01 Aug

historically great

Fans of Double-A baseball in the Jackson area have seen some great hitters put up some great numbers over the years. Think Darryl Strawberry in 1982 or Roberto Petagine in 1993 or Ernesto Mejia in 2011. Picking one particular season as THE best is a very subjective exercise, but suffice it to say that current Mississippi Braves star Drew Waters belongs in the conversation. Waters, 20, leads the Southern League in hitting at .324. He also leads in doubles (35), triples (nine) and runs (62). He is third in on-base percentage (.369), fourth in slugging (.490) and has five homers, 41 RBIs and 13 steals in 105 games. Those numbers compare favorably to the luminaries of the past. Strawberry, playing for the Jackson Mets at Smith-Wills Stadium in ’82, put on a show worthy of the hype he was already receiving as the No. 1 overall draft pick of 1980. He hit a modest .283 but slugged .602 with 34 homers, 19 doubles and nine triples. He also stole 45 bases and drove in 97 runs. He was the Texas League’s player of the year. Gregg Jefferies won the TL award in 1987 after a season that topped Strawberry’s in some respects. Jefferies hit a ridiculous .367 with a .598 slug; he added 20 homers, 48 doubles and five triples while also stealing 26 bases and driving in 101 runs. Petagine, playing for the Jackson Generals in ’93, also was a TL POY and won the league batting title with a .334 average. He hit 15 homers and 36 doubles (.529 slug) and drove in 90 runs. A year later, Bobby Abreu put up a .303 average with 16 homers, 73 RBIs, 25 doubles, nine triples and 12 steals. Mejia, playing for the M-Braves at Trustmark Park in 2011, batted .297 with 26 homers, 99 RBIs and 37 doubles. He slugged .531. He did not win Southern League MVP, however. That went to some guy named Paul Goldschmidt. In 2013, Tommy La Stella of the M-Braves hit .343 but didn’t have the other big numbers (21 doubles, four homers, seven steals). In 2016, the M-Braves’ Dustin Peterson enjoyed an MVP-caliber season (Tyler O’Neill won the award) with a .282 average, 12 homers, 88 RBIs and 38 doubles. Waters doesn’t have the big homer and RBI totals, but he should certainly be in the running for league MVP. (The last Atlanta prospect to win it was Javy Lopez in 1992, when the franchise was in Greenville, S.C.) Win it or not, Waters has had an unforgettable season.

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.

08 Jul

have a blast

Ronald Acuna, the former Mississippi Braves star, won’t be the only Mississippi-connected player vying for a Home Run Derby crown tonight in Cleveland. DeSoto Central High’s Blaze Jordan is in the final of the High School Home Run Derby, which is slated to be held between rounds 1 and 2 of the big league event at Progressive Field. Jordan hit 20 homers in Sunday’s competition to advance to the final against A.J. Vukovich from Wisconsin. Jordan, a Mississippi State commit, has reclassified to be eligible for the 2020 MLB draft and is expected to go high. The 6-foot-2, 218-pound corner infielder hit 10 homers in 37 games for DeSoto as a sophomore this season. He gained a measure of fame as a 14-year-old 8th-grader when he belted a 504-foot homer to win a national contest at Marlins Park in Miami. … For the record, Ole Miss’ Tyler Keenan finished second in the College Home Run Derby at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., on June 29. Keenan led the Rebels with 15 homers in 2019. … Acuna, who has 21 homers this year and 47 all told in his two MLB campaigns, famously homered in his first at-bat for the M-Braves in 2017. He faces Pittsburgh’s Josh Bell in tonight’s first round. … An mlb.com article rated Bobby Abreu’s victory in the 2005 Home Run Derby as the No. 9 “best moment” in Derby history, which dates to 1985 (when Mississippi native Dave Parker won the inaugural event). Former Jackson Generals star Abreu, who was with Philadelphia at the time, blasted 41 bombs to win the ’05 Derby at Detroit’s Comerica Park. He hit 288 career home runs over 18 MLB seasons. P.S. Current M-Braves star Drew Waters, who somehow didn’t make the roster for the All-Star Futures Game that was played in Cleveland on Sunday night, put on a show at Trustmark Park in Pearl with his fourth four-hit game of the season in a 10-1 win against Biloxi. Waters, 20, a switch-hitting outfielder, is batting .335 with five homers, 31 RBIs, 53 runs, 29 doubles and nine triples.

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.

06 Mar

the general idea

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.

20 Feb

hit parade

If he produces a typical season, Brian Dozier will easily top 1,000 career hits in the big leagues in 2019. The Fulton native and former Southern Miss star is the active leader in hits among Mississippi-born players in MLB with 954 through six-plus seasons. Notching a thousand career hits is an impressive feat, requiring a combination of skill, opportunity and longevity. Dozier, 32 in May, will need another six or so productive seasons to reach 2,000 hits, which only four Mississippi-born players have managed to do. Grenada native Dave Parker tops that list with 2,712, followed by Ellisville’s Buddy Myer (2,131), Vicksburg’s Ellis Burks (2,107) and Greenville’s Frank White (2,006). Dozier, who’ll play second base for the Washington Nationals in 2019, could also reach another hits milestone this season. The record for a USM alum is 1,142, by Jim Davenport. Kevin Young is second with 1,007. … Former Mississippi State star Rafael Palmeiro is among the 32 players with 3,000 hits; his 3,020 are by far the most by a Mississippi college alumnus. Ex-Bulldogs great Will Clark had 2,176. The most by an Ole Miss product is 1,991 by Gee Walker, a Gulfport native who played in the 1930s and ’40s. Don Kessinger had 1,931. Dave Clark leads Jackson State alums with 518. … Amory’s Mitch Moreland, another Mississippi State product, is No. 2 on the state’s active hits list with 857. (Jackson’s Seth Smith, presumably retired, is sitting on 934.) Moreland, Boston first baseman, probably won’t get to 1,000 this year – his career-high for a season is 131 – but should make it in 2020. … … Bobby Abreu, who played for the Jackson Generals in the mid-’90s, is the leader, with 2,470 hits, among former Jackson area Double-A players. Hubie Brooks leads former Jackson Mets with 1,608, and Brian McCann, still active, is tops among ex-Mississippi Braves with 1,521.

23 Jan

one and done

The results of the National Baseball Hall of Fame voting should not, by any means, diminish what Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman and Freddy Garcia accomplished in the game. Oswalt, arguably the best pitcher the state has ever produced, and former Jackson Generals stars Berkman and Garcia were among the 16 players who appeared on the ballot for the first time and didn’t garner enough support to appear again. It was a tad surprising how little support each received, but such is the nature of a process that had 35 names on the ballot, including the four truly great ones who were elected to Cooperstown. Each voter is limited to 10 picks. Oswalt got just four votes total. Berkman got five and Garcia none. It took 319 votes (75 percent) to get elected. Oswalt, from Weir and Holmes Community College, won 163 games, posted a 3.36 ERA and was a three-time All-Star. Berkman batted .293 with 366 homers, made six All-Star Games and won a World Series ring. Garcia won 156 games over 15 seasons, was a two-time All-Star and also won a ring. Though they’ll slip off the Hall of Fame ballot, Mississippi baseball aficionados won’t forget them. … Former Generals standout Billy Wagner, in his fourth year on the ballot, got 71 votes (16.7 percent), enough to stay on for the 2020 election. Meridian Community College alumnus Cliff Lee and Generals alum Bobby Abreu are among the players who’ll make their first appearance on the 2020 ballot.

02 Jan

almost famous

Roy Oswalt, recently elected to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, is arguably the best major league pitcher the Magnolia State has ever produced. The right-hander from Weir won 163 games, posted two 20-win seasons, won an ERA title, made three All-Star teams, won an LCS MVP award and pitched in the World Series. His career ERA was 3.36, and he had over 1,800 strikeouts. For what it’s worth, his career WAR is 50.1, which is higher than that of Jack Morris, who went into the National Baseball Hall of Fame last summer. Oswalt was on the ballot for the first time for the 2019 class. As good as he was – and his stuff was unhittable at times — his Hall chances probably aren’t so good. The numbers just don’t rise to that level. Consider this: Guy Bush, the Mississippi Mudcat from Aberdeen, won 176 games – most by a Mississippi native — from 1923-38 and added another 34 saves. Four times he won 18 or more games. His ERA was 3.86, and he played in a hitters’ era. He pitched in two World Series, including 1929, the year he won 18 games and saved eight for the Chicago Cubs. Bush was on the HOF ballot one year and got 1 percent of the vote from the writers. Tough crowd, those writers. There are no Mississippi-born major league players in the National Baseball Hall of Fame – Cool Papa Bell and William Foster were Negro Leagues stars – and while Oswalt will get some voter support, that’s likely to remain the case in 2019. … The HOF ballots were due Dec. 31, and the announcement of new electees will be made on Jan. 22. P.S. Former Jackson Generals Lance Berkman and Freddy Garcia were first-timers on the ballot for 2019 and ex-Gens star Billy Wagner was a notable returnee. A case can be made for both Wagner and Berkman making the grade at some point. No ex-Gens (or Jackson Mets, for that matter) are enshrined in Cooperstown.

05 Oct

that was then

As the Houston Astros marched toward their first World Series title last year, all Tony Sipp could do was watch. The veteran relief pitcher, who struggled through much of the 2017 season, wasn’t on the team’s roster for any of their three postseason series. Well, that was then. After an amazing resurgence in 2018, the former Moss Point High and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College standout is on the roster for the American League Division Series against Cleveland. Game 1 is today at Minute Maid Park. A couple of things happened for the 35-year-old left-hander this year. First, he had to battle just to make the team in spring training and essentially keep his career alive. “It all just came together to create that hunger again. It’s do or die; my back is against the wall,” Sipp told the Houston Chronicle last month. Then, he regained confidence in his best pitch, a splitter that had abandoned him in 2016 and ’17. In 54 appearances (38 2/3 innings) this season, Sipp put up a 1.86 ERA. He yielded just one home run after coughing up eight in 2017 and 12 in 2016. He is the lone lefty in Houston’s bullpen; he is best against lefties (0.90 ERA this year) but can also get right-handed hitters (2.89). P.S. Houston’s roster also includes former Mississippi Braves Brian McCann, Evan Gattis and Charlie Morton, a hero of last year’s title run. Hitting coach Dave Hudgens is a former Jackson Generals hitting coach, a last link to the Double-A Astros affiliate that played at Smith-Wills Stadium from 1991-99. … In that other ALDS, which starts tonight at Fenway Park, Boston’s roster includes former Mississippi State star Mitch Moreland (but not Ole Miss alumnus Drew Pomeranz). The New York Yankees have an alum from both State (Jonathan Holder) and Ole Miss (Lance Lynn) in their bullpen, and the Bombers’ hitting coach is former East Central CC standout Marcus Thames.