26 Sep

spirit of ’96

Jackson’s Texas League franchise won five pennants during its 25-year tenure at Smith-Wills Stadium, but none of the five championship runs had more compelling storylines than the last one. It was 20 years ago this month that the Generals, managed by Dave Engle, plowed through Tulsa and Wichita, going 7-1 overall, to win that title. There was something rare, something controversial and something very heartwarming over those 10 days in September. With future big leaguers Richard Hidalgo and Melvin Mora out with injuries, other stars stepped up and unexpected heroes emerged. All in all, it was a wild ride that started at Smith-Wills and ended in Wichita’s Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. In the opener of the best-of-5 TL East Division series, the Gens got a four-hitter from future big leaguer John Halama and won the game 2-1 on the weirdest of walk-offs. With the bases loaded and one out in the ninth, Tulsa’s left fielder, Mike Murphy, inexplicably caught a deep fly ball, clearly in foul territory, off the bat of Nate Peterson, enabling Russ Johnson to tag and jog home with the winning run. In Game 2, Jackson got a leadoff home run from Buck McNabb – his first bomb in three years – and another homer from another unlikely source, former Ole Miss star Kary Bridges, to take a 6-1 win. (Footnote: Bridges had returned to Jackson from Triple-A just before the playoffs started as a roster replacement for Mora.) Edgar Ramos, who threw a no-hitter during the season, got the victory in Game 2. The series shifted to Tulsa, where the Generals lost Game 3 and also lost closer Manuel Barrios for one postseason game (plus two games in 1997) for intentionally hitting a batter. At least they thought it was a one-game postseason suspension. The Gens took the series with a 7-2 victory in Game 4 as Scott Elarton, Houston’s first-round pick from 1994 making his first Double-A appearance, shut down the Drillers. Then came the controversy. The team learned before the opener of the best-of-7 TLCS at Smith-Wills that Barrios would be suspended for the first two games against Wichita, contrary to league president Tom Kayser’s original ruling. (Footnote: The Gens were miffed, to say the least, that Kayser had arbitrarily changed his mind, issued a release on his new ruling and never called Generals officials with an explanation.) Behind the pitching of Halama and Tim Kester and a couple of key hits by Bridges, the Generals beat the Wranglers 4-1 to open the series. In Game 2, it was Ramos again with a sterling start, backed by the hitting of Peterson, who homered and drove in three runs. (Footnote: Peterson also was hit in the helmet by a pitch with Kayser in attendance; there was no ejection or suspension.) Game 3 took a weird turn, as a rusty Barrios blew a 3-0 lead in the ninth after Jamie Walker had worked a brilliant first eight. Donovan Mitchell, playing center field in the playoffs for the first time in his career, threw out a runner at the plate to preserve the tie. (Footnote: Mitchell had flown home to New York after Game 2 to see his newborn son, Donovan, Jr., then flew back in time for Game 3.) The resilient Gens won another walk-off on ninth-inning hits by McNabb, Bridges and Tim Forkner. The clincher came in Wichita, where Elarton, shaking off three unearned runs in the first inning, kept the Wranglers in check and the Gens scored five in the fourth inning en route to a 7-3 win. Al Probst homered, and Forkner, Peterson and Mitch Meluskey had RBI hits. While the team scored 26 runs in the finals, it was pitching that really stole the show. The Gens put up an 0.50 ERA in the series. (Footnote: The pitching coach in 1996 was Jim Hickey, who has held the same job with the Tampa Bay Rays for several years now.) The title was Jackson’s second in four years, but the club would not make the TL postseason again, coming up short in the last game of their last season (1999) at Smith-Wills.

Mike Christensen

Mike Christensen

A long-time sports fan and 30-year newspaper veteran muses on all things baseball in Mississippi. Contact: mwchristens@gmail.com
Mike Christensen

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