Once upon a time, there was a Double-A team at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson. Twenty years ago, the Jackson Generals, a Houston Astros affiliate in the Texas League, played their ninth and final season before bolting for Round Rock, Texas. Twenty years is a long time. No former Generals are still playing in the big leagues. There isn’t – or wasn’t — much left to remember them by here in central Mississippi. Until now. The Mississippi Braves will rekindle good memories for some old Smith-Wills fans on Friday night when they don throwback apparel and give away Generals replica jerseys at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Former Generals have been invited to attend. Con Maloney, former owner of the Texas League franchise, will throw out the first pitch. (Yes, the M-Braves are playing a team called the Jackson Generals, a Southern League club from Tennessee. Don’t let that confuse you.) The Mississippi-based Generals, who followed the Mets at Smith-Wills in 1991, won two league titles during their time at the ballpark on Lakeland Drive. Future big league stars such as Bobby Abreu, Lance Berkman, Billy Wagner, Freddy Garcia and Richard Hidalgo played there. (There’s a long list.) Former big leaguers Rick Sweet, Gary Allenson and Sal Butera managed there. Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell rehabbed there for the Astros. If all goes well, maybe a Jackson Mets throwback game will be next — though the idea of putting Braves prospects in Mets unies seems a little weird.
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.
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.
On the day we celebrate Jackie Robinson’s historic feat of breaking the MLB color line in 1947, let’s also give a nod to Greenwood native Dave Hoskins. Hoskins was the first black player in two minor leagues, the Central League in 1948 and the Texas League in 1952. While there are reports about difficulties Hoskins bravely faced in both situations, he said this in a Society of American Baseball Research article: “All in all, I had no complaints.” “He was such a nice man, you couldn’t not love the guy,” a teammate, Joe Macko, said in that same piece. Hoskins got his start in the Negro Leagues and was a standout as both a pitcher and hitter. Recruited to the Dallas Eagles of the Texas League in 1952 by team owner Dick Burnett, Hoskins went 22-10 and batted .328. That got him a shot with the Cleveland Indians in 1953, and he went 9-3 with a 3.99 ERA as a 27-year-old rookie. (The SABR report says he was actually in his mid-30s by then.) Hoskins pitched for the pennant-winning Indians in 1954 but was not on their World Series roster. His big league career was over after 40 games, though he did play a few more years in the minors. He died in 1970.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Jackson Mets’ first playoff team. The ’78 JaxMets beat Arkansas in the Texas League East playoffs and then fell to El Paso in the title series. Mookie Wilson was the hub of the offense, batting .292 with seven homers, 15 triples and 72 RBIs. Kelvin Chapman, another future big leaguer, hit .266 and led the club with 84 runs. Juan Monasterio batted .289, and Bobby Bryant belted eight homers. Jeff Reardon was the ace, going 17-4 with a 2.54 ERA. Neil Allen led the league in ERA. Scott Holman won 11 games and Kim Seaman 10. The ’78 season was the fourth year the Mets’ Double-A club operated at Smith-Wills Stadium, an affiliation that lasted 16 years. The OJMs missed the playoffs in 1979 but then went on a rip where they made it eight straight years and won three league titles. The ’78 JaxMets were managed by Bob Wellman, no relation to Phillip Wellman, who, 30 years later, managed the Mississippi Braves to the Southern League pennant. That remains the only title claimed by the M-Braves, now entering their 14th year at Trustmark Park in Pearl. The ’08 M-Braves featured a great young pitching staff: Tommy Hanson, Kris Medlen, Todd Redmond, James Parr, et al. Kala Ka’aihue led the team in homers (14) and RBIs (61) and swung a big bat in the postseason. But the club was defined more by the scrappiness of Matt Young and J.C. Holt, who combined for 52 steals. Wellman loved to get aggressive on the bases, and the M-Braves scored the pennant-winning run against Carolina on a walk-off double steal. … This season also marks the 25th anniversary of the first Jackson Generals team to win a Texas League title. The 1993 season was the third at Smith-Wills Stadium for the Houston Astros affiliate. Stars of that club, managed by Sal Butera, included Brian Hunter, Roberto Petagine, Jim Dougherty, Tom Nevers and Jackson native Fletcher Thompson.
Atlanta would appear to have hit a home run with its new hire for manager of the Mississippi Braves. As baseball resumes go, it’s hard to beat what Chris Maloney brings to the table. The newly named skipper of the Double-A M-Braves is not only a local boy, but he has a wealth of managerial experience highlighted by championships and awards. Maloney, nicknamed “Hammer,” is a Jackson native and former Mississippi State star who played pro ball in the New York Mets and St. Louis systems. His father, local businessman Con Maloney, was a longtime owner of Jackson’s Texas League franchise. Chris Maloney was in his sixth year on the Cardinals’ major league staff when he was suddenly removed as third-base coach and reassigned back in June in a rather odd move. Maloney managed in the St. Louis system for 17 years, winning a Triple-A Pacific Coast League title with Memphis in 2009. He was manager of the year in the Texas League in 1998 while at Arkansas and was Baseball Weekly’s minor league manager of the year in 1993 when he was at Class A Savannah. He also managed in Houston’s system. He’s a great choice to run the M-Braves. Maloney succeeds Luis Salazar as the Southern League club’s seventh manager since it moved to Pearl in 2005. P.S. For the record, there are now seven Mississippi-connected managers in the big leagues: Ex-Mississippi State standout Buck Showalter (Baltimore), Ole Miss product Mickey Callaway (New York Mets), former Jackson Mets players Ned Yost (Kansas City), John Gibbons (Toronto) and Ron Gardenhire (Detroit), former JaxMets skipper Clint Hurdle (Pittsburgh) and former M-Braves manager Brian Snitker (Atlanta).
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.
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.