24 Apr

stuff of dreams

The real Lance Berkman, the former Jackson Generals star, batted .296 with 366 homers over a sweet 15-year MLB career that rated more Hall of Fame consideration than it got. The virtual Lance Berkman, now “playing” for the all-time Astros team in the computer-generated MLB Dream Bracket tournament, has been pretty darn good, too. The “Big Puma” is batting .447 with three homers and 12 RBIs through 10 games over two series (see mlb.com for all the box scores). The Astros have reached the quarterfinals with wins against the Orioles and Tigers. Roy Oswalt, the Weir High and Holmes Community College alum, is 3-0 with a 3.05 ERA in three starts for the Astros’ dream team. Oswalt spent 10 years with Houston and was arguably as good in that stretch (143-82, 3.24 ERA) than any pitcher the Astros ever trotted out. That includes Nolan Ryan, J.R. Richard and Mike Scott, the other members of the Dream Bracket rotation. Billy Wagner, another ex-Generals standout with Hall of Fame cred, has three saves for the all-time Astros, who’ll meet the Yankees in the next round.

20 Feb

golden oldie

This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the so-called “Miracle on Grass,” the U.S. Olympic Team’s unexpected gold medal performance in the Sydney Olympics. The team USA Baseball sent to the 2000 Games was a collection of minor leaguers and MLB journeymen that lacked any real star power. Hence, the “miracle.” Writers for mlb.com have put together a compelling oral history of the event, and among those frequently quoted in the story is Roy Oswalt, the Weir native and ex-Holmes Community College star who had a big hand in two of Team USA’s victories in the tournament. At the time, Oswalt was a 23-year-old Houston Astros prospect, a 23rd-round draft pick who hadn’t pitched above Class AA in his four pro seasons. He had gone 11-4 with a 1.94 ERA at Double-A Round Rock during the 2000 season, flashing the stuff that would carry him to 163 wins in the majors. But at the time, he wasn’t widely known, nor were many – if any – of his teammates. “On the way over there, we were getting bashed and hammered by the media saying we had no chance against Cuba,” he told mlb.com. “No one knew who these [U.S. players] were, who they’re sending over here.” Oswalt, on a staff that included Ben Sheets and Jon Rauch, pitched seven shutout innings against South Korea in pool play and came back with six strong against the Koreans in the semifinals. Behind Sheets’ pitching and a big homer by Mike Neill, the Americans stunned heavy favorite Cuba in the gold medal game. “Tommy (Lasorda, the team manager) told everyone that he had won World Series and all kinds of stuff in Major League Baseball,” Oswalt told mlb.com, “but nothing he had done in his life amounted to what had just happened.”

16 Jan

into the breach?

Buck Showalter has 1,551 managerial wins — 24th all-time in MLB — and claims three manager of the year awards. What the former Mississippi State star doesn’t have is a World Series ring. He might get a chance – a good chance, actually — to pick one up in 2020. Showalter has interviewed for the Houston Astros job and would appear to be one of the top candidates to replace A.J. Hinch, fired this week in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal. The Astros, 2017 world champs and 2019 American League champs, still have a loaded lineup and rate as one of the early favorites to win the 2020 Series. Showalter, 63, has managed four different teams and had success at each stop. He took three of the four to the postseason, making five trips all told in 20 years. His 2014 Baltimore club reached the AL Championship Series, falling to Kansas City. Showalter is the second-winningest manager in Orioles history – behind only Earl Weaver – but his nine-year tenure in Baltimore ended with a crash in 2018; he was fired after a gutted club finished 47-115. … John Gibbons, the former Jackson Mets catcher and ex-Toronto Blue Jays manager, is also a candidate for the Astros job. He has a 793-789 career record over 11 seasons, the last in 2018.

01 Nov

ring master

Though he has yet to pitch in a World Series game, Mississippi native Tony Sipp, a free agent since August, figures to collect a second World Series ring in the last three years as a result of the Washington Nationals’ stunning takedown of the Houston Astros. Sipp, a veteran left-handed reliever, was a member of the Astros — but not on their postseason roster — when they won the 2017 title. He appeared in 36 games for the Nationals this season but was released in August when they restocked their bullpen at the trade deadline. The former Moss Point High and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College star had an uneven season, posting a 4.71 ERA. He had signed with Washington as a free agent coming off a resurgent 2018 season with the Astros, for whom he pitched in the playoffs. In 2017, Sipp endured the worst of his 11 big league campaigns (5.79 in 46 games) and was left off Houston’s postseason roster. Still, he got a ring – his first – after the Astros defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Series. At age 36, Sipp’s playing days may be behind him.

28 Oct

tipping point?

There are always many storylines that develop in any World Series game, and umpires do not want to be one of them. In Game 5 on Sunday night, there was a missing ace, an ace on a mission, three big home runs and a clutch double play. There were also issues with balls and strikes. Brookhaven native Lance Barksdale was behind the plate at Nationals Park in Washington, where Houston completed a three-game sweep with a 7-1 victory that takes the Astros back home with a 3-2 series lead. The two most contentious ball-strike calls came in the bottom of the seventh inning. It was 4-1 with two outs, and Astros starter Gerrit Cole, very sharp on this particular night, went to a full count on Ryan Zimmerman. The 3-2 pitch was high and away but appeared, on replay, to be a strike. Cole and catcher Martin Maldonado certainly thought so. Barksdale called it a ball. Cole again went full to Victor Robles. The 3-2 pitch again was high and away — but this time, on replay, was clearly a ball. Barksdale emphatically called it a strike, ending the inning. Robles couldn’t believe it and jumped in the air. The Nationals bench went nuts. If it had been a regular season game, people likely would have been ejected. It was Cole’s final pitch — and his ninth punchout — and the Nationals never seriously threatened the rest of the way. The Astros put the game away with a run in the eighth and two more in the ninth. No one blamed Barksdale for Washington’s loss. You give up three two-run bombs, you’re going to lose most of the time. But there has been lots of buzz about the ball-strike calls and how much they can impact the game. Pedro Martinez made some excellent points on the issue on MLB Network’s postgame show. Some are saying it’s time to institute an electronic system for calling balls and strikes, which would be a fundamental change in the grand old game. Will we look back someday on Game 5 of the ’19 Series — the Barksdale game — as the tipping point in that debate?

09 Oct

remember the time

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.

08 Jul

sweet!

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.

27 Jun

flashback coming

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.

30 Apr

spirit of ’99

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.

13 Mar

new team, key role?

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.