It might seem a bit trivial considering all else going on, but this is disturbing news in the baseball world: Hundreds of minor league players have been or soon will be released by major league clubs as it becomes more evident that there will not be a minor league season. Organizations known to already have made cuts are the Braves, Brewers, Cardinals, Mariners, Reds, Mets, Nationals, Orioles, Rockies, D’backs and Rays. For many of these players, no doubt including quite a few Mississippians, this may spell the end of their dream of making the big leagues. As cbssports.com reports, “The entire situation is horrid for the released players, who lose their source of meager income during a pandemic, and have minimal chance of latching on elsewhere.” The player cuts come on top of the news of proposed contraction of dozens of mostly lower-level minor league teams. Many minor league clubs, even those in sizable markets, are struggling to weather the current economic crisis. It is possible some of the released players could find jobs in the independent leagues, though they, like MLB, are currently in limbo. The Atlantic League announced on its website in late April that it is “making every effort to play a competitive 2020 schedule” but no start date has been announced. Same for the Frontier League. The American Association reportedly was aiming for a start date in early July but that seems iffy.
After taking the road less traveled into affiliated ball – signing as an undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss in 2015 – Jacob Waguespack arrived in the majors on this date — May 27 — in 2019. The Louisiana native originally signed with Philadelphia and moved to Toronto in a trade deadline deal in 2018. Despite a somewhat wobbly launch (three hits, three runs, three strikeouts in his first inning) in his MLB debut, the 6-foot-6, 235-pound right-hander fared pretty well for Toronto during several call-ups over the course of the season. Overshadowed by fellow rookies Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio, Waguespack went 5-5 with a 4.38 ERA working primarily as a starter for a team that limped in at 67-95. After the Blue Jays added starters Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson in the off-season, Waguespack, now 26, was seen as a bullpen piece heading into spring training this year. Toronto could be a team on the rise, and Waguespack is positioned to ride that wave.
Setting Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine for 90 years takes us to 1930, the year Ludlow native Hal Lee made his big league debut. There was an offensive explosion in the game that season, due in large part to a juiced ball. The average batting average was .294. Both leagues set records for home runs and runs. Hack Wilson drove in 191 runs, a record that still stands. Lee didn’t quite catch that wave. He only got 37 at-bats for the Brooklyn Robins in 1930 and hit .162. Two years later, with the Philadelphia Phillies, he redeemed himself. The right-handed hitting outfielder, nicknamed Sheriff, hit .303 with 18 homers, 45 RBIs, 42 doubles and 10 triples. Nice numbers. Lee was overshadowed on his own team, however, by the likes of Chuck Klein (.348, 38 homers, 137 RBIs, 50 doubles), Don Hurst (.339, 24 homers, 143 RBIs) and Pinky Whitney (.298, 13 homers, 124 RBIs). Yes, hitters generally flourished in the ’30s. Lee, who died in 1989, is one of six former Mississippi College players to reach the majors and is arguably the most accomplished. He hit .275 over seven seasons with 33 homers and 323 RBIs. He played in more games, hit for a better average, drove in more runs and scored more runs than the better-known Harry Craft, who batted .253 over his six seasons (1937-42).
Mitch Moreland, the pride of Amory, has played in three World Series. Two of his teams — the 2011 Rangers and 2018 Red Sox – are included in “Dream Bracket 2: Dream Seasons,” another mlb.com production that starts next week. The 64-team computer-generated tournament features some of the best teams in history (two from each current franchise post-World War II, plus three Negro League clubs and the 1994 Expos) in single-elimination best-of-7 series. And, yes, Mississippians abound on the rosters. Like Mississippi State alum Moreland, Grenada native Dave Parker is on two teams: the ’79 Pirates and the ’88 A’s. The ’84 Tigers feature Jackson native Chet Lemon and Sunflower’s Larry Herndon as starting outfielders. Joe Gibbon of Hickory and Ole Miss and Vinegar Bend Mizell, from Leakesville, are on the ’60 Pirates, who shocked the Yankees in the World Series. The ’97 Marlins, another surprise champion, list Southern Miss product Pat Rapp and MSU alum Jay Powell on their pitching staff. The ’35 Pittsburgh Crawfords, a truly great Negro League team, also had two Mississippians: Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell (Starkville) and Bill Harvey (Clarksdale). The ’61 Yankees, one of the best teams of all-time, deployed Silver City’s Jack Reed from their bench. The Royals’ two world title winners featured Magnolia State natives: Greenville’s Frank White on the ’85 club and McComb’s Jarrod Dyson on the ’15 team. Fulton and USM product Brian Dozier is on the roster of the reigning champion, the ’19 Nationals, and Ole Miss alum Jeff Fassero was a starting pitcher for the ’94 Expos, who were denied a postseason opportunity by the players’ strike. There are other natives and college alums scattered among these teams, and quite a few ex-state minor league products, as well. The champion ’86 Mets roster shows 13 former Jackson Mets. Might be a team to watch.
Hughie Critz, a Starkville native who played his final big league game in 1935, holds a career record among Mississippi-born players that is truly unassailable. Think small for a moment, as in small ball. Critz, an infielder who batted .268 and was an excellent defender, racked up 187 sacrifice bunts over his 12-year career. Critz had 20 or more sacs in a season six times, including 24 with Cincinnati in 1926, when he batted .270, scored 96 runs, drove in 79 and finished second in the MVP voting. Ellisville’s Buddy Myer, a standout infielder who also played in the ’20s and ’30s, is second on the all-Mississippi sac list with 151, and third is Weir’s Roy Oswalt, a pitcher, at 106. Oswalt last played in 2013. Taylorsville’s Billy Hamilton, an outfielder, is the active leader among Mississippians with 39 sacs in seven seasons, one more than McComb native Jarrod Dyson, an outfielder who has played 10 years. The all-time record for career sacrifice bunts (or hits, as they used to be called) is one of the game’s unbreakable milestones. Hall of Famer Eddie Collins, who played from 1906-30, gave himself up 512 times. That’s 120 more sacs than the next highest total (Jake Daubert’s) and 404 more than the active career leader (Clayton Kershaw). That says a lot about how the game has evolved. Speed is still important, but small ball – bunting, in particular – has largely gone out of fashion, probably never to return. Critz’s record is safe.
Several Mississippians, all pitchers, have found success in the Korean Baseball Organization, which is getting a lot of attention these days (thanks to ESPN) as the only professional league going. Gary Rath, the Gulfport native and ex-Mississippi State All-American, won 43 games over parts of four years in the KBO between 2001 and ’08, including a 17-8, 2.60 ERA season with Doosan in 2004. Ole Miss product Mickey Callaway, now the Los Angeles Angels pitching coach, went 32-22 in three seasons in the KBO, including a 16-win campaign in 2005. Rath and Callaway, both of whom had some big league time, went to Korea at the end of their careers. Former Southern Miss standout Scott Copeland used a recent stint in the KBO as a route back to the big leagues. After making the majors with Toronto in 2015 (his sixth pro season), Copeland was released early in 2016 and went to Korea, where he made 13 starts for the LG Twins and then re-signed with the Blue Jays later that summer. He ultimately returned to the big leagues with the New York Mets – for one game — in 2018. Copeland spent last season in Washington’s system and is currently a minor league free agent. Meridian native Jamie Brown (2006-08), Jackson State alum Mike Farmer (2000-01), Columbus’ Luther Hackman (2005), UM alum Phil Irwin (2015) and ex-Purvis High star Kenny Rayborn (2007-08) also pitched in the KBO. Brown, Farmer, Hackman and Irwin had MLB appearances on their resumes.
There are no big league games today, which might make the memory a tad bittersweet for Nate Lowe. On April 29 of last year, ex-Mississippi State standout Lowe made his MLB debut, going 1-for-4 with a double for Tampa Bay in a win at Kansas City. Lowe became the 60th Bulldogs alumnus to make the majors and the second of five Mississippi-connected players (the others: Chris Ellis, Austin Riley, Jacob Waguespack and Bobby Bradley) to debut in 2019. Lowe, who batted .263 with seven homers in 50 games as a first baseman/DH last season, reported for spring training this year about 20 pounds lighter. He was getting more work at third base, versatility that likely would help him contribute more on a Rays team expected to contend – again — in the American League East. “It took a lot of spiritual maturation and physical maturation to kind of start over (this) off-season to get to be the player and the person that I need to be,” he told draysbay.com in February, shortly before baseball shut down. A 13th-round pick out of State in 2016, the lefty-hitting Lowe made some adjustments in his swing after his second pro season and rolled through three levels of the Rays’ system in 2018. He batted .330 with 27 homers, went to the All-Star Futures Game and was named the organization’s minor league player of the year. … Coincidentally, on this date in 2012, another former State first baseman, Tyler Moore, made his big league debut, going 1-for-3 for Washington. Brandon native Moore, who slugged 30 homers over parts of five MLB seasons, is no longer in the game.
A walk-off home run isn’t just a bomb — it’s “the bomb,” to borrow the cringe-worthy slang of another era. Of the many cool things you miss about baseball, the sudden, exhilarating finality of the game-ending homer rates near the top of the chart. There were 77 walk-off homers in the big leagues in 2019. Mississippians accounted for five of them, and this seems like a good time to relive them. The first was struck on April 9 by Jarrod Dyson, the former Southwest Mississippi Community College standout from McComb. Dyson, not a slugger by any stretch, was sent up as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning for Arizona and surprised a lot of folks when he belted a two-run shot to beat Texas 5-4. It was Dyson’s first career walk-off homer and just the 15th homer of his 10-year career. Walk-off No. 2, Mississippi edition, came on April 26. East Central CC alum Tim Anderson stroked his first career walk-off – punctuated with an award-worthy bat flip – to give the Chicago White Sox a 12-11 win over Detroit. In a much-publicized incident a few days earlier, Anderson had ignited a benches-clearing kerfuffle when he bat-flipped after a mid-game homer against Kansas City. On May 5, Hunter Renfroe, the ex-Mississippi State star from Crystal Springs, got into the walk-off act. Renfroe came up as a pinch hitter for San Diego in the ninth with the bases loaded and his team down a run to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Closer Kenley Jansen was on the bump. Renfroe delivered a 429-foot game-winner, his second career walk-off bomb, and threw his arms up as if signaling a touchdown. Next was Nate Lowe, another State product and a rookie with Tampa Bay. One Sept. 21, in the heat of the American League playoff battle, Lowe slugged a two-run homer in the bottom of the 11th inning to beat Boston 5-4. It was his seventh of the season (and career) and first walk-off. It snatched victory from the Red Sox, who had gone ahead in the top of the inning on a homer by former Bulldogs star Mitch Moreland. Two days after Lowe’s heroics, Petal High product Anthony Alford, playing for Toronto, launched a two-out solo homer in the 15th inning to beat Baltimore 11-10. It was Alford’s first career homer, and he broke out in a huge grin as he rounded the bases. “I was trying to hold my smile as best I could, but it was pretty tough,” he told mlb.com. “It was my first-ever walk-off, so it felt pretty good.” It’s a feeling we’re all missing.
Today’s challenge is to build a player. Drawing from the pool of Mississippi-born big leaguers, put together a Super Player based on the five tools scouts evaluate in a position player. Those are hit, hit for power, field, throw and run. Start with the latter, which might be the easiest call here. Taylorsville’s Billy Hamilton, currently signed to a minor league contract with San Francisco, is one of the fastest to ever play the game, a modern day equivalent of Starkville native Cool Papa Bell, the Negro Leagues legend and Hall of Famer. Hamilton has 299 career steals in his seven MLB seasons and holds the all-time pro record with 155 bags in the minors in 2012. Check. Hamilton also is a standout defender in center field, but Jackson native Chet Lemon arguably was better. Lemon, who played from 1975-90, recorded 509 putouts in center field for Detroit in 1977 to set a major league record. He had three more as a right fielder that year, and that 512 total ranks as the fourth-most all-time in a single season. Lemon ranked among the top 10 center fielders in putouts in a season seven times and among the fielding percentage leaders five times. No less an authority than Sparky Anderson called Lemon the best center fielder he had ever seen. Good enough. When it comes to throwing ability, one can’t go wrong with Grenada native Dave Parker. Anecdotal evidence: His throw from right field to nail a runner at the plate in 1979 All-Star Game is widely regarded as one of the most jaw-dropping ever. When players dared run on him, Parker made them pay. A three-time Gold Glover, he recorded 143 assists – 26 in 1977 alone — over a 19-year career from 1973-91, though he played little outfield the last four years. The best hitter, based on average alone, among Mississippi natives is Buddy Myer, the Ellisville native who played from 1925-41. A lefty-swinging singles hitter, Myer batted .302 for his career and won a batting title with a .349 mark in 1935. Gulfport’s Gee Walker, who played from 1931-45, batted .294, including a single-season best of .353 in 1936. Among more recent players, the best hitter is, surprisingly enough, Dmitri Young, the big (6 feet 2, 295 pounds) switch-hitter from Vicksburg who batted .291 from 1996-2008. He had more pop, with 171 career homers, than Myer or Walker, but for just pure hitting, Myer is the pick. When it comes to raw power, there are several great candidates, from Parker to George Scott to Ellis Burks to Hunter Renfroe. But, from many accounts, there was something special about the threat that Luke Easter brought to the plate. The 6-4, 240-pound Easter, from Jonestown, clubbed 93 big league homers in the 1950s and another 247 in a long minor league career. He hit some legendary bombs, including a 500-footer in Buffalo’s Offermann Stadium and a 477-footer in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. So, that’s Hamilton’s wheels, Lemon’s glove, Parker’s hose, Myer’s bat and Easter’s power. A star is born.
On this date in 2005, former Mississippi State star Rafael Palmeiro infamously wagged his finger during a Congressional hearing and declared, “I have never used steroids. Period.” Less than two months later, while playing for Baltimore, he failed an MLB drug test for steroids and was suspended. Though Palmeiro has steadfastly denied using steroids, that incident has stuck to him and is the main reason he is not in the National Baseball Hall of Fame despite having 3,000 hits and 500 homers over a 20-year career that ended in 2005. … On a somewhat lighter note, it was also on this date in 2010 that Meridian Community College product Cliff Lee, pitching for Seattle, was ejected from a spring training game – and subsequently fined and suspended – for throwing a pitch over the head of an Arizona batter. The fine and suspension, which would have been for five regular season games, were later rescinded. That incident is largely forgotten and is definitely not the reason Lee isn’t in the Hall of Fame despite 143 wins, a 3.52 ERA and a Cy Young award in a 13-year career. Lee was on the ballot for the first time for the 2020 election and promptly dropped off the ballot.