One has to wonder if the Minnesota Twins are considering a promotion for Brent Rooker, who is wearing out the rookie-level Appalachian League. The ex-Mississippi State star – the 35th overall pick last month — has 12 hits in his last seven games for Elizabethton and is at .323 with five home runs and 10 RBIs in 16 pro games. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Rooker has been playing left field; he played mostly first base at State this year. … Rehabbing big leaguer Sean Rodriguez went 1-for-5 with four strikeouts for the Mississippi Braves in an 8-7 loss to Jackson (Tenn.) on Tuesday at Trustmark Park in Pearl. The M-Braves fanned 11 times all told and dropped to 4-14 in the second half of the Southern League season. They play the Generals again tonight at the TeePee. … Blake Anderson, the former West Lauderdale High star catcher, is now listed as a pitcher on the roster of the Gulf Coast League Marlins. Anderson, widely hailed for his defensive abilities, was a supplemental first-round pick by Miami in 2014. Injuries have limited him to 58 pro games (one in 2016), and he carries a .173 average. He has not appeared in a game this season. … None of the four high school players drafted out of the state this year signed to play pro ball. Myles Christian of Olive Branch, the highest prep pick (18th round, Seattle), is bound for Middle Tennessee State. C.J. Dunn of Center Hill, a Toronto pick, is going to Texas Tech; Ocean Springs’ Garrett Crochet, a Milwaukee pick, is off to Tennessee; and McLaurin’s Davis Bradshaw, another Brewers draftee, will play at Meridian Community College in 2018. The state’s Gatorade player of the year, Trey Shaffer, a left-hander from Biloxi, wasn’t drafted. The Southeastern Louisiana signee went 8-1 with a 1.20 ERA for the Indians. He also hit .380. … The only other 2017 draftees who didn’t sign were Mississippi State’s Jake Mangum, Ole Miss’ Brady Feigl and East Mississippi Community College’s Marcus Ragan, who is bound for Arkansas-Little Rock. State’s Cody Brown (New York Yankees) and Southern Miss’ Tracy Hadley (Chicago White Sox) signed as non-drafted free agents. … The Mississippi Semi-Pro State Tournament is scheduled for Thursday through Sunday at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium. Among the participants will be the Hattiesburg Black Sox, who won the Magnolia Adult Baseball League title. … USA Baseball has unveiled the 40-man group that will go to Minneapolis in August to take part in the 18U National Team Trials. Pitcher J.T. Ginn of Brandon and outfielder Joe Gray of Hattiesburg made the cut. The team trials begin on Aug. 19 and the final 20-man roster will be announced on Aug. 24. The 18U National Team will compete in the World Baseball Softball Confederation U-18 World Cup in Thunder Bay, Canada, from Sept. 1-10.
When thinking back about a minor league team from a particular season, there is usually one player who jumps to the forefront in the memory bank. The Jackson Generals of 1997? Oh yeah, that was the Daryle Ward year. There were other players of note on the club – Carlos Guillen, Scott Elarton, Mitch Meluskey, Donovan Mitchell – but Ward was the man. He is famously remembered by old Smith-Wills Stadium cranks for hitting a foul ball through the wooden fence down the right-field line. Of course, he did a lot of damage with fair balls, as well, batting .329 with 19 homers, 25 doubles and 90 RBIs for Houston’s Double-A club. He also got a lot of attention for a bomb he launched in an exhibition game against the Astros. Listed at 6 feet 2, 240 pounds, the lefty-hitting outfielder/first baseman was all about power. Ward, son of a former big leaguer, made the majors with Houston in 1998 and mashed 90 homers over 11 MLB seasons, 20 with the Astros in 2000. Now a coach in the Cincinnati organization, he was still playing in independent ball as recently as 2015. All told, he hit 290 homers in pro ball. Twenty years after his star turn with the Generals, Daryle Ward is not forgotten.
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.
You can imagine the conversation when a father takes his son – or a mother takes her daughter — to Trustmark Park in Pearl for the first time. “This is where Freddie Freeman used to play.” Or, “This is where Craig Kimbrel pitched before he made the major leagues.” Trustmark Park, in 12 seemingly short years, has established a tremendous legacy as the place where well over a hundred future big leaguers once starred in Double-A as Mississippi Braves. MGM Park in Biloxi, which opened in 2015, has only just begun to create a history as the Shuckers funnel players to Milwaukee. It has been 11 years since they played professional baseball at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium, and none who called that park home are still playing in the major leagues. But the stadium still stands proudly out on Lakeland Drive, now used by Belhaven University as its home field. There are plenty of folks around who fondly recall the days of the Jackson Mets and Generals and the future MLB stars who played for them. “This is where Lance Berkman used to play.” But Mississippi’s minor league tradition goes back well beyond the opening of Smith-Wills in 1975. Nineteen different cities in the state have hosted minor league clubs since 1900, which makes you wonder: Whatever happened to the ballparks where those teams played? Jackson’s Legion Field, where a number of future major leaguers toiled, sat on what is now the Fairgrounds; it was destroyed by a tornado in 1953. In Gulfport, they had the Base Ball Grounds, where, according to baseball-reference.com, a team called the Tarpons played from 1926-28. Cleveland had Boyle Field. Meridian had Buckwalter Stadium. There was City Park in Vicksburg, Ginners Park in Clarksdale, Legion Field in Greenwood and Sportsman Park in Greenville. And there were others, in places like Tupelo and Hattiesburg and Brookhaven. Those ballparks certainly weren’t anything like the multi-million dollar stadiums in Pearl and Biloxi, but they were the fields of dreams in their time. Big league players passed through those old ballparks. … Makes you wish you had a time machine. And a scorecard. And some popcorn.
Even if you’re not partial to maroon or gold, there are compelling reasons to check out tonight’s Mississippi State-Southern Miss game at Trustmark Park in Pearl. USM (16-4) is on a seven-game winning streak that has propelled the Golden Eagles into a couple of the national polls. State (12-9) was swept three straight at Arkansas over the weekend but features the SEC’s batting average leader, Brent Rooker, a .446 hitter who also tops the league in slugging, RBIs and steals. His six homers lead the team. Jackson Prep product Jake Mangum (.378) and Ryan Gridley (.354) also have played well for the Bulldogs. The Eagles’ starting pitcher will be ex-Oak Grove High star Taylor Braley, who is also their best hitter. He has a 3.38 ERA in three starts and a .366 batting average with six homers and 22 RBIs. Meridian native Mason Irby, a juco All-America pick at Jones County Junior College in 2016, is the reigning C-USA hitter of the week. In addition to Braley, USM trots out three other sluggers with four or more homers: Dylan Burdeaux, Casey Maack and Matt Wallner, who might also make a mound appearance. State won last year’s game 13-5 and leads the series at the TeePee 5-3. … Meanwhile, at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson tonight, NCAA Division III rivals Belhaven and Millsaps will hook up in the decisive third game of the Maloney Trophy Series. The host Blazers are 12-8 and feature a trio of impressive hitters: Daniel Ammirati (.406), Terrell Hodges (.347, five homers, 22 RBIs) and Stephen Sexton (.338, six, 20). Andy Page leads the Majors (9-12) with a .341 average, and Lee Ogletree is batting .288 with three homers and 20 RBIs.
Smith-Wills Stadium, approaching its 42nd birthday, will crackle to life again today for Belhaven University’s season opener. BU takes on Berry College at 4 p.m. at the Jackson ballpark, which opened in April of 1975 as the home of the Double-A Jackson Mets. The Blazers have called Smith-Wills home since 2006 – after the last pro tenant departed — and the big yard with the artificial surface has been a good fit. They went 12-7 at home in 2016 en route to a disappointing 20-18 overall record. Two key players return from that team: Terrell Hodges, a former Northwest Rankin High and Holmes Community College star, and Tanner Cable, an ex-Delta State pitcher. Both made the American Southwest Conference preseason watch list. Hodges, an outfielder, had a monster year in 2016, batting .397 with seven homers, 26 RBIs, 43 runs and 30 stolen bases in 38 games. Cable, a right-hander, was 5-0 with a 2.70 ERA in an injury-shortened campaign. Also back is third baseman Daniel Ammirati, a .331 hitter last year. Belhaven is still in transition from NAIA to NCAA Division III and is not yet eligible for the ASC Tournament or D-III postseason play. P.S. Jones County Junior College also opens today with a considerable target on its back. The defending NJCAA Division II national champs were ranked No. 1 by the NJCAA and Collegiate Baseball magazine and were pegged as the team to beat in D-II by Baseball America. The Bobcats, 54-9 in 2016, return a wealth of talent, featuring the power of Erick Hoard and Tanner Huddleston, the speed of Shelton Wallace and Fred Franklin and an armada of arms. JCJC starts with a twinbill today against Southwest Tennessee at Community Bank Park in Ellisville.
Jackson’s Texas League franchise won five pennants during its 25-year tenure at Smith-Wills Stadium, but none of the five championship runs had more compelling storylines than the last one. It was 20 years ago this month that the Generals, managed by Dave Engle, plowed through Tulsa and Wichita, going 7-1 overall, to win that title. There was something rare, something controversial and something very heartwarming over those 10 days in September. With future big leaguers Richard Hidalgo and Melvin Mora out with injuries, other stars stepped up and unexpected heroes emerged. All in all, it was a wild ride that started at Smith-Wills and ended in Wichita’s Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. In the opener of the best-of-5 TL East Division series, the Gens got a four-hitter from future big leaguer John Halama and won the game 2-1 on the weirdest of walk-offs. With the bases loaded and one out in the ninth, Tulsa’s left fielder, Mike Murphy, inexplicably caught a deep fly ball, clearly in foul territory, off the bat of Nate Peterson, enabling Russ Johnson to tag and jog home with the winning run. In Game 2, Jackson got a leadoff home run from Buck McNabb – his first bomb in three years – and another homer from another unlikely source, former Ole Miss star Kary Bridges, to take a 6-1 win. (Footnote: Bridges had returned to Jackson from Triple-A just before the playoffs started as a roster replacement for Mora.) Edgar Ramos, who threw a no-hitter during the season, got the victory in Game 2. The series shifted to Tulsa, where the Generals lost Game 3 and also lost closer Manuel Barrios for one postseason game (plus two games in 1997) for intentionally hitting a batter. At least they thought it was a one-game postseason suspension. The Gens took the series with a 7-2 victory in Game 4 as Scott Elarton, Houston’s first-round pick from 1994 making his first Double-A appearance, shut down the Drillers. Then came the controversy. The team learned before the opener of the best-of-7 TLCS at Smith-Wills that Barrios would be suspended for the first two games against Wichita, contrary to league president Tom Kayser’s original ruling. (Footnote: The Gens were miffed, to say the least, that Kayser had arbitrarily changed his mind, issued a release on his new ruling and never called Generals officials with an explanation.) Behind the pitching of Halama and Tim Kester and a couple of key hits by Bridges, the Generals beat the Wranglers 4-1 to open the series. In Game 2, it was Ramos again with a sterling start, backed by the hitting of Peterson, who homered and drove in three runs. (Footnote: Peterson also was hit in the helmet by a pitch with Kayser in attendance; there was no ejection or suspension.) Game 3 took a weird turn, as a rusty Barrios blew a 3-0 lead in the ninth after Jamie Walker had worked a brilliant first eight. Donovan Mitchell, playing center field in the playoffs for the first time in his career, threw out a runner at the plate to preserve the tie. (Footnote: Mitchell had flown home to New York after Game 2 to see his newborn son, Donovan, Jr., then flew back in time for Game 3.) The resilient Gens won another walk-off on ninth-inning hits by McNabb, Bridges and Tim Forkner. The clincher came in Wichita, where Elarton, shaking off three unearned runs in the first inning, kept the Wranglers in check and the Gens scored five in the fourth inning en route to a 7-3 win. Al Probst homered, and Forkner, Peterson and Mitch Meluskey had RBI hits. While the team scored 26 runs in the finals, it was pitching that really stole the show. The Gens put up an 0.50 ERA in the series. (Footnote: The pitching coach in 1996 was Jim Hickey, who has held the same job with the Tampa Bay Rays for several years now.) The title was Jackson’s second in four years, but the club would not make the TL postseason again, coming up short in the last game of their last season (1999) at Smith-Wills.