Nostalgia is thick in the air at Trustmark Park when the Pensacola Blue Wahoos come to call. The field staff for the Cincinnati Reds’ Double-A club, which began a five-game series with the Mississippi Braves on Thursday, is replete with big league stars of another era. Fans of a certain age know the names well. Hitting coach Mike Devereaux, who won a ring with the 1995 Atlanta Braves, and bench coach Lenny Harris debuted in the majors in the late 1980s, and pitching coach James Baldwin broke in in 1995. And then there’s Blue Wahoos manager Jody Davis. Not only is he a former big leaguer, he is also a former Jackson Met. Davis made his MLB debut in 1981. Surely there are a few fans around who recall that two years before that, Davis had a breakout season for the Double-A JaxMets, who made their home at Smith-Wills Stadium. Davis batted .296 with 21 home runs and 91 RBIs in 1979, playing on a team that included Hubie Brooks and Wally Backman. Davis also refined his catching skills that year and was named a Texas League All-Star. He was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals (for big leaguer Ray Searage) following that season, then taken in the Rule 5 draft by the Chicago Cubs in December 1980. The next April he launched a 10-year MLB career during which he made two All-Star teams. Davis coached and managed in the Cubs’ system for several years and took the reins in Pensacola this season.
Southern Miss’ Matt Wallner hit his first Cape Cod League home run on Monday, going 3-for-4 in his second game since joining the Falmouth team in the vaunted summer circuit. Wallner, a third-team All-America pick as a sophomore in 2018, had been playing for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. He hit .154 in four games. … Ole Miss’ Parker Caracci is still with Team USA and has a win, two saves and a 0.00 ERA in five appearances. The team just finished a series with a club from Japan and next plays a series in Cuba. … Milton Smith Jr., former Starkville High and Meridian Community College standout, had an interesting Monday. He started for Miami’s rookie Gulf Coast League team, going 1-for-2 to boost his average to .356, then joined the Marlins’ Class A Florida State League club, also located in Jupiter, Fla., and got in the Hammerheads’ game as a pinch runner. Smith was a 22nd-round pick last month out of MCC. … Mississippi State alum Hunter Stovall followed up his two-homer pro debut (see previous post) with a four-hit game on Sunday and is now 7-for-9 for the rookie-level Grand Junction Rockies. … The Biloxi Shuckers walloped Jackson (Tenn.) 12-2 on Monday at MGM Park to become the first Southern League club to notch 50 wins. Corey Ray, a top Milwaukee prospect, drove in five runs and Zack Brown improved to 8-0. The Shuckers won the first half in the SL South and are 9-8 in the second half. … Tough year for former Jackson Mets star Ned Yost, who watched his Kansas City Royals lose their 10th straight game on Monday and fall 40 games under .500. Yost was ejected – for the first time in 2018 — in the fourth inning after disputing a third-strike call. … MSU product Hunter Renfroe, playing right field for San Diego, picked up his third assist on Monday, cutting down the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Justin Turner at second base with a great throw from the right-field corner at Petco Park. … Ex-Meridian CC star Corey Dickerson, batting leadoff for Pittsburgh, went 2-for-5 with a triple, an RBI and two runs as the Pirates beat Washington 6-3. Dickerson is batting .458 in his last seven games and .309 for the year. … Billy Hamilton is cutting it loose again. The Taylorsville High alum got his 22nd stolen base of the year – plus two hits and two runs — in Cincinnati’s 7-5 win over Cleveland on Monday. He now has seven bags, seven runs and 10 hits in his last seven games. “It’s mayhem,” Reds broadcaster and former MSU standout Jeff Brantley said of the impact Hamilton can have when he gets on base.
Richard Hidalgo, Jackson Generals star of the mid-1990s, got some recognition today – his 43rd birthday – in a column on mlb.com by Joe Posnanski. Posnanski was highlighting “most surprising” major league seasons, of which Hidalgo had one in 2000. In his fourth MLB campaign, he batted .314 with 44 homers and 122 RBIs as Houston’s centerfielder, far and away the best year of a modest career. Hidalgo was a highly rated and impressive-looking Astros prospect when he played in Jackson in 1995 and ’96, hitting .280 with 28 homers over those two seasons. He could play the outfield, too, and throw and run. He spent nine years in the big leagues and finished with 171 bombs. As good as Hidalgo’s 2000 season was, it didn’t make Posnanski’s “most surprising” top 10. But former Jackson Mets star Kevin Mitchell’s 1989 season with San Francisco did. Mitchell, who played at Smith-Wills Stadium in 1983, hit .291 with 47 homers and 125 RBIs that year, winning National League MVP honors on a pennant-winning team that included Will Clark. (And, yes, that was also the year Mitchell made his famous over-the-shoulder, bare-handed catch.)
As they blow by the Memorial Day checkpoint, Brian Snitker holds the lead, with Clint Hurdle running second and Mickey Callaway third. Buck Showalter and Ned Yost appear to have fallen off the lead lap. Of the seven Mississippi-connected managers at the wheel of a big league club, only Atlanta’s Snitker, Pittsburgh’s Hurdle and the New York Mets’ Callaway reached Memorial Day with a winning record. Showalter’s Baltimore team, after losing on Monday, is 20 games under .500. Yost’s Kansas City team is 18 under. Toronto, under John Gibbons, is hanging tough at 25-29, and Ron Gardenhire has steered Detroit to a 24-29 mark, exceeding expectations in his first year there. To be fair, expectations weren’t high for any of these seven clubs. The first-place Braves, under former Mississippi Braves skipper Snitker, are a relatively young bunch running ahead of schedule. It’s a solid team – currently ranked No. 5 in mlb.com’s latest power poll — but they’ll be challenged in the National League East to hold off Washington, Philadelphia and perhaps even the Mets, who are in the charge of ex-Ole Miss star Callaway, brand new to the job. Despite a spate of adversity (check their disabled list), the Mets are 26-25 and just 4 games back of Atlanta. Former Jackson Mets manager Hurdle has done a fine job with the Pirates, who are contending in the NL Central even after trading away stars Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole. Meridian Community College product Corey Dickerson, acquired in a preseason trade, has been one of the Bucs’ best hitters. Gardenhire, a former Jackson Mets shortstop and veteran MLB manager, has the outmanned Tigers just 3½ games off the pace in the American League Central. Former JaxMets catcher Gibbons’ Blue Jays, while just 4 games under .500, are 12 games back of Boston in the AL East. It’s already been a long season for Mississippi State product Showalter and JaxMets alum Yost, both of whom could use an extended pit stop to make repairs. P.S. Ex-MSU star Hunter Renfroe, out over a month with an elbow issue, returned to San Diego’s lineup on Monday and went 1-for-4 with an RBI.
Getting out of Tampa Bay, even though it came as a gut-punch, has worked out pretty darn well for Corey Dickerson. McComb native and Meridian Community College product Dickerson is batting .341 for Pittsburgh, which just beat the Chicago Cubs to improve to 9-3, tops in the National League Central. Tampa Bay, which jettisoned Dickerson – a 2017 All-Star – during spring training in an apparent salary dump, is 3-9 and last in the American League East. Dickerson went 1-for-3 with a pair of walks against the Cubs today and has a home run, nine RBIs and nine runs in 10 games this season. He’s not the only Mississippi connection enjoying the unexpected good times in Pittsburgh. Former Mississippi State star Adam Frazier (2-for-5 with a homer today) is batting .292 with four runs and two RBIs, typically as the Pirates’ leadoff batter. The Bucs are managed by former Jackson Mets skipper Clint Hurdle, now in his eighth year with the club, and the hitting coach is Waynesboro native and ex-big leaguer Jeff Branson. The Pirates, by the way, lead the NL in batting.
Seven Mississippi-connected men are managing in the big leagues this season – and not one of them holds the reigns of a club expected to be a strong contender for the postseason. Can any of them pull off a playoff appearance? It’s a race within the races that will be interesting to watch. Mickey Callaway, the former Ole Miss standout, is debuting as the New York Mets’ manager, but the others are veterans at this thing: Mississippi State alum Buck Showalter in Baltimore; ex-Jackson Mets Ned Yost in Kansas City, John Gibbons in Toronto and Ron Gardenhire in Detroit; former JaxMets manager Clint Hurdle in Pittsburgh; and ex-Mississippi Braves skipper Brian Snitker in Atlanta. Showalter and Gibbons have talented clubs but must contend with American League East heavyweights New York and Boston. Callaway’s Mets were picked by Sports Illustrated as a National League wild card team but coming off a 70-win campaign, that might be a stretch. Yost’s Royals have slipped quite a bit since their 2015 championship season, and both the Pirates and Tigers appear to be in rebuild mode. The Braves, in their second full year under Snitker, could make a push if their young talent (see former M-Braves Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies, Luiz Gohara, Ronald Acuna) steps up. That’s a significant if.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Jackson Mets’ first playoff team. The ’78 JaxMets beat Arkansas in the Texas League East playoffs and then fell to El Paso in the title series. Mookie Wilson was the hub of the offense, batting .292 with seven homers, 15 triples and 72 RBIs. Kelvin Chapman, another future big leaguer, hit .266 and led the club with 84 runs. Juan Monasterio batted .289, and Bobby Bryant belted eight homers. Jeff Reardon was the ace, going 17-4 with a 2.54 ERA. Neil Allen led the league in ERA. Scott Holman won 11 games and Kim Seaman 10. The ’78 season was the fourth year the Mets’ Double-A club operated at Smith-Wills Stadium, an affiliation that lasted 16 years. The OJMs missed the playoffs in 1979 but then went on a rip where they made it eight straight years and won three league titles. The ’78 JaxMets were managed by Bob Wellman, no relation to Phillip Wellman, who, 30 years later, managed the Mississippi Braves to the Southern League pennant. That remains the only title claimed by the M-Braves, now entering their 14th year at Trustmark Park in Pearl. The ’08 M-Braves featured a great young pitching staff: Tommy Hanson, Kris Medlen, Todd Redmond, James Parr, et al. Kala Ka’aihue led the team in homers (14) and RBIs (61) and swung a big bat in the postseason. But the club was defined more by the scrappiness of Matt Young and J.C. Holt, who combined for 52 steals. Wellman loved to get aggressive on the bases, and the M-Braves scored the pennant-winning run against Carolina on a walk-off double steal. … This season also marks the 25th anniversary of the first Jackson Generals team to win a Texas League title. The 1993 season was the third at Smith-Wills Stadium for the Houston Astros affiliate. Stars of that club, managed by Sal Butera, included Brian Hunter, Roberto Petagine, Jim Dougherty, Tom Nevers and Jackson native Fletcher Thompson.