Winning a World Series ring as a member of the Houston Astros should propel Brian McCann a little farther down what the MLB Network guys call “the Hall of Fame Highway.” McCann was the first Mississippi Braves player to earn a promotion to the big leagues back in 2005 and will almost certainly be the first M-Braves alumnus to make the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The 33-year-old catcher has a lifetime average of .264 (1,481 hits) with 263 home runs, 950 RBIs and a 30.2 WAR. He has hit 20 or more homers in 10 seasons and smacked 18 for the Astros in 2017. He is a seven-time All-Star and six-time Silver Slugger winner. He is also pretty good behind the plate. … Big props to Charlie Morton, M-Braves Class of 2007, for his World Series work: 10 1/3 innings, two runs allowed in two appearances. Notching the Game 7 win with four innings in relief puts Morton in select company. … The Jackson Generals were the Astros’ Double-A affiliate from 1991-99, and one connection to that era was in a Houston uniform on Wednesday night: hitting coach Dave Hudgens, who served in the same capacity for the Gens in 1993, when the team won a Texas League championship. … Houston was in the postseason six times between 1997 and 2005, and a large number of ex-Generals were on those teams, including the likes of Bobby Abreu, Lance Berkman, Billy Wagner and Richard Hidalgo. Mississippi natives Roy Oswalt, Jay Powell, Dave Clark and Charlie Hayes also suited up the Astros during that time, which preceeded some lean years, including a 10-year playoff drought. … It has to be noted also that the first manager of the Houston franchise, born the Colt .45s in 1962, was Harry Craft, a native of Ellisville who managed the team for three seasons. He died in 1995. … Mississippi native Tony Sipp will get a ring, his first in a nine-year MLB career. Though he wasn’t active for the postseason, the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College product pitched in 46 games for the Astros this season, his fourth with the club.
Mickey Callaway, the former Ole Miss pitcher; Ron Gardenhire, the Jackson Mets shortstop from way back when; and ex-Jackson State slugger Dave Clark are among the candidates for the four managerial openings in the big leagues, according to various reports. Callaway, Cleveland’s pitching coach, is rumored to be the favorite in Philadelphia but is also said to be a good fit for the New York Mets. Gardenhire, currently bench coach for Arizona, is reportedly under consideration for the job in Boston and also Detroit, where Clark has been the third-base coach for four years. Gardenhire managed in Minnesota for 13 seasons, winning over 1,000 games and making six postseason trips. Clark was an interim skipper in Houston in 2009. … Charlie Morton, one of three former Mississippi Braves on Houston’s current roster, will start Game 3 of the American League Championship Series tonight at New York. CC Sabathia starts for the Yankees. Morton, a 14-game winner this season, yielded two runs in 4 1/3 innings in Game 4 of the ALDS at Boston, a game the Astros won 5-4 to claim the series. M-Braves alums Brian McCann and Evan Gattis also play for the Astros, whose hitting coach is onetime Jackson Generals coach Dave Hudgens. … Former M-Braves star Jason Heyward went 0-for-3 in the Chicago Cubs’ 4-1 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Sunday night’s NLCS Game 2. Heyward is just one of numerous Cubs slumping this postseason; he is 2-for-15 this year and is batting .155 in 35 career postseason games. … Ole Miss alum David Goforth, who pitched briefly for Milwaukee in 2017, is now working in the Mexican Pacific League, and Southern Miss product Scott Copeland, a Miami minor leaguer, is pitching in the Dominican Winter League. Those leagues started last week.
Three members of the Mississippi Braves’ original opening day roster from 2005 are on MLB postseason teams this year. Catcher Brian McCann, the first M-Brave to get the big league ticket, is with Houston – along with fellow ex-M-Braves Charlie Morton, Evan Gattis and James Hoyt – heading into the American League Division Series battle with Boston. Right-hander Blaine Boyer, who was the second M-Brave to be promoted to Atlanta, works out of the Red Sox’s bullpen, as does Craig Kimbrel. Outfielder Gregor Blanco, who waited a little longer – until 2008 – than McCann and Boyer to make The Show, is a bench player for Arizona, which hosts Colorado in tonight’s National League wild card game. Blanco has had a journeyman career but has played in 37 postseason games and won two World Series rings – with San Francisco in 2012 and ’14. Released by the Giants after last season, Blanco signed with the Diamondbacks. In 90 games, the speedy left-handed hitter batted .246 with three homers, 13 RBIs, 43 runs and 15 steals. He is also a good defensive outfielder. His advice for his D-backs teammates, many of whom are making their first postseason appearance? “Have fun and play the game,” Blanco told sfgate.com. “Whatever happens, happens.” P.S. Several other former Jackson area Double-A connections are with teams who made the postseason, including ex-Jackson Mets shortstop Ron Gardenhire, now Arizona’s bench coach, and ex-JaxMets infielder Dave Magadan, the D’backs’ hitting coach. Former JaxMets pitcher Neil Allen is the pitching coach for Minnesota, which was eliminated Tuesday by the New York Yankees. M-Braves alum Chasen Shreve, a Las Vegas native who threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Yankee Stadium, is a reliever for the Yanks. Dave Hudgens, a onetime Jackson Generals hitting coach, now fills that role for Houston. M-Braves products Alex Wood and Luis Avilan pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Jason Heyward and Tommy LaStella play for the Chicago Cubs. … Tuesday marked the end of an era in Tampa Bay with the unexpected departure – by mutual agreement? — of former Generals pitching coach Jim Hickey from the Rays’ staff. Hickey has been the Rays’ pitching coach for 11 years. He’ll have no trouble finding another job. Also on Tuesday, Seattle announced that ex-JaxMets shortstop Tim Bogar will not return as bench coach.
When thinking back about a minor league team from a particular season, there is usually one player who jumps to the forefront in the memory bank. The Jackson Generals of 1997? Oh yeah, that was the Daryle Ward year. There were other players of note on the club – Carlos Guillen, Scott Elarton, Mitch Meluskey, Donovan Mitchell – but Ward was the man. He is famously remembered by old Smith-Wills Stadium cranks for hitting a foul ball through the wooden fence down the right-field line. Of course, he did a lot of damage with fair balls, as well, batting .329 with 19 homers, 25 doubles and 90 RBIs for Houston’s Double-A club. He also got a lot of attention for a bomb he launched in an exhibition game against the Astros. Listed at 6 feet 2, 240 pounds, the lefty-hitting outfielder/first baseman was all about power. Ward, son of a former big leaguer, made the majors with Houston in 1998 and mashed 90 homers over 11 MLB seasons, 20 with the Astros in 2000. Now a coach in the Cincinnati organization, he was still playing in independent ball as recently as 2015. All told, he hit 290 homers in pro ball. Twenty years after his star turn with the Generals, Daryle Ward is not forgotten.
The Houston Astros have the best record (29-12) in baseball, and many experts say they are the best team in the game right now. Several key pieces of this club have Mississippi connections, including reliever Tony Sipp, a Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College alum, and four former Mississippi Braves standouts. (An aside: Atlanta, five games under .500, has only five ex-M-Braves on its current roster.) Sipp, after a rocky start, has trimmed his ERA to 3.38 over 12 appearances. In a win against Miami on Tuesday, the left-hander threw 2 2/3 shutout innings to finish the game. Former M-Braves closer James Hoyt also works out of the Astros’ pen and has posted a 1.13 ERA in six games with 18 strikeouts in eight innings. (As M-Braves fans may recall, Hoyt throws serious gas.) Charlie Morton, whose star turn with the M-Braves came 10 years ago, is 5-2 with a 3.97 ERA as a Houston starter. That brings us to the catchers, the bearded boys Brian McCann and Evan Gattis. McCann, in the home stretch of a brilliant career, is still productive at 33: .276, six homers and 25 RBIs. Gattis is also batting .276 with three bombs and 18 RBIs. (Many Atlanta fans are wondering why the Braves ever parted with the brawny slugger.) And though it has been 18 years since the Astros’ Double-A club played in Jackson, there is a Generals connection in Houston. Dave Hudgens, in his third year as the club’s hitting coach, was the Gens’ hitting coach in 1993, when the team won a Texas League championship.
Watching the Urban Invitational on MLB Network and there in the batter’s box for Alcorn State is A.J. Makarewicz. Yes, indeed, the son of Scott Makarewicz, a catcher on the original Jackson Generals team in 1991. Where does the time go? A.J., batting leadoff and playing shortstop for the Braves in their opener, is a junior transfer from Seminole State College, a Florida juco. Scott played parts of four seasons for the Generals over the course of his minor league career, most of which was spent in the Houston organization.
Trivia question: How many former Jackson Mets and/or Generals are in the National Baseball Hall of Fame? Answer: None. Still. Jeff Bagwell, elected to the Hall on Wednesday, wore a Generals uniform for four games in 1995. But he was on a major league rehab assignment from the parent Houston Astros, so it would be a stretch to call him a “former Jackson General.” He was originally drafted by Boston and didn’t come up through the Astros’ system. There were three true former Generals on the 2017 ballot: Billy Wagner, Carlos Guillen and Melvin Mora. Wagner, a seven-time All-Star who had 422 career saves, was named on 45 ballots (10.2 percent), down one vote from last year, his first on the ballot. There’s a lot of debate among writers about Wagner’s worthiness; he may yet get in. Guillen and Mora didn’t get a vote in their first year of eligibility and now fall off the ballot. Both were fine players but obviously not Hall material. It’s worth noting that Lee Smith, who got 151 votes this year, pitched in two games for the Generals in 1998, at age 40, as part of an ill-fated comeback attempt. He wasn’t on a rehab assignment, but it would still be a stretch to call him a former General. Incidentally, he falls off the ballot, too, now after 15 years on it. … Interesting to see Rafael Palmeiro’s comments about the Hall in a column by USA Today’s Bob Nightengale. “It bothers me to say that I’m not in the Hall of Fame,” the ex-Mississippi State star said. “Obviously, it would be so cool.” Palmeiro, who has 3,000 hits and 500 homers, infamously wagged his finger at members of Congress during a 2005 hearing on drugs in baseball and then months later failed a drug test, which he calls “a careless mistake.” He fell off the Hall ballot in 2014. He might get in some day, too, as the perspective on PED use continues to shift. “That’s my dream,” Palmeiro told Nightengale. … Trivia question: How many Mississippi-born major leaguers are in the Hall of Fame? Answer: None. The two Mississippi natives in the Hall are former Negro Leagues stars: Cool Papa Bell, from Starkville, and William Foster, the one-time Alcorn State dean and coach who is listed in Hall publications as being born in Rodney. Dizzy Dean, an adopted Mississippian who is buried here, was born in Arkansas. Columbus native Red Barber is in the broadcasters wing of the Hall. Several Magnolia State natives who played in the majors have generated Hall consideration – Buddy Myer, Dave Parker, Frank White among them – but we’re still waiting on that breakthrough player.
The numbers are in. MLB’s Statcast numbers, that is, on Hunter Renfroe’s ginormous home run, the one that went where no ball has gone before – the roof of the Western Metal Supply Co. building beyond the left-field wall at San Diego’s Petco Park. Statcast put the distance of Wednesday night’s blast at 434 feet and the exit velocity of the ball off the bat at 109 mph. “I think we all know he’s got a ton of raw power. I wasn’t expecting that,” Padres manager Andy Green told mlb.com. Former Mississippi State star Renfroe, 6 feet 1, 220 pounds, now has four homers in 21 MLB at-bats, with 12 RBIs and six runs. No doubt there are some old Copiah Academy fans who are saying today, “Oh yeah, we saw this coming.” Renfroe hit a Mississippi private school-record 20 bombs for Copiah as a senior just six short years ago. He hit 15 homers his junior year at the Gallman school. He started slowly at State but flexed his muscles as a junior in 2013, belting 16 homers (while batting .345) and earning All-America honors. He also won the Ferriss Trophy that year and was drafted in the first round by the Padres. He hit 77 minor league homers before crashing The Show on Sept. 21. Elsewhere in MLB: Ole Miss product Seth Smith drove in two runs to help Seattle crush Houston 12-4 and hang 2 games out of an American League wild card berth. … Jarrod Dyson, the former Southwest Mississippi Community College star, got two hits, two runs and his 29th steal of the year as Kansas City beat Minnesota 5-2. But Ned Yost’s Royals were eliminated from AL wild card contention just the same. … The fingerprints of former Mississippi Braves were all over Atlanta’s 12-2 win against Philadelphia. The incredible Freddie Freeman extended his hit streak to 30 games; rookie Dansby Swanson – who can play a little, too – went 2-for-3 with two RBIs and three runs; Daniel Castro had three hits and three RBIs; Mallex Smith scored a run; John Gant threw a scoreless inning; and Rio Ruiz got his first big league knock, a triple. … And a blast from another past: John Jaso’s cycle was the first by a Pittsburgh player since former Jackson Generals star Daryle Ward turned the trick in 2004. Ward had five career triples.
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.
Joe Gray, the highly touted junior at Hattiesburg High, is featured in a story currently posted on Baseball America’s website. Gray is playing on an elite travel team, the EvoShield Canes, with a group of seniors. Gray, a 6-foot-2, 194-pound outfielder, hit .474 with seven homers, 45 RBIs, 11 steals and 12 assists as a sophomore last year for Hattiesburg, helping the Tigers reach the Class 5A finals. He hit .380 as a freshman. Gray, who has not committed to a college, figures to be a high MLB draft pick in 2018. … Fall ball is in the air in Oxford, where the Rebels scrimmaged last Friday. Ole Miss, 43-19 and an NCAA Regional participant in 2016, returns infielders Tate Blackman, Colby Bortles and Will Golsan and reliever Will Stokes. Among the newcomers are freshmen Grae Kessinger, Jason Barber, Thomas Dillard and Houston Roth from powerhouse Oxford High. … Wyatt Short and Trent Giambrone – 2016 draftees out of Mississippi colleges by the Chicago Cubs – helped short-season Class A Eugene win the Northwest League pennant. Left-hander Short, a 13th-round pick from Ole Miss, where he was a standout closer, had a 0.00 ERA and seven saves in 15 games; he got the save in the final game of the title series. Second baseman Giambrone, a 25th-rounder out of Delta State, batted .292 with four homers and 22 RBIs for the Emeralds. … Blake Anderson, a supplemental first-round pick in 2014 out of West Lauderdale High, is on Miami’s Instructional League roster as a rehabbing player. The catcher played only one game this season, going on the disabled list with a shoulder injury on July 7. He has played only 58 games over three seasons. … Bryant Nelson, at age 42, is having a nice season in the independent Atlantic League. The switch-hitting second baseman/outfielder is batting .279 with 49 RBIs and 13 stolen bases for the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs. For fans of the old Jackson Generals — the ones who played at Smith-Wills Stadium from 1991-99 — the name might ring a bell. Nelson is the last link to a bygone era — the only former General still playing. (Freddy Garcia pitched briefly for Monterrey in the Mexican League this season but is not currently on the roster.) Nelson’s pro baseball odyssey began when Houston drafted him in the 44th round in 1993. He made the Generals’ roster in the 1996 postseason as an injury replacement and helped the Gens win the Texas League championship. Nelson has played in 2,463 pro games, according to baseball-reference.com, and gotten 2,632 hits. He has played in Mexico, Japan and Italy and even made it to the big leagues for 25 games with Boston in 2002.