Feb. 10. That’s a date worth circling. Jones County Junior College, ranked No. 2 in Collegiate Baseball’s NJCAA Division II poll, will make its 2018 debut on that date against Southwest Tennessee CC in Ellisville. It’s truly a testament to the tradition established by the Bobcats – the 2016 national champs – that they are so highly ranked. The 2018 team will look very different from the 2017 version, which started the year ranked No. 1, went 46-4, won the state championship and saw its brilliant season end in heartbreaking fashion at home in the Region 23 Tournament. (Hinds CC won the region title and advanced to the juco World Series.) Gone from the Bobcats roster are hitting stalwarts Tanner Huddleston, Erick Hoard, Fred Franklin and Shelton Wallace and ace starters Ben Stiglets, Mason Strickland and Logan Robbins. Luther Woullard (.326, six homers), a New Orleans signee, is the top returning hitter, and Alabama-bound Will Freeman (1.80 ERA, five saves) is hailed by coach Chris Kirtland as the MACJC’s “most dominant” pitcher. Freshmen will play significant roles. Ones to watch: outfielders Luke McKenzie (Columbia Academy) and Trace Henry (Mooreville) and right-hander Payton Harris (Oak Grove). While you’re circling dates, go ahead and do May 15. That’s the first day of the Region 23 Tournament. It’s a good bet that JCJC will be in it.
Jeff Francoeur turns 34 today. He was a mere 21 when he arrived in Mississippi in 2005 as one of the game’s top-rated prospects. At 6 feet 4, 220 pounds, he looked like a ballplayer on the field, and he had the kind of infectious personality that made him a presence in the Mississippi Braves’ clubhouse, too. “Frenchy” debuted in Atlanta later that same year and famously made the cover of Sports Illustrated after an impressive start. But his star turn was short-lived. He was found wanting in Atlanta by 2009 and was traded away. He played for seven other MLB clubs before retiring to the broadcast booth – with the Braves – last year. There are plenty of haters out there who’ll dismiss Francoeur’s career as a big bust. True, he was never an All-Star and didn’t lead Atlanta to a championship. But he hit .261 with 160 home runs over a 12-year period. Those aren’t table-scrap numbers. He hit 29 bombs in one season and twice drove in more than 100 runs. He hit .293 one year and .285 in another. Twice he had 40 or more doubles in a season. He had a 22-steal season. He won a Gold Glove in right field and three times led his league in outfield assists. On this day, his birthday, he deserves some props.
On this date in 1920, the course of baseball history – and Sammy Vick’s career – changed. The Boston Red Sox, under new ownership, sold their best player, Babe Ruth, to the New York Yankees for the sum of $125,000. Ruth, who would come to be regarded by some as the best player ever, transformed the Yankees into a dynasty that became major league baseball’s iconic franchise. The “cursed” Red Sox, who had won three World Series with Ruth, fell into a decades-long funk that only recently ended. Ruth was a two-way star for the Sox, hitting a record 29 homers as their left fielder and going 9-5 on the mound in 1919. The Yankees made him a fulltime outfielder in 1920, and he played mostly in right, where he displaced the former starter, Batesville native and Millsaps College alum Vick. After missing most of the 1918 season while serving in the military, Vick, then 24, earned the Yanks’ right field job in 1919. He had an up-and-down year, batting .248 with two homers, 15 doubles and nine triples in 106 games. Ruth’s smashing arrival – he hit 59 homers in 1920 – was the beginning of the end for Vick, who got into just 51 games that year, then was traded to the Red Sox in ’21. That was his final big league season.
On Dec. 15, the Los Angeles Angels formally announced the signing of free agent Zack Cozart, the Ole Miss alumnus, to be their third baseman. Three days later, Boston announced that it was re-signing Mitch Moreland, the ex-Mississippi State standout, to play first base. Since then, there’s been nothing concrete on any of the bundle of other Mississippians looking for a 2018 team. Rumors have connected Lance Lynn to several teams, but as of today the former UM right-hander remains on the free agent market. Same for fellow former Rebels star Seth Smith and McComb native Jarrod Dyson, both outfielders and both coming off fairly productive seasons. Lynn, in particular, would seem to be an attractive piece. He is 72-47 with a 3.18 ERA for his career and has averaged 32 starts a year since 2013, excluding 2016, when he was out with Tommy John surgery. He was 11-8, 3.43 at age 30 last season for St. Louis. Quite a few big-name free agents are also still out there, and once a couple of them sign, the rush could be on. For now, we wait. … David Goforth, another Ole Miss product, signed a minor league contract with Washington in early December, and there are several other state-connected players seeking similar deals. Included are Tyler Moore, Alex Presley, Chris Coghlan, T.J. House, Scott Copeland, Louis Coleman and Joey Butler.