Atlanta hosts St. Louis in Game 5 of the National League Division Series today, 14 years to the day after one of the most painful losses in Braves history. Atlanta lost 7-6 at Houston in an NLDS game that lasted 18 innings – at the time the longest in postseason history – and eliminated the Braves. The Oct. 9, 2005, game also featured the first postseason intersection of players from two different eras of Jackson-area Double-A baseball. Atlanta’s lineup included Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur, both of whom started that season with the Mississippi Braves in Pearl. Lance Berkman, who played for the Jackson Generals in 1998, started for Houston, and Raul Chavez, another ex-Gen, also played that day. McCann hit a home run as the Braves built a 6-1 lead. But Berkman belted a grand slam in the eighth and Brad Ausmus hit a solo homer in the ninth – both shots coming off Kyle Farnsworth — to tie it. Among the parade of pitchers in the extra frames was Vicksburg native John Thomson, who worked two scoreless innings for Atlanta. Weir’s Roy Oswalt was on the Houston roster but didn’t pitch; he had started and won Game 3 the day before. Roger Clemens pitched the last three innings for the Astros and got the win when Chris Burke took M-Braves alum Joey Devine deep for the walk-off winner 5 hours, 50 minutes after first pitch. Rest assured, no Braves fan has forgotten that game.
Ran across a good story on milb.com about former Jackson Generals manager Rick Sweet, who notched his 2,000th career minor league managerial win on June 25. Only 12 others have reached that milestone. Sweet was the manager of the first two Generals clubs in 1991 and ’92, winning 131 games overall with the Houston Astros’ Double-A affiliate. Sweet, 66, a former big league catcher, has logged 30 seasons as a manager and is now at Triple-A San Antonio in Milwaukee’s system. Sweet has had some other jobs in the game, including two stints as a big league coach, but managing apparently suits him best. “I love going to the ballpark every day,” Sweet said in the article. “The fact that I get to help and be a part of so many young people’s lives, even when I started managing 30-something years ago, that’s what resonates with me. That’s what drives me every day.” The mustachioed “Sweetie,” as everyone called him at Smith-Wills Stadium back in the day, was a very vocal kind of guy but was always easy to work with for those who covered the Gens. “He’s lasted so long because of his commitment to open, honest communication,” writes Joe Bloss.
Once upon a time, there was a Double-A team at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson. Twenty years ago, the Jackson Generals, a Houston Astros affiliate in the Texas League, played their ninth and final season before bolting for Round Rock, Texas. Twenty years is a long time. No former Generals are still playing in the big leagues. There isn’t – or wasn’t — much left to remember them by here in central Mississippi. Until now. The Mississippi Braves will rekindle good memories for some old Smith-Wills fans on Friday night when they don throwback apparel and give away Generals replica jerseys at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Former Generals have been invited to attend. Con Maloney, former owner of the Texas League franchise, will throw out the first pitch. (Yes, the M-Braves are playing a team called the Jackson Generals, a Southern League club from Tennessee. Don’t let that confuse you.) The Mississippi-based Generals, who followed the Mets at Smith-Wills in 1991, won two league titles during their time at the ballpark on Lakeland Drive. Future big league stars such as Bobby Abreu, Lance Berkman, Billy Wagner, Freddy Garcia and Richard Hidalgo played there. (There’s a long list.) Former big leaguers Rick Sweet, Gary Allenson and Sal Butera managed there. Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell rehabbed there for the Astros. If all goes well, maybe a Jackson Mets throwback game will be next — though the idea of putting Braves prospects in Mets unies seems a little weird.
Has it really been 20 years? The first home game of the final season of the old Jackson Generals was played on April 19, 1999, at Smith-Wills Stadium. It could’ve gone better, to say the least. Gov. Kirk Fordice bounced the ceremonial first pitch. The Generals, the Double-A affiliate of the Houston Astros, then surrendered five first-inning runs and lost to Texas League rival Arkansas 9-2. Rick Ankiel got the win and also homered for the Travelers, who were managed by Jackson native and current Mississippi Braves skipper Chris Maloney. The loss dropped the Generals’ record to 3-8. Only 1,955 people turned out to see the lame-duck club, which had announced a year earlier that it was moving to Round Rock, Texas. The ’99 Gens would prove to be a pretty good team. Quite a few future big leaguers appeared on the roster, including Chris Truby (who hit 28 homers), Julio Lugo (.319, 25 steals), Keith Ginter, Brian Dallimore, Jeriome Robertson (15-game winner) and Wayne Franklin. They also occasionally started an all-Johnson outfield: A.J., J.J. and Ric. The Generals, managed by Jim Pankovits, finished 68-72 overall after making a run at the TL East second-half title. The championship actually came down to the last game of the season, also played at Smith-Wills. Alas, before the biggest crowd of the year (a turnstile count of 4,367), the Gens lost in heartbreaking fashion, 9-4 to Tulsa. It was 3-3 in the seventh inning when the Drillers’ Juan Pinella hit a grand slam that sucked the energy out of the old ballpark. The 25-year Texas League era at Smith-Wills began on April 19, 1975, with a pitch by the Jackson Mets’ Greg Pavlick. It ended on Sept. 8, 1999, on a pitch by Tulsa’s Matt Miller, a Delta State alum from Greenwood who would go on to pitch in the big leagues. … The M-Braves will pay tribute to the Generals and that bygone time during a series at Trustmark Park in Pearl from June 25-29.
Fifteen days before the season opener, Tony Sipp has found a new team, the Washington Nationals. The veteran left-hander out of Moss Point High and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College reportedly has agreed to a one-year, $1.25 million contract with a mutual option for 2020. The 35-year-old Sipp had a strong bounce-back year in 2018, putting up a 1.86 ERA in 54 appearances for Houston. He made $6M last year. Sipp has a career 3.67 ERA in 580 games, working exclusively as a reliever. He had a 0.90 ERA against left-handers in 2018, and a Washington Post reporter is already predicting a special role for him: “Expect to see a lot of Sipp versus (Bryce) Harper in the coming season.” The former Nationals left-handed slugger is now with division rival Philadelphia. Sipp joins Southern Miss alum Brian Dozier on what shapes up as a strong Nationals club. Dozier also signed a one-year deal as a free agent.
Cool idea by the Mississippi Braves to give a nod to the old Jackson Generals as part of the M-Braves’ celebration of the franchise’s 15th year in Pearl. The M-Braves will wear some throwback apparel when the Jackson (Tenn.) Generals (no relation to the other one) visit Trustmark Park from June 25-29. On June 28, the first 1,000 fans will receive a replica Jackson (Miss.) Generals jersey. As a refresher, the Generals were the Double-A Texas League affiliate of the Houston Astros and played at Smith-Wills Stadium from 1991-1999. That club produced a bevy of big league stars, including Billy Wagner, Lance Berkman, Bobby Abreu, Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia, Richard Hidalgo, Todd Jones, Julio Lugo, Daryle Ward, Melvin Mora, Brian Hunter and Scott Elarton, to name, well, more than a few. The Generals won two Texas League pennants (1993 and ’96). Of course, Jackson’s pro baseball legacy extends well beyond the Generals. The Mets – New York’s Double-A club – occupied Smith-Wills from 1975-1990, turned out an array of stars, as well (see Darryl Strawberry, Jeff Reardon, Mookie Wilson, Kevin Mitchell, et al.), and won three TL titles. And before the Mets there were a number of minor league teams that played in a long-gone ballpark at the Fairgrounds for many years up until the early ’50s. Included in that group was a Boston Braves farm team. And let’s not forget that after the Generals departed for Round Rock, Texas, two independent pro teams played at Smith-Wills: the DiamondKats (2000) and the Senators (2002-05). The Senators also won a championship. Bottom line: When it comes to pro baseball in central Mississippi, there’s a whole lot to celebrate.
In recognition of Black History Month, here’s a shout-out to Dave Clark, the ex-Shannon High and Jackson State star who is one of just 16 African-Americans to have managed in the major leagues. (Yes, that’s a shamefully small number.) Clark, about to begin his sixth season as third-base coach for the Detroit Tigers, was the interim manager in Houston for the last 13 games of the 2009 campaign. The team, limping to the end of a 74-88 finish, went 4-9 under Clark. Interestingly enough, he was the third Mississippi native to manage the Houston club; Harry Craft (1962-64) and Harry Walker (1968-72) were the other two. Clark was a first-round draft pick by Cleveland out of JSU in 1983 and played 13 years in the big leagues, batting .264 with 62 homers and earning a rep as a fearsome pinch hitter. Since retiring as a player, he has managed in the minors (two championships) and in winter ball and coached for three different MLB clubs. He has been interviewed and/or considered for several major league managerial jobs since his stint with the Astros. That door might still open for him someday.
Two noteworthy players with Mississippi ties remain on the free agent market, and they have a few things in common. Tony Sipp and Drew Pomeranz are left-handed pitchers, played college ball in Mississippi, were originally drafted by the Cleveland Indians and own a World Series ring. They are even in somewhat similar situations as they look for a new club in 2019. Sipp is 35 – he’ll be 36 in July – and is nearing the end of what has been a fine career. The former Moss Point High and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College star, a short reliever for all of his 10 years in the big leagues, has a 3.67 career ERA. After a couple of off years with Houston, he bounced back strong with a 1.86 ERA in 2018, demonstrating that he may still have something in the tank. Ole Miss product Pomeranz, a former first-round pick (fifth overall) in 2010, had a rough 2018, dealing with arm issues and posting a 6.08 ERA for Boston. He was on the Red Sox’s roster for their World Series triumph but didn’t get in a game. Pomeranz, 30, has had a career that’s been all over the place. He has been with five different organizations. He has started and worked in relief. He has had some very good years (All-Star with San Diego in 2016, 17 wins for the Red Sox in 2017) and has a career ERA of 3.92. But last season was such a clunker, his value surely took a hit. It’s likely that both Sipp and Pomeranz will get short-term deals for modest money and will head into spring training with something to prove, Sipp that he’s not done and Pomeranz that last year was an aberration.
Houston Astros fans surely will cringe when reminded of what went down on this date in 1971. During the winter meetings, the Astros traded – drumroll, please — Joe Morgan, Jack Billingham, Cesar Geronimo, Ed Armbrister and Denis Menke to Cincinnati for Tommy Helms, Lee May and Jimmy Stewart. Might have been the worst trade ever. And Mississippian Harry Walker, the Houston manager at the time, had a role in it. Morgan, Billingham and Geronimo became key players on the great Reds teams that won back-to-back World Series in 1975 and ’76. Morgan was the National League’s MVP both of those years and is now in the Hall of Fame. The Astros improved slightly from 1971 to ’72, thanks in part to May’s 29 homers, but Walker was fired before the season ended. The Astros wouldn’t sniff the postseason until 1980. Why did the Astros dump Morgan, only 29 at the time of the infamous deal? According to reports, Walker, the Pascagoula native and onetime big league star, didn’t like Morgan, calling him a troublemaker. And Morgan didn’t like Walker, years later accusing him of racism. A stern disciplinarian with an outspoken manner, Walker is said to have clashed with a lot of his players. Hired by the Astros in mid-1968, he was fired in August of ’72 even though the team had a winning record at the time. Leo Durocher finished out the campaign. It was Walker’s ninth and final season as an MLB skipper.
Mitch Moreland was back in the starting lineup for Boston on Thursday and now he’s back in the World Series – for a third time – after the Red Sox dispatched Houston 4-1 in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series. The Mississippi State alumnus, who had been limited by a hamstring injury since Game 2 of the ALDS, went 2-for-4 and was on base when Rafael Devers smacked his huge three-run homer off Justin Verlander in the sixth inning. Moreland is 4-for-9 this postseason and carries a .252 career postseason average – with three homers, 15 RBIs and 14 runs – over 44 games. He has appeared in the postseason in seven of his nine pro seasons, going back to his rookie year of 2010 with Texas, which lost in the World Series to San Francisco. Moreland went 6-for-13 in that Series, then 1-for-10 the next year as the Rangers fell to St. Louis. Boston has had Mississippi natives on several of its World Series teams – Boo Ferriss in 1946, George Scott and Dalton Jones in 1967, Oil Can Boyd in 1986 – but never on one of its championship teams. Amory native Moreland will be out to change that.