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.
As the Mississippi Braves and Jackson (Tenn.) Generals square off in the 2016 Southern League Championship Series, here’s a Mississippi minor league postseason primer:
1 – Number of Southern League pennants won by the Mississippi Braves, who arrived in Pearl in 2005 and won the title three years later at Trustmark Park.
1 – Number of SL pennants won by the Jackson Generals, the Tennessee version, who took the title 16 years ago when they were known, regrettably, as the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx.
2 – Number of Texas League pennants won by the Jackson Generals, the Mississippi version, who claimed those crowns in 1993 and 1996.
1 – Number of pennants won by the Jackson Senators, who captured the independent Central League title at Smith-Wills Stadium in 2003.
3 – Number of pennants won by the Jackson Mets, who took Texas League championships in 1981, 1984 and 1985.
8 – Streak of Texas League playoff appearances reeled off by the Jackson Mets from 1980-87.
4 – Southern League postseason appearances by the M-Braves.
3 – Number of Southern League awards won by the 2016 Jackson Generals: Tyler O’Neill was MVP, Ryan Yarbrough was pitcher of the year and Daren Brown was manager of the year.
1 – Number of M-Braves who made the SL postseason All-Star team: outfielder Dustin Peterson.
9 – Wins, in 15 games, by the M-Braves against the Generals this season.
5 – Number of Southern League starts in 2016 by M-Braves lefty Michael Mader (0-3, 2.40 ERA), slated to go in Game 1 of the SL Championship Series tonight at Jackson, Tenn.
9 – Number of wins, in 12 decisions, this season by Andrew Moore, the Generals’ scheduled starter in Game 1. He has a 3.16 ERA over 19 starts.
6 – RBIs by Carlos Franco, on 7-for-15 hitting, in the M-Braves’ South Division series win against Pensacola.
7 – Hits, in two postseason games, by M-Braves newcomer Kade Scivicque, the former Southwest Mississippi Community College (and LSU) star.
152 – Strikeouts this season, most in Double-A, by M-Braves lefty Sean Newcomb (8-7, 3.86 ERA), who is slated to start Game 2 against Jackson.
8 – Number of players from the 2016 M-Braves’ original 25-man roster who are still on the club.
1 – Number of former M-Braves on the Generals’ current roster: pitcher Ryne Harper.
Photo: Carlos Franco of the M-Braves heads for home. Joe Culpepper/Shuttergig.com
You might not have known Andres Reiner, but if you watched the Jackson Generals back in the ’90s, you know his work. Reiner was a Houston Astros scout in Venezuela in those days and signed most of the Venezuelan players who starred for the Double-A Gens – and there were a bunch of them. Sadly, Reiner died on Wednesday at the age of 81. Baseball America has an obit (that includes a 2001 feature story) on its web site. Reiner was a native of Hungary who grew up in Venezuela and started funneling players to the Astros in 1989 after opening a baseball academy. Among the Generals stars he signed were Bobby Abreu, Richard Hidalgo, Freddy Garcia, Melvin Mora, Roberto Petagine and Raul Chavez, all future big leaguers. Reiner occasionally visited Smith-Wills Stadium during the Generals era, which ran from 1991-99 and included two Texas League pennants.
The stars will come out to play on Tuesday at Trustmark Park in Pearl, sometime around 7:30 p.m. The 2016 Southern League All-Star Game will feature a bunch of “local talent,” with Mississippi Braves Dansby Swanson and Dustin Peterson and Biloxi Shuckers Brett Phillips, Garrett Cooper and Jacob Nottingham expected to be in the starting lineup for the South stars, managed by Luis Salazar. Biloxi’s Josh Hader, who leads the league with a 0.95 ERA, and hard-throwing Atlanta prospect Mauricio Cabrera are on the South pitching staff. League home run leader Daniel Palka (Chattanooga), stolen base leader Yefri Perez (Jacksonville) and pitching strikeout leader Jacob Faria (Montgomery) are also on the rosters, along with highly rated MLB prospects such as Amir Garrett (Pensacola), Willy Adames (Montgomery) and Jake Peter (Birmingham). This is the second SL All-Star Game to be held at the TeePee. The other was in 2007, when eight M-Braves played for the South Division team managed by Phillip Wellman. J.C. Holt and Carl Loadenthal had three hits apiece, but the South stars lost the game before an announced 4,555. Jackson hosted two Texas League All-Star Games at Smith-Wills Stadium, in 1984 and 1992. Both were decided by walk-off home runs by East Division stars, the first by the Jackson Mets’ Billy Beane, the second by Greenville native Adell Davenport, who was playing for Shreveport.
Scan the roster of the 1996 Jackson Generals and it’s plain to see how that club won a Texas League pennant. They had talent. Future big leaguers on that team included Richard Hidalgo, Melvin Mora, John Halama, Russ Johnson, Mitch Meluskey, Jamie Walker, Rich Loiselle, Tom Martin, Manny Barrios, Chris Hatcher and Mike Grzanich. Among the ’96 Gens who didn’t reach The Show were former Ole Miss star Kary Bridges, who batted a team-best .324, Buck McNabb (.301, 10 steals), Dennis Colon (.280), Tim Forkner (.293, seven homers), Ryan Creek and Tim Kester. The Generals, managed by the affable Dave Engle (with an assist from coach Rusty Harris), won the first half in the TL East, faded in the second and beat Tulsa (3-1) and Wichita (four straight) in the playoffs. Halama, the tall lefty, was the ace: 9-10, 3.21 ERA. Barrios had 23 saves, and lefties Walker, Martin and Grzanich (now the softball coach at Hinds Community College) combined for 16 wins and 11 saves. Hidalgo, a Venezuela native, looked like a budding superstar — and he did have a couple of big years in the majors. In Jackson, he hit .294 with 14 homers, 78 RBIs, 34 doubles and 11 steals and handled both right- and center-field duties with aplomb. Hatcher could mash (13 homers in 41 games), and Mora did a lot of things well. Johnson, the shortstop and former LSU star, was the team’s MVP, however. His numbers still dazzle: .310, 15 homers, 78 RBIs, 86 runs, 24 doubles, five triples, nine steals, a .470 slugging average, 56 walks and just 50 strikeouts. Unfortunately, he couldn’t replicate that production in the majors. It happens. It’s unfortunate also that there is nothing at Smith-Wills Stadium to commemorate the ’96 pennant — or any of the other championships from the old ballpark’s pro era. So take this occasion, the start of another season, to raise a glass for the 20th anniversary of a very special one.
Mississippi State jumped to No. 5 (from 10th) in the new Baseball America poll, and on Tuesday the Bulldogs will jump back into the fray against Southern Miss, unranked but rolling, in the first of the three College Series games at Trustmark Park in Pearl. This should be good. State, at 17-7-1, has more losses than any team ranked 13th or higher in the BA poll. But the Bulldogs have beaten Vanderbilt and Georgia two of three in their first two SEC series, apparently impressing the pollsters. USM is 19-6, coming off a sweep of a C-USA series against Texas-San Antonio. The Golden Eagles won last year’s College Series game, ending a six-game skid against State with a 3-0 victory before a rowdy crowd of 5,438 at the TeePee. You can debate the significance of these midweek games, but last year’s sure seemed to be a harbinger. USM was 13-8-1 at the time, finished 35-16-1. State was 18-8 and finished 24-30. If nothing else, a win for USM on Tuesday would be a big boost toward cracking the national polls. Looming just ahead for State is a home series with Ole Miss, 20-5 but coming off a lost weekend against South Carolina that dropped the Rebels from seventh to 13th in the BA poll. … A few miles from Trustmark Park on Tuesday, Millsaps will host Belhaven at Twenty Field in the second Maloney Trophy Series game of the year. The Majors topped their NCAA Division III rivals 10-7 last week. … And a short hop from Twenty Field on Tuesday, Hinds Community College and East Central CC will play an MACJC doubleheader at Smith-Wills Stadium. Hinds, ranked in preseason, is 11-13 and 3-5. ECCC is 19-7, 7-3.