Aside from nasty weather, what’s the biggest story in the big leagues to date? It’s a tough call. Shohei Ohtani and the surging Los Angeles Angels? The red-hot Boston Red Sox? The amazin’ New York Mets? A case could be made for any of the three first-place teams – and it’s interesting to note that there’s a Mississippi connection on each club. Ole Miss alum Zack Cozart has had an impact as a newcomer with the 13-3 Angels, batting .273 with two homers and seven RBIs. In Boston (13-2), which travels to Anaheim for a three-game set beginning Tuesday, former Mississippi State star Mitch Moreland is batting .292 in his sporadic calls to duty. And ex-UM star Drew Pomeranz should be joining the Red Sox rotation soon. The Mets, managed by former Ole Miss pitcher Mickey Callaway, have the best ERA in the majors and the best record (12-2) in the National League. They host NL East rival Washington in a big series starting tonight. For the record, the other first-place teams also have Mississippi ties: Southern Miss product Brian Dozier (.289, four homers) and Ole Miss’ Lance Lynn (0-1, 5.00 ERA) with Minnesota; Meridian Community College alum Corey Dickerson (.358, 12 RBIs) and ex-State star Adam Frazier (.250) with Pittsburgh (where Clint Hurdle is the manager); and Southwest CC product Jarrod Dyson (.176) with Arizona.
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 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.
He arrived in Jackson with a great deal of fanfare, a former first-round draft pick from California who batted .354 with 80 RBIs in 95 games in high-A ball before getting promoted to Double-A at age 19. Gregg Jefferies hit .421 in five games for the Jackson Mets in 1986. He was named Baseball America’s minor league player of the year and returned to Jackson, with even more hype, for the 1987 season. Thirty years later, that season at Smith-Wills Stadium still resonates. Jefferies, a switch-hitting shortstop, put up great numbers for the JaxMets: .367, 20 homers, 101 RBIs, 81 runs, 26 steals, 48 doubles, a .598 slugging percentage. He was shaky at shortstop and wound up moving to third base. And, yes, he was a little cocky. But he could ever more hit, and he led the team, managed by former Ole Miss player Tucker Ashford, to a Texas League East Division second-half title. Alas, the New York Mets summoned Jefferies as a September call-up, and he missed the TL playoffs, including the championship series loss to Robbie Alomar-led Wichita. Jefferies repeated as BA’s player of the year in ’87 and also won Texas League MVP honors. He became a regular with the New York Mets in 1989, displacing Wally Backman at second base, but hit just .258. He became a target of fan and media criticism in the Big Apple. Traded from New York after the 1991 season, he played nine more years in the big leagues, 14 seasons all told. While some would say he didn’t live up to the great expectations, Jefferies batted .289 with 1,593 hits and was a two-time All-Star. In 1993 in St. Louis, he batted .342 with 16 homers and 46 steals. That was the kind of season he seemed destined for in 1987. The 30th anniversary of that big year in Jackson is worthy of a salute.
Splash some water on Anthony Alford. He’s that hot. The former Petal High star is 9-for-12 with four walks through his first four games at the Double-A level. He has scored three runs, driven in two and stolen a base for New Hampshire in the Toronto system. Alford, 22, was drafted in the third round out of Petal in 2012 but this will be only his third full season in the minors since he gave up football at Ole Miss. The outfielder, rated the Blue Jays’ No. 2 prospect by Baseball America, made the 40-man roster in the off-season and drew praise for his progress from Toronto manager John Gibbons in spring training. Alford’s time is coming. … Gulfport native Bobby Bradley’s first taste of Double-A hasn’t been as sweet. The ex-Harrison Central standout is 3-for-16 in five games for Akron, Cleveland’s Eastern League club. On a positive note, the 20-year-old Bradley, the Indians’ No. 5 prospect, slugged his first homer on Monday; he now has 65 in 285 minor league games. P.S. Itawamba Community College alum Desmond Jennings is 3-for-13 through four games for Triple-A Las Vegas in the New York Mets’ system. The 30-year-old MLB veteran was released by Tampa Bay last summer and by Cincinnati this spring. Injuries have plagued Jennings the past couple of years.
Interesting story on mlb.com comparing Tim Tebow’s planned foray into pro baseball with what D.J. Dozier did 26 years ago. Old Jackson Mets fans might recall that Dozier, an NFL running back at the time, played for the Double-A OJMs in 1990 – and more than held his own. Dozier, who played in the NFL from 1987-91, hadn’t played baseball since high school, some six years, when the New York Mets signed him off of a tryout in 1990. He started the ’90 season in A-ball and finished it in the Texas League, batting .324 with seven triples, 23 RBIs and 20 runs in 29 games. Two years later, he made it to the big leagues for 25 games (.191) as an outfielder with the Mets. After brief flings in the St. Louis and San Diego systems, he was done with baseball after the ’93 season. As for Tebow, the erstwhile NFL quarterback who’ll hold a tryout for major league scouts on Tuesday, it’s hard to get past what Baltimore Orioles manager and Mississippi State alum Buck Showalter recently said: “I bet he was a good player in high school. I was, too.” Showalter was also a good player – All-America good – at State and in the minors but never played in the big leagues. So, yeah, Tebow’s got a chance, but not much.
The play at the plate – following two relay throws – long will be remembered in Hattiesburg. Southern Miss won its first Conference USA Tournament title since 2010 today, cutting down a Rice runner at home to preserve a 3-2 victory at Taylor Park. And so this remarkable season for Magnolia State baseball barrels ahead. USM’s tournament title is the second for the state in 2016; Delta State won the Gulf South Conference crown. Mississippi State won the regular season title in the SEC, and the Bulldogs will join the Golden Eagles and Ole Miss in the NCAA Tournament, all three possibly hosting regionals. And don’t forget that Jones County Junior College, which claimed its region tournament, is still playing in the NJCAA Division II World Series, having won its opener on Saturday. DSU reached the championship round of the NCAA Division II South Region tourney, and William Carey did the same in its NAIA regional, both coming up just short of the World Series in their divisions. P.S. In case anyone was wondering: There were 18 former Jackson Mets who played for the New York Mets during the 1986 championship season, which was celebrated at Citi Field this weekend. The Mets’ Double-A club had been in Jackson for 12 years by 1986 and would play at Smith-Wills Stadium for four more. … In case anyone hadn’t noticed: Jeff Francoeur, the former Mississippi Braves star, was batting .292 for Atlanta heading into today’s game. It’s good to see – and hear – Francoeur getting cheers again at Turner Field. … Debut alert: Former MSU standout Chris Stratton from Tupelo, now in the big leagues with San Francisco, will be the 18th Mississippian (native or college alum) to play in MLB this year when he makes his first appearance.