rookie card in the ’85 Donruss set (and was born in Paris. Paris, France!). Bruce Bochy’s son has overcome nepotism to actually appear in 7 major league games. Oh, and Smoky Joe Wood was electric for a few seasons, especially 1912 when he went 34-5 and pitched 344 innings with a 1.91 ERA. But this is seriously underwhelming out of a #1 seed. They’re out – and you have your first official scoop.
#16 Austin Peay – Longtime Dodger catcher A.J. Ellis has 8 WAR in 8 seasons. Austin Peay grad Jimmy Stewart (no not that Jimmy Stewart) played 10 seasons in the 60’s and 70’s in the National League. That’s about it.
#8 Colorado – Jay Howell won a title with the Dodgers in ’88. They had a guy actually named Dud Lee, but he was terrible, which you would expect out of a guy named Dud Lee. Hmm, Robert Redford went to Colorado and was actually on the baseball team before getting kicked out of school due to heavy drinking. Do we count that? Sweet left-handed stroke? Check. Stoic veteran presence? Check. And my scouts saw him hit a walk-off home run against some young flamethrower that blew out the lights at old Knights Stadium. We count it, and set a precedent going forward! Colorado is now a strong contender. Watch out, Kansas! Hey, it’s my bracket and if you don’t like it, take it to Eamonn Brennan.
#9 Connecticut – Walt Dropo (13 years MLB service time from 1949 to 1961) – man, does baseball have some great names or what? I got really excited and confused when I saw Roberto Hernandez, before realizing it was the White Sox closer. Charles Nagy! Alright, now we’re talking.
#5 Maryland – Hmm, Eric Milton had some years for the Twins and Yankees. Brett Cecil is an important piece in the Toronto bullpen and leads the league in kickin’ rec specs. Wait, Moonlight Graham?! THE Moonlight Graham? Huh, he played for the Maryland baseball teams in 1904 and 1905, where we can assume he had plenty of opportunities to wink at the pitcher and then proceed to rip a triple into the gap. But he also played for North Carolina, so he may split his own vote.
#12 South Dakota State – I’ve never heard of a single guy from their Baseball Reference page. You’re eliminated, South Dakota State. Congrats on winning the conference that no one ever heard of.
#4 California – Certain schools are going to be loaded with baseball talent, and Cal is the first such team in our bracket. Jeff Kent, Darren Lewis, current A’s manager Bob Melvin, Ben Francisco, Allen Craig, Kevin Maas (who still makes Sandy Alomar break out in cold sweats), Marcus Semien, Andy Messersmith played a major role in the early days of free agency if my baseball history is correct, Tyson Ross is an electric young pitcher out in San Diego. Here we go – Orval Overall. What a name. Notable as the man standing on the mound victorious when the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series. In 1908. That’s pretty cool.
#13 Hawaii – Huh, I was expecting Kila Ka’aihue or at least Shane Victorino. Well, that’s OK. Kolten Wong is among the best young second basemen in the game. Former Indian 2nd rounder Steven Wright is a Hawaii grad. No matter what else he accomplishes in life, I’d say choosing to play college baseball in Hawaii is a solid start to your adult decision-making journey.
#6 Arizona – Hellooooo Kenny Lofton. Not only did he have a Hall of Fame career (that’s a future article), but he was a backup point guard on the Arizona team that went to the Final Four in 1988, and was the starter for a Sweet Sixteen run the next year. Arizona is an excellent front runner. Even beyond Lofton, Arizona is loaded with baseball talent – JT Snow, Ron Hassey (who I believe caught two no-hitters in the Majors, but I don’t think he caught my no-no in Little League in 1992. Can’t remember), Trevor Hoffman, Casey Candaele (didn’t he make up Travis Hafner’s “Pronk” nickname?), Tito!, Scott Erickson, Mark Melancon, former Indians Shelley Duncan, Trevor Crowe, Jason Donald and his chiseled jaw (tip of the cap to Choops), Tommy Hinzo and his dreamy ’80’s baseball cards, and Preston Guilmet. Who gives a hoot about an oxford comma?
PLAY-IN GAME – Executive decision, I’m skipping the play-in games. I couldn’t get the funding to pay my research staff overtime. Oh shoot, Vanderbilt is a play-in team, and they’re a college baseball power. They’ll be in a special addendum below.
#3 Miami – Another baseball powerhouse – new Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, Greg Vaughn, Aubrey Huff, Ryan Braun, Alex Fernandez and the tastefully named Joey Terdoslavich. Plus Former Indians Danny Graves, Chris Perez, Neal Heaton, and Jason Michaels. Sorry “The U”, but we here in Cleveland are going to have to hold Perez and Michaels against you.
#14 Buffalo – Not much happening here, but I can report that I attended the MAC Tourney last week and I scouted former Cleveland Cavalier Donyell Marshall while he scouted the OU/Northern Illinois game. Hmm, come to think of it, I wonder if anyone was scouting me while I scouted Donyell while he scouted OU/NI.
#10 Temple – Bobby Higginson? Who am I kidding, Arizona has this region locked up.
#2 Villanova – If you take nothing else away from this article, you’re going to learn how to pronounce Matt Szczur‘s name. Sick-zur? Zuz-zuzer? No, it’s SEE-zur. Like Caesar. You’re welcome.
#15 UNC Asheville – Ty Wigginton. And that’s about it. But hey, even Ty Wigginton played 1,362 games and earned over $24 million in his career. Good work if you can get it.
#1 Oregon – Hall of Famer Joe Gordon, very nice. Former Indian Earl Averill and former Indian/current Dodger skipper/Yankee nemesis Dave Roberts. Whoops, wrong Dave Roberts. Too bad, Oregon. Looks like another #1 seed ripe for an upset.
#8 St. Joseph University – Fun fact: Jamie Moyer has played in 95% of all Major League games featuring a St. Joe’s graduate.
#9 Cincinnati – Sandy Koufax is surprising. Born in Brooklyn, NY and also attended Columbia. I even read Jane Leavy’s excellent biography and recall that he was pitching for the Dodgers while also attending Columbia. No idea how Cincinnati fit in there, but that’s a major coup for Cincy’s tourney chances.
#12 Yale – I was looking for some real heady ballplayers here, and Ron Darling fits that Yale mold. He’s now an excellent announcer with the Mets and had a solid Major League career. But Howdy Groskloss? Spencer Pumpelly? Step it up, Yale.
#4 Duke – Hold the tobacco crop – Crash Davis? Can’t be. Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis was based on a real guy? That bears future research, but honestly this may forever alter my impression of Duke University. Let’s go ahead and put Duke in the Final Four.
#13 UNC Wilmington – Who are we kidding?
#6 Texas – Another college baseball powerhouse. Drew Stubbs. OK, but seriously, Roger Clemens, former Indians Dennis Cook and Greg Swindell, All Star Huston Street, Brandon Belt, Shane Reynolds (who pitched valiantly on the losing end of Kerry Wood’s 20K game), and 1986 World Series conspirator Calvin Schiraldi
#11 Northern Iowa – UNI has no baseball pedigree to speak of and their website is awfully purple.
#14 Green Bay – They don’t even have a baseball program in Green Bay. This is football country. Nothing to see here, moving along…
#7 Oregon State – The quantity of players coming out of Corvallis is not matched by their quality. Jacoby Ellsbury is the only real ballplayer of note here.
#2 Oklahoma – Not a bad collection, but nothing compared to the real Crash Davis – Bobby Murcer, Bobby Witt, Danny Jackson, Jack Armstrong had one dismal season in Cleveland, and current Angels’ ace Garrett Richards.
#15 CSU Bakersfield – A California team is shut out! Surprising. This 15 seed isn’t making a run.
#1 University of North Carolina – At a glance, the East Region is a baseball powerhouse. UNC, USC, Kentucky and Notre Dame really look good on paper. North Carolina starts with Paul Shuey, but don’t worry, there’s more talent here. How about World Series ace Matt Harvey? BJ Surhoff (who needs a new Baseball Reference profile pic), Former ROY and ’89 World Series champ and current Rockies manager Walt Weiss, Dustin Ackley, Andrew Miller, and Kyle Seager. Kyle’s brother was drafted straight out of high school, however. They could have used his marquee name as baseball’s #1 prospect.
#8 University of Southern Cal – Where do you start? Four Hall of Famers (Randy Johnson, Don Sutton, Tom Seaver and Ralph Kiner), the Boone Brothers (Aaron and Bret), Bill Buckner (who deserves a better fate in history), Lucas Duda (who’s infamy will never match Buckner’s despite an arguably costlier error), Fred Lynn and his 50 career WAR, Dave Kingman and his 442 career home runs, Mark McGwire’s 583 home runs. Mark Prior (sigh). If that’s not enough, you have duel space cadets Bill Lee and Barry Zito. I’m leaving at least a few dozen more major-leaguers out because of space and time.
#12 Chattanooga – One of Chattanooga’s many charms is not its baseball program. This is a beautiful little city along the Tennessee River, though, and that’s something.
#4 Kentucky – I had higher hopes for Kentucky but honestly I’m still reeling from Southern Cal. Jason Kipnis started at Kentucky before transferring to Arizona State. Brandon Webb was exceptional for a few years in the mid-aughts. Collin Cowgill is in camp with the Indians. I can tell you a great story over a beer that connects Joe Blanton to Johnny Cash. Is that enough to catch USC? No.
#13 Stony Brook – Tom Koehler actually pitched for the Marlins in Spring Training on selection Sunday. Which means absolutely nothing.
#6 Notre Dame – Craig Counsell is the lane violation that almost eliminates Notre Dame before we even begin. Carl Yastrzemski is the long distance three to bring them right back into the game. Jeff Samardzija is making it very difficult to spell any Notre Dame grad’s names. Current Indians’ bullpen revelation Jeff Manship is a Notre Dame grad, and Chief Sockalexis has a connection to Notre Dame and Holy Cross. Very interesting.
#3 West Virginia – Darrell Whitmore was the first Indian selected in the 1993 expansion draft. He was picked by the Marlins and I remember being very upset when I was 13 because he seemed like a high upside, toolsy piece of the Indians future. 13-year-old me was sure dumb. Also, more fun with pronunciation, Jed Gyorko edition. Say it with me… JERK-oh. Very good.
#14 Stephen F. Austin – Nothing of note here, but they play in Nacogdoches, Texas and that’s fun to say.
#7 Wisconsin – Hall of Famer Addie Joss gets an extra sympathy vote here for an untimely death at the height of his powers. Harvey Kuenn is the most accomplished of Wisconsin grads, but the entire collection is somewhat underwhelming.
#10 Pitt – Ken Macha went to Pitt and I’ll mention him here as a segue to my own alma mater, Case Western Reserve University. Case is not well known for its athletics, you see, but one of our few draftees was Eric Macha in 2003. Eric was drafted by the A’s while his father was managing the team through their Moneyball hoopla. I won’t make any baseless assumptions and I’ll just point out that Eric hit .162 in the Rookie League and disappeared from pro ball forever. I hesitate to speculate about his current whereabouts or poke any light-hearted fun in his direction since his bio lists him at a generous 6’4″ and 210 pounds. Case is a fine school and I’m sure he landed on his feet as a doctor or a bio-medical engineer or something.
#15 Weber State – Here’s a fun tournament fact. Weber State is in Ogden, Utah. Here’s another – Dave Gray is the only Wildcat to ever play in the majors.
#1 University of Virginia – As strong as the East Region was, I think we’re in for a letdown in the Midwest. Let’s do the math. Washington National veteran Ryan Zimmerman has had the kind of career that Mark Reynolds wishes he had. Sean Doolittle is electric when healthy, and Javier Lopez is as steady as they come. And then you have some Indians farmhands in Kyle Crockett and Mike Papi. That’s a solid #1 seed, but is it enough to beat out Michigan State looming below?
#16 Hampton – Not much out of Hampton. And by not much, I mean absolutely no one.
#8 Texas Tech – A fair number of players have gone on to the Majors but when Josh Bard has the most games played, you know you’re not talking about any Hall of Famers.
#9 Butler – The ultimate tourney Cinderella has one real name of note – our old friend Doug Jones. The man who logged 295 games with the Indians (and started 4 of them!) while racking up 129 saves in the golden era (for me) of late 80’s baseball in Cleveland. It feels so good to see that name again, I’m just getting the Spring Training fuzzies all over.
#5 Purdue – Um, Archi Cianfrocco? Next.
#12 Arkansas Little Rock – Talk about a shot out of left field. Arkansas Little Rock, who just wrapped up their tourney appearance with a win on Selection Sunday, boasts Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson as an alum. Every tournament needs a 12-5 upset. This could be the one.
#4 Iowa State University – I’ll venture a guess that Iowa State is usually better at basketball than baseball. Someone named Mike Myers is their most seasoned alumni.
#13 Iona College – From New Rochelle, NY, Jason Motte once saved some World Series games for the Cardinals, plus he has an extremely impressive beard.
#11 Gonzaga -Perenial tournament attendee Gonzaga boasts Jason Bay as an alum. Not too shabby.
#3 Utah -Not much of note here. Chris Shelton once pulled a Kevin Maas on the American League for a few months in 2005.
#10 Syracuse – There are a good 30 players from Syracuse that have played in the Majors, and I like to think that I know my baseball (I hope the previous thousand words didn’t dissuade you), but I don’t think I’ve heard of a single guy on this list.
#2 Michigan State – The strongest contender in a weak region. Hall of Famer Robin Roberts may not equal Brooks Robinson from Arkansas Little Rock, but Steve Garvey, Kirk Gibson, and Mark Mulder certainly push the Spartans to the Final Four.
#15 Middle Tennessee – Not much here, but I do like Jayhawk Owens‘ name. Plus he’s a Cincinnati native.
Honorable Mentions (Play In Games):
Florida Gulf Coast – Chris Sale is where they begin and end, but that’s a nice ending.
Vanderbilt – David Price, Sonny Gray, Pedro Alvarez and former Indians Jeremy Sowers and Jensen Lewis. Turns out their success is fairly recent and they don’t have a lot of history to go with this newer crop.
South Region – Arizona featuring Kenny Lofton edges a very tight field
West Region – Crash Davis carries Duke in a weak region
East Region – Southern Cal is loaded with baseball talent
Midwest Region – Michigan State edges out Arkansas Little Rock
NCAA Tournament Champion – with four Hall of Famers and a ridiculously deep roster of talent, #8 seed Southern Cal takes the title. I predict Randy Johnson dunking on short rest throughout the tournament. You heard it here first. Good luck filling out your brackets in your own unique way, and enjoy the Madness.