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.
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.