With the major league baseball divisional series underway this week, I'm relying as usual on my ever-present Who's Who in Baseball to help me choose who to root for.
This pocket-size guide contains thumbnail player biographies including players' birthplaces. I have a simple formula to calculate which team will earn my allegiance: the more Americans on the roster, the harder I cheer for it.
Readers of my past columns and blogs know my unshakeable take on multiculturalism in baseball. As I have often shown, Americans play baseball better than anyone. Although outstanding foreign-born players are plentiful, baseball is a team sport. And the best teams are the ones that have the highest percentage of Americans.
Last year, the overwhelmingly American-born Philadelphia Phillies beat the predominantly American Tampa Bay Rays in a World Series that was, demographically, a page from baseball's past.
The Phillies' current squad is mostly unchanged from last year except for three key additions:
Acquired during the off-season: New York-born outfielder Raúl Ibañez.
Promoted: J.A. Happ, a Northwestern University history major, to the starting rotation at the season's beginning.
Traded for: Arkansas native Cliff Lee, the Cleveland Indians' 2008 Cy Young Award winner. Lee, in his first postseason start, dominated the Colorado Rockies, 5-1.
While I would in no way be disappointed to see the Phillies repeat as World Series champions, I'm hoping that the Minnesota Twins pull off the impossible and go all the way.
In keeping with my unapologetic support of American players, the Twins achieved their playoff spot by beating the Detroit Tigers 6-5 in a twelve inning do-or-die contest that was, simply put, the best game I have ever seen in nearly sixty years of watching baseball.
Nine of the Twins' starting ten, including its designated hitter, are Americans.
Among those nine is the greatest All-American baseball success story since the arrival of Mickey Mantle: Joe Mauer.
A local Minnesota boy born in St. Paul, Mauer was the Twins 2001 number one amateur draft choice. In his first six seasons, Mauer has led the American League in batting three times (in the last four years), won a Gold Glove and played in three All-Star games. Mauer is the odds-on favorite to win this year's Most Valuable Player Award. (See Mauer's hitting tips here.)
Here's what two former outstanding catchers think about Mauer.
Detroit Tigers' Bill Freehan, 11-time All Star: "He is an outstanding receiver, the way he runs the game. I don't judge a catcher on throwing men out. There is a lot that goes into that; mostly the location of the ball can assist the catcher. Most bases are stolen on the pitcher. (But) Joe Mauer has an outstanding arm. I can't imagine hitting .364 as a catcher. That is flat-out outstanding."
Cincinnati Reds' Hall of Famer Johnny Bench: "You've got to be proud of guys like Joe Mauer. He's a credit to baseball. To watch him is a joy."
Note the irony in Mauer's story: in an era of managements' searching the globe for baseball talent, with a fixation that verges on obsession with Dominican prospects, the Twins' best player and the envy of every manager grew up right next door.
Although the Twins consistently play winning baseball with Americans, the organization nevertheless subscribes to the baseball without borders vision.
Dating back to 2000, the Twins' scouting expanded into Canada, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Australia, Japan, Korea and eventually added personnel in Curaçao, Italy, Taiwan as well as throughout the Caribbean, Europe, Asia and even Africa.
Howard Norsetter, the Twins director of international scouting said: "I flew around the world five times in one year."
In one of those years, 2002, Norsetter signed the Netherlands' 16-year-old phenom Alexander Smit.
Smit, then considered to be a hot property, is a good case study supporting my philosophy that buying American, so to speak, is better business.
Early in his minor league career, Smit pitched well enough at the Rookie and Single A level. But by 2005, still toiling futilely in the low minors, Smit turned in a 1-9 record.
The Twins gave up and placed Smit on waivers where the Reds claimed him. Smit is no longer considered a major league prospect.
Needless to say, any American kid on a NCAA Division I team like Texas or LSU could have done as "well" as Smit. Let's be honest: it's hard to do worse than 1-9.
The problem that Smit creates is that, once he signs, the American college pitcher never gets his chance. There are only so many spots in baseball. Every one that that goes to a foreign-born player is one less that's available to an American.
During the years that Smit floundered, another key cog in the Twins 2009 division championship reached stardom: American Jason Kubel.
More than talent separates Smit from Kubel.
Smit was one of Norsetter's bombed-out international prospects. Kubel, on the other hand, hails from Belle Fourche, S.D. (a six-hour Greyhound bus ride from Minneapolis) and learned his baseball in Palmdale, California.
More significantly, Smit was an international free agent who, unlike his American counterparts, will often sign for less money.
According to the international free agent market rules, on July 2nd of every year major league teams can sign 16-year old prospects if they can prove they will turn 17 by September 1st.
This exercise is repeated annually even though the odds of success for teenage players like Smit are remote.
Sports Illustrated tracked the progress of 16-year-olds signed in recent years and found that in 2002, for example, clubs signed 53 players, 44 of whom have been released.
Not even six-figure signing bonuses guaranteed greater success. In 2003, of the 12 prospects signed for the then unheard-of sum of $100,000, ten have been released.
If you think 28 percent foreign-born players is too high for our National Pastime, I have bad news.
Now thanks to the Compete Act (Creating Opportunities for Minor League Professionals, Entertainers and Teams) international players are not restricted by visa limitations. Your favorite team will gradually become even more diverse and, probably, less skilled.
While the chances are still slim that the youngest signees will make it, the prospect pool gets wider every year. Not long ago, scouts only combed the Caribbean for potential players. Now, like the Twins, all the 30 major league teams scour the seven continents hoping to get lucky.
As heartwarming as Joe Mauer's story may be, to a baseball general manager a more rewarding saga is to sign on the cheap, for $710,000, one of the few international free agents who eventually become stars, like Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez .
As long as scouts can hope to land a potential Cy Young Award winner like Hernandez for small potatoes, they'll keep dipping into the international market even if it means an inferior product on the field for fans.
You can be sure that's exactly what will happen.
Joe Guzzardi shares a page from his scrapbook: Speaking of the Twins, Tigers and All-American kids, my baseball curriculum vitae includes a 1976 game in Minneapolis' old Metropolitan Stadium when Mark ("The Bird") Fidrych, during his unforgettable 19-9 rookie year, dominated the Twins, 8-3.
As part of a crazy pre-game promotion, dozens of birds were released to fly freely above the stadium.
Talk about your baseball oddities; that night Fidrych pitched a ten-hit complete game with just two walks and two strike outs.
Read an account of that special night here and a brief history of Fidrych's rise and fall here.
Fidrych, only 54, died in a farming accident this spring.
Joe Guzzardi [email him] is a California native who recently fled the state because of over-immigration, over-population and a rapidly deteriorating quality of life. He has moved to Pittsburgh, PA where the air is clean and the growth rate stable. A long-time instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, Guzzardi has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.