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.
The emotional rollercoaster passed through Detroit on Friday, taking the Tigers from elation to anger with a final stop at dejection. Richton High product JaCoby Jones was in the middle of the dogpile in the 10th inning after delivering what was first thought to be a game-winning knock against Pittsburgh. Replay said otherwise. Tigers runner Nicholas Castellanos was ruled out at the plate, with McComb native Corey Dickerson – in his Pirates debut – getting an assist on what was a pretty sad throw from left field. Former Jackson Mets star Ron Gardenhire – in his debut as Detroit manager – was ejected arguing the reversal. The game went on, and, as fate would have it, the Pirates won in 13 innings in just under 5½ hours. Football-like weather produced a football-like score – 13-10 – on opening day at Comerica Park. The Tigers blew a save in the ninth and fell behind 10-6 before scoring four in the bottom half to extend the game. Then came the soul-crushing 10th. Jones, who entered as a pinch runner in the seventh inning, had a good day: 2-for-2 with a walk and a run. Of course, he’d have felt a whole lot better about it if he’d also gotten that RBI. For the Pirates, ex-Mississippi State star Adam Frazier went 3-for-7 and scored twice. He was aboard in the 13th when Gregory Polanco hit the game-winning three-run homer. Dickerson, the Meridian Community College alum acquired from Tampa Bay in February, had one hit and an RBI in six trips. P.S. Ex-Ole Miss standout Braxton Lee from Picayune made his big league debut for Miami, going 0-for-4 in the 17-inning win against the Chicago Cubs. … Taylorsville High alum Billy Hamilton, batting ninth for Cincinnati, was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts as the Reds opened their season with a loss to Washington.
Star power abounds on the Los Angeles Angels’ roster. Mike Trout. Albert Pujols. Justin Upton. Shohei Ohtani (well, maybe). Into this galaxy comes Zack Cozart, the Ole Miss alum who arrived as a free agent in the off-season with a little brilliance of his own. An All-Star in Cincinnati, where he enjoyed a career year in 2017, Cozart will debut for the Angels today in Oakland, playing not just for a new team but at a new position. A shortstop virtually all of his baseball life, Cozart, at age 32, takes over at third base for the Angels. His situation is one of the most compelling storylines to watch among Mississippians in the majors in 2018. Cozart, who hit .297 with 24 homers last year, swung the bat well in the spring (.347, four homers). He wasn’t tested much in the field, handling just 15 chances (with one error) in 16 games. The Angels are projected by many to be a playoff team; their new third baseman could be a big factor in that quest. P.S. The A’s scheduled starter is Kendall Graveman, the former Mississippi State standout who went 6-4 with a 4.19 ERA in an injury-interrupted 2017 season. … Pittsburgh’s lineup at Detroit will include State product Adam Frazier leading off as the DH and Meridian Community College product Corey Dickerson playing left field and batting fifth in his Pirates debut. The game will be the first as Tigers manager for Ron Gardenhire, the former Jackson Mets infielder and ex-Minnesota skipper. … Also making a debut today will be ex-UM star Mickey Callaway, the longtime Cleveland pitching coach now managing the New York Mets, who open at CitiField against St. Louis. The Big Apple is not the place where you want to get off on the wrong foot. … MSU product Jacob Lindgren has undergone a second Tommy John procedure and will miss the 2018 season. Now in Atlanta’s organization, left-hander Lindgren missed all of 2017 and most of 2016 after making the big leagues with the New York Yankees in 2015.
Billy Wagner gained some support in the Hall of Fame balloting this year — but just a little. The former Jackson Generals star was named on 11.1 percent of the ballots, getting 47 votes. He was named on 10.2 percent (45 votes) in 2017. The cutoff for election is 75 percent. It would appear that Wagner, who ranks sixth on the all-time saves list, isn’t going to rise to that benchmark. The little left-hander is among five former Jackson Mets or Generals to rank in the MLB top 20 in career saves. None of the others – Jeff Reardon, Randy Myers, Todd Jones, Rick Aguilera – came close to making the Hall. With 422 saves, a 2.31 career ERA and seven All-Star Game appearances over 16 seasons, Wagner has great credentials. But tickets to Cooperstown are hard to come by, especially for closers. Trevor Hoffman, No. 2 on the all-time saves list, became just the sixth reliever to make the Hall of Fame when he was announced on Wednesday. P.S. There are no former Jackson area Double-A players — JADAPs — in the Hall of Fame, though recently retired ex-Generals outfielders Bobby Abreu and Lance Berkman surely will get strong consideration when they become eligible. And there are a couple of ex-Mississippi Braves still out there building a case, including a closer: Craig Kimbrel, who is still in his prime in Boston and ranks 29th on the saves chart. Catcher Brian McCann, nearing the end of his brilliant career, should get in someday. … Worth noting: Mississippi State alum Jonathan Papelbon, ninth on the saves list and not yet officially retired, could also be a viable Hall candidate down the road.
The Jackson Mets arrived at newly constructed Smith-Wills Stadium in 1975 and proceeded to send a boatload of players to the big leagues during the team’s 16-year run on Lakeland Drive. Lee Mazzilli, who was on the second JaxMets team in 1976, is generally regarded as the Double-A club’s first “star,” and he made the majors in September of ’76. But he was not the first JaxMets alum to reach the big leagues. Who was? The first Jackson Generals player to get the call was catcher Tony Eusebio, who went up briefly with Houston in 1991, the first year the Astros’ Double-A team played at Smith-Wills. (Neither the Jackson DiamondKats nor the Jackson Senators had a player advance to the big leagues, though both independent clubs employed a former big leaguer. Mark Carreon played for the D-Kats, and Jeff Ware pitched for the Sens.) Brian McCann was the first Mississippi Braves star to make The Show, going up to Atlanta in 2005, the first year the franchise operated in Pearl. Which brings us back to the trivia question: Who was the first Jackson Met to get the call? Answer: Bobby Myrick, the Hattiesburg native and former Mississippi State star who was on the original JaxMets roster in ’75. New York called him up from Triple-A in May of 1976, and the left-hander pitched parts of three seasons in the majors, posting a 3.48 ERA in 82 games. Injuries ultimately ended his pro career in 1981. He passed away in 2012.
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.
Ronald Acuna didn’t waste much time producing a wow moment for the Mississippi Braves. First at-bat. First pitch. Boom. Home run. Acuna was named Baseball America’s minor league player of the year today, capping a season that saw the 19-year-old Venezuela native dominate at three levels of pro ball. He started at high-A Florida and finished at Triple-A Gwinnett, batting .325 with 21 homers and 82 RBIs combined. In his Double-A debut on May 9, he went 3-for-4 with that jaw-dropping homer and three RBIs. He played only 56 more games for the M-Braves, moving up after batting .326 with nine homers, 30 RBIs and 19 steals. He goes 6 feet, 180 pounds and can play center or right field. Atlanta will have to make room for him in its outfield in 2018. … This is the fourth time a Jackson area Double-A player (JADAP) has earned BA’s minor league POY award. Gregg Jefferies won it twice, in 1986 and ’87, after spending part of both of those seasons with the Jackson Mets. Former M-Braves star Jason Heyward, who blew through Pearl much like Acuna did, took the honor in 2009.