From the Off the Beaten Path file: It was 25 years ago today, Mother’s Day ’94, that the Colorado Silver Bullets became the first women’s team to play against a men’s professional team. The starting pitcher for the men’s team, the Northern League All-Stars, was Meridian native and former major leaguer Oil Can Boyd. The first batter he faced ripped a single off the glove of the second baseman. “My stuff’s so sore, I can’t get a woman out,” Boyd, per a Los Angeles Times story, said in the dugout after retiring the side. The All-Stars, a collection of independent leaguers and ex-big leaguers, were generally dismissive of the Silver Bullets, according to the Times story, and showed them no mercy, winning the game 19-0 at Fort Mill, S.C. Leon Durham, 37 at the time, hit two homers. The Silver Bullets, managed by Phil Niekro, toured the country for four seasons, playing – and beating — men’s indy league, semi-pro and amateur teams. They played twice against amateur teams at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson, going 1-1.
Has it really been 20 years? The first home game of the final season of the old Jackson Generals was played on April 19, 1999, at Smith-Wills Stadium. It could’ve gone better, to say the least. Gov. Kirk Fordice bounced the ceremonial first pitch. The Generals, the Double-A affiliate of the Houston Astros, then surrendered five first-inning runs and lost to Texas League rival Arkansas 9-2. Rick Ankiel got the win and also homered for the Travelers, who were managed by Jackson native and current Mississippi Braves skipper Chris Maloney. The loss dropped the Generals’ record to 3-8. Only 1,955 people turned out to see the lame-duck club, which had announced a year earlier that it was moving to Round Rock, Texas. The ’99 Gens would prove to be a pretty good team. Quite a few future big leaguers appeared on the roster, including Chris Truby (who hit 28 homers), Julio Lugo (.319, 25 steals), Keith Ginter, Brian Dallimore, Jeriome Robertson (15-game winner) and Wayne Franklin. They also occasionally started an all-Johnson outfield: A.J., J.J. and Ric. The Generals, managed by Jim Pankovits, finished 68-72 overall after making a run at the TL East second-half title. The championship actually came down to the last game of the season, also played at Smith-Wills. Alas, before the biggest crowd of the year (a turnstile count of 4,367), the Gens lost in heartbreaking fashion, 9-4 to Tulsa. It was 3-3 in the seventh inning when the Drillers’ Juan Pinella hit a grand slam that sucked the energy out of the old ballpark. The 25-year Texas League era at Smith-Wills began on April 19, 1975, with a pitch by the Jackson Mets’ Greg Pavlick. It ended on Sept. 8, 1999, on a pitch by Tulsa’s Matt Miller, a Delta State alum from Greenwood who would go on to pitch in the big leagues. … The M-Braves will pay tribute to the Generals and that bygone time during a series at Trustmark Park in Pearl from June 25-29.
Here’s a timely trivia question: Who was the winning pitcher for the Jackson Senators in the deciding game of the 2003 Central League Championship Series? It was none other than Jeremy McClain, then a crafty right-hander for the independent Sens, now the newly named athletic director at Southern Miss. McClain enjoyed a highlight-filled playing career. The Houlka native went 45-9 at Delta State – where he is in the Hall of Fame – and still holds school records for career wins, strikeouts and innings pitched. He went 15-0 for the 1999 team that made the NCAA Division II regionals. He had a fling in affiliated ball with the Boston Red Sox, then pitched for two different independent teams at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium. McClain won seven games for an awful DiamondKats team in 2000 and spent two seasons with the Senators, helping them reach the CBL title series in 2002 and claim the pennant the next year. He was the starter for the Sens’ first home opener in 2002, and in Game 5 of the ’03 finals, he came on in relief in the 10th inning and earned the victory when Keto Anderson delivered a game-winning knock in the bottom half. It was McClain’s final appearance as a player, and he said after the game that season was as much fun as he had ever had playing baseball.
Hill Denson. You’d be hard-pressed to find a baseball fan in Mississippi who doesn’t know that name. In fact, a large percentage of them probably know him personally. He has been involved in the game here for much of his 75 years, playing it, coaching it and elevating it along the way. Belhaven University, where Denson has coached the last 19 years, is throwing a party Saturday at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium in honor of the Hall of Famer’s pending retirement. The Blazers will play Texas-Tyler at 1 p.m. The celebration will start well before that and won’t end ’til long after the game finishes. Denson played high school ball at Bay Springs, his hometown, then at Jones Junior College and Southern Miss. He is something of a state semi-pro legend. He coached high school ball, including 10 years at Callaway, before taking the job at USM, which he built into a first-rate program during a 14-year tenure. He’s also had tremendous success at Belhaven, winning more than 600 games. He’s part of the fabric of the game here, and Saturday’s celebration is richly deserved.
In-state rivalry games do add a certain spice to the college season. Southern Miss and Mississippi State engaged in a compelling three-game series in Starkville last month, and Wednesday at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium, Millsaps College and Belhaven University battled it out in the first game of the Maloney Trophy Series. The Blazers, behind the arm of Kyle Whittington (two hits, 11 strikeouts in five innings) and the bat of Steven Liuzza (4-for-5, four RBIs), won 13-7, weathering a late Majors comeback. Freshmen Chris Hart (from Northwest Rankin High) and Brayden Stensaas (Pearl) drove in three runs each for Millsaps. BU improved to 6-7, while scuffling Millsaps fell to 3-12. Game 2 of the three-game series between the NCAA Division III rivals is March 19 at Millsaps’ Twenty Field. Also this month we get the first round of the SWAC home-and-homes, with Jackson State visiting Mississippi Valley State March 15-17, Alcorn State trekking to Valley March 22-24 and ASU visiting JSU March 29-31. On March 20, at MGM Park in Biloxi, D-II Mississippi College and NAIA William Carey will hook up. And looming in April are the Trustmark Park College Series games in Pearl: Ole Miss-USM on April 9 and the UM-State Governor’s Cup clash April 23. Those are always spicy.
Cool idea by the Mississippi Braves to give a nod to the old Jackson Generals as part of the M-Braves’ celebration of the franchise’s 15th year in Pearl. The M-Braves will wear some throwback apparel when the Jackson (Tenn.) Generals (no relation to the other one) visit Trustmark Park from June 25-29. On June 28, the first 1,000 fans will receive a replica Jackson (Miss.) Generals jersey. As a refresher, the Generals were the Double-A Texas League affiliate of the Houston Astros and played at Smith-Wills Stadium from 1991-1999. That club produced a bevy of big league stars, including Billy Wagner, Lance Berkman, Bobby Abreu, Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia, Richard Hidalgo, Todd Jones, Julio Lugo, Daryle Ward, Melvin Mora, Brian Hunter and Scott Elarton, to name, well, more than a few. The Generals won two Texas League pennants (1993 and ’96). Of course, Jackson’s pro baseball legacy extends well beyond the Generals. The Mets – New York’s Double-A club – occupied Smith-Wills from 1975-1990, turned out an array of stars, as well (see Darryl Strawberry, Jeff Reardon, Mookie Wilson, Kevin Mitchell, et al.), and won three TL titles. And before the Mets there were a number of minor league teams that played in a long-gone ballpark at the Fairgrounds for many years up until the early ’50s. Included in that group was a Boston Braves farm team. And let’s not forget that after the Generals departed for Round Rock, Texas, two independent pro teams played at Smith-Wills: the DiamondKats (2000) and the Senators (2002-05). The Senators also won a championship. Bottom line: When it comes to pro baseball in central Mississippi, there’s a whole lot to celebrate.
The Southern Miss-Mississippi State series in Starkville, which ended with a walk-off win for the Bulldogs in Sunday’s rubber game, deserved the lion’s share of attention this weekend. Ethan Small and J.T. Ginn appear to be a dynamic 1-2 punch at the top of State’s rotation. USM didn’t hit (.158 in the series) and was hurt also by seven errors. But there was a whole lot else goin’ on over the weekend that is also worth noting. To wit: Ole Miss’ red-hot Thomas Dillard (a .522 hitter) had a two-homer, eight-RBI game at Tulane – and a three-homer, 13-RBI week – in a contest the Rebels lost, 13-12, when All-America closer Parker Caracci yielded a walk-off homer. Former Jackson Prep star Caracci gave up just one homer in 48 innings in 2018. … Delta State’s Jake Barlow, a 5-foot-8, 165-pound redshirt freshman from Louisiana, hit for the cycle in a Sunday win against Gulf South foe Union, the first cycle for a Statesman in eight years (Kellen Bozeman). Hunter Riggins threw eight shutout innings in that game to move to 4-0 for 10-0 DSU. … Mississippi College (9-3, 2-0 GSC) swept a twinbill from West Georgia on Sunday at Smith-Wills Stadium as starters Chris Crosby and Ryan Lane and closer Tommy Taborda combined to allow one run over 16 innings. Crosby fanned 13 in 8 2/3, Lane eight in seven. … Belhaven’s Justin Milam, a junior from Madison by way of Northwest Mississippi Community College, went 4-for-8 with a homer and four RBIs and threw two scoreless innings as the Blazers won two of three games at Smith-Wills. Milam is batting .382 and has a 0.00 ERA in four appearances for 4-5 BU. … Millsaps went 1-2 in its three games at busy Smith-Wills, including a 21-6 win vs. Wisconsin-Platteville that featured Mason Little’s 3-for-5, five-RBI performance. … And in big league spring training on Sunday: Former USM star Chuckie Robinson belted a three-run homer for Houston against the New York Mets, and ex-State standout Hunter Renfroe went 2-for-2 with a walk and a homer for San Diego vs. the Chicago White Sox.
Busy schedule at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium (with its artificial surface) this weekend: Millsaps College will play Wisconsin-Platteville on Friday at 2, followed by a Belhaven University-UWP game. On Saturday at 10, Millsaps and UWP will meet again, followed by a doubleheader between Belhaven and Centenary. Millsaps and Centenary will hook up on Sunday at 11, followed by a doubleheader (at 2) between Mississippi College and Gulf South rival West Georgia. That series will conclude on Monday with a noon start. … Unbeaten Delta State bolted to No. 7 – up eight spots – in the new NCBWA Division II poll. The Statesmen are 9-0 heading into a three-game series vs. Union University this weekend at Cleveland’s Ferriss Field. Mississippi College (7-3), ranked as high as No. 7 in one preseason poll, is 18th in the writers poll. … MUW opened its second season with a doubleheader sweep, 10-2 and 12-6, of Lane College on Monday at Columbus High’s field. Owls leadoff batter Heath Ford went 3-for-8 with three RBIs in the two games, and Leon Petite had two hits, three runs and three RBIs. … Tougaloo College and Rust College faced off in a Gulf Coast Athletic Conference series over the weekend, with the host Bulldogs winning both games to improve to 2-5. Rust is a new member of the GCAC this season. … Pearl River Community College’s Shemar Page and Jones County JC’s O’Neil Burgos were named the MACJC pitcher and hitter of the week. Page, a sophomore right-hander from Raleigh, threw five hitless innings with 10 strikeouts in a win last weekend against St. Louis CC. Burgos, freshman out of Brookhaven Academy, went 7-for-13 with a homer and four RBIs in the Bobcats’ 4-0 week. … Meridian CC, ranked No. 4 in preseason by Collegiate Baseball, is off to a 2-2 start with a doubleheader slated for Sunday against Copiah-Lincoln CC at Hartfield Academy in Flowood, just down the highway from Smith-Wills.
“Play ball” time arrives for NCAA Division III schools Belhaven University and Millsaps College this weekend, with the Blazers set to open on Friday at Smith-Wills Stadium and the Majors on Saturday at Twenty Field as part of a round-robin tournament. Belhaven coach Hill Denson has announced that this will be the final season of his long and heralded career. The swan song begins against LeTourneau, a D-III school from Texas. The Blazers, 12-27 in 2018, a rare losing season for Denson, were pegged to finish 11th in the 12-team American Southwest Conference. The team had two players get recognition on the league’s preseason Watch List: second baseman Evan Moore, who hit .297 with 23 runs and 14 steals as a freshman, and right-hander David Hall, who posted a 3-6 record and 4.71 ERA last year. Pitching was a 2018 sore spot for BU, which put up a 6.53 staff ERA. Millsaps will play LeTourneau on Saturday, launching coach Jim Page’s 31st year with the purple and white. He topped 750 career wins in 2018 as the Majors went 25-19. The team returns outfielder Jimmy Johnstone, a .361 hitter and second-team All-Southern Athletic Association pick in 2018; outfielder Brennan Ducote, who batted .374 with four homers and 33 RBIs; and right-hander Conner Haynes, 4-1, 3.22 ERA. … Belhaven and Millsaps will play the first of three Maloney Trophy Series games on March 6 at Smith-Wills.
Opening day is always a special occasion. Belhaven University’s 2019 opener on Feb. 8 at Smith-Wills Stadium has taken on added significance. It’ll be the first game of the last season of Hill Denson’s illustrious coaching career. Denson announced via the school website that he has decided to retire after more than 50 years of coaching at the prep and college level. He has won more than 1,200 games all told, collected a bundle of trophies and awards and been elected to numerous Halls of Fame, including the American Baseball Coaches Association just last year. A former Southern Miss player, he helped lay the foundation for what that program has become during his 14 seasons as the coach there; the field at Taylor Park is named in his honor. He also took Belhaven baseball to new heights, including a trip to the NAIA World Series, over his 19-year tenure. During one memorable year (2005), he coached the Blazers and managed Jackson’s independent pro team, the Jackson Senators. Denson is a down-home, good guy who has had a wide-ranging impact on baseball in this state. This final season is one to celebrate all that, yes, but it’ll be tinged with sadness. Games at Smith-Wills won’t be the same without him.