Though he appeared in only 18 games in the big leagues, fans of the old Jackson Mets might remember that John Gibbons could play a little bit. The Toronto Blue Jays manager, a first-round pick by the New York Mets in 1980, was the regular catcher for the Double-A JaxMets in 1983 and batted .298 with 18 homers and 67 RBIs for a club that made it to the Texas League Championship Series. He was a standout on a team that included Billy Beane, Kevin Mitchell, Herm Winningham, Roger McDowell and Calvin Schiraldi. Gibbons was penciled in to start for the big Mets in 1984 before being injured in spring training. Soon thereafter the Mets traded for Gary Carter. Gibbons was up for a while with the Mets’ 1986 world championship club but didn’t play in the postseason. He was the bullpen catcher that October and got a ring, but, he told the Toronto Sun, “I didn’t really feel like I was part of that team.” He never got back to The Show as a player. Gibbons won two championships as a minor league manager in the Mets’ system but struggled in his first opportunity in the big leagues, a stormy tenure with the Blue Jays from 2004-08. Toronto gave him a much-questioned second chance in 2013, and now he has the Jays in the playoffs for the first time in 22 years. Gibbons is very much a part of this team, which many think is the favorite to win a ring. Maybe he can manage a little bit, too.
Houston makes its first appearance in the postseason in 10 years tonight when it plays New York at Yankee Stadium in the American League Wild Card Game. The Astros had been bad for so long that it seems hard to believe they were once a playoff regular. Between 1997 and 2005, they were in the playoffs six times. They won three straight National League Central championships from 1997-99 and another in 2001. And, yes, a bunch of former Jackson Generals – 26 at one time or another – played on those four teams. (For the record, ex-Jackson Mets Tim Bogar and Chuck Carr and Mississippians Dave Clark, Jay Powell and Charlie Hayes also made appearances in that period.) Houston’s Double-A club played at Smith-Wills Stadium from 1991-99, won Texas League pennants in 1993 and ’96 and produced some outstanding big league talent that aided in winning those NL Central titles. Jackson’s Houston connection included Bobby Abreu, Lance Berkman, Billy Wagner, Richard Hidalgo, Julio Lugo, Chris Holt, Shane Reynolds, Chris Truby, John Halama and Tony Eusebio, who was the first General to reach the big leagues in 1991. The Astros won only the one NL pennant during that run of success, in 2005, when they got in the playoffs as a wild card. There were only two ex-Gens left on the roster by then: Berkman and Raul Chavez. It was fun while it lasted.
Can’t let September end without another nod to the 1985 Jackson Mets, who won the Texas League championship in this month 30 years ago. The ’85 JaxMets, managed by Sam Perlozzo, won the second half in the TL East, beat Arkansas 2-0 in a best-of-three division playoff and then swept El Paso four straight for the pennant. But it wasn’t a season of smooth sailing. Injuries and inconsistency marked a first half that saw the team finish 31-35, which many felt was not indicative of its talent. Perlozzo, who had won titles in 1983 at Class A Lynchburg and ’84 in Jackson, called it his “most challenging season.” The team was led by a strong core of future big leaguers: Biloxi native Barry Lyons, Dave Magadan, Kevin Elster, Mark Carreon, Randy “Moose” Milligan, Keith Miller and Stanley Jefferson. The pitching staff featured DeWayne Vaughn, Dave Wyatt, Craig Weissmann, Tom Burns, Jim Adamczak and Ed Pruitt. The El Paso team they encountered in the championship series was stocked with sluggers like Joey Meyer (37 homers that year), Billy Jo Robidoux (133 RBIs) and Glenn Braggs. Chris Bosio was the Diablos’ ace. The JaxMets went to El Paso’s hitter-friendly Dudley Field for the first three games and won them all, then came back to Smith-Wills Stadium for the clincher. The September surge was a case of a very talented team finding its form at the right time, and it produced the last of the JaxMets’ three TL championships.
The record for most players drafted in one year by one team to reach the majors is 17 (1982, New York Mets), this according to Baseball America, which did a splendid retrospective on the MLB draft in a 50th anniversary tribute in the June 19-July 3 issue. Many of the players drafted that year by the Mets turned up on the Jackson Mets teams of 1984-87 that won two Texas League pennants and played for two more. Dwight Gooden, who didn’t play in Jackson, was the Mets’ top pick in ’82, and Rafael Palmeiro, who didn’t sign out of high school and went on to Mississippi State, was their eighth pick. Barry Lyons, the ex-Delta State star from Biloxi, was the 15th pick and starred on the ’85 JaxMets title team before going on to the big leagues. Other players of note in that draft include Roger McDowell, Greg Olson, Floyd Youmans, Steve Springer, Mickey Weston, Kyle Hartshorn, Joe Redfield and Al Carmichael, all of whom played at Smith-Wills Stadium. McDowell, Olson and Youmans enjoyed nice MLB careers. P.S. Ole Miss products Lance Lynn (St. Louis) and Aaron Barrett (Washington) have been put on the disabled list, leaving just five Mississippi-connected pitchers on active rosters in MLB. There have been as many as 11 this season. … Right-hander Mike Broadway, who pitched for the Mississippi Braves from 2009-11, was called up to the big leagues by San Francisco. He didn’t pitch on Friday, but Jesus Sucre did make his mound debut. The ex-M-Braves catcher worked a scoreless inning for Seattle in its 10-0 loss to Houston.
After a big year in Double-A in 2014, Alex Yarbrough appears to be finding a groove at the Triple-A level with roughly a quarter of the season in the books. The ex-Ole Miss standout has hit .270 with six runs and two RBIs over his last 10 games for Salt Lake in the Los Angeles Angels’ system. His season numbers are up to .256, 19 runs and 14 RBIs in 38 games. Yarbrough, a switch-hitting second baseman, hit .285 with five homers, 77 RBIs, 66 runs and 38 doubles for Arkansas in 2014, winning Texas League player of the year honors. He went to big league spring training this year as a darkhorse candidate for the second base job left vacant by the trade of Howie Kendrick. Yarbrough was 4-for-19 in the spring before he was sent out. Johnny Giavotella, picked up in a trade with Kansas City, emerged as the Angels’ second baseman and has played well this season, batting .274 to date. Yarbrough, 23, rated the team’s No. 14 prospect by mlb.com entering his fourth pro season, figures to get an opportunity at the big league level, if not this summer then surely next spring.
It would be remiss to let September end without another nod to the 1984 Jackson Mets. Thirty years ago this month, the JaxMets won the Texas League championship, the second of five pennants the franchise would claim during its 25-year run at Smith-Wills Stadium. The ’84 OJMs (from the “Our Jackson Mets” pregame intro) went 83-53 overall and won both halves handily in the TL East with a roster that included, at one time or another, 19 players who made it to the big leagues. There were so many players who made huge contributions that season it’s hard to note them all. Calvin Schiraldi went 14-3 with a 2.88 ERA and was the league’s pitcher of the year. Lenny Dykstra led the league in runs with 100; he also stole 53 bases while batting .275 with six homers and 52 RBIs. Billy Beane, in what he called his “junior year” in Jackson, had a breakout season: .281, 20 homers, 72 RBIs, 26 steals. Bill Max, who never made the majors, had a TL-best 16 game-winning RBIs plus 11 bombs. Al Pedrique led the league’s shortstops with a .961 fielding percentage. He also hit .285. Dave Cochrane led the team with 22 home runs. Ed Hearn — a platooning catcher — batted .312 with 11 homers and 51 RBIs. Randy Milligan hit .275 with nine homers and 34 RBIs in half a season before being injured. Joe Graves had 17 saves and nine wins out of the bullpen. Jeff Innis notched eight saves. Floyd Youmans won six games and fanned 87 batters in 86 innings. Other pitchers of note included Jay Tibbs, Randy Myers, Rick Aguilera and Roger McDowell. There was even a Mississippian on the club: ornery left-hander Rich Pickett, of Crystal Springs, who went 5-0 with four saves and a 2.27 ERA in 23 appearances. The JaxMets beat a very good Beaumont team — a San Diego Padres affiliate that went 89-47 that season — in six games in the TLCS. Sam Perlozzo earned TL manager of the year honors. The next year, he took a very different club (led by Biloxi’s Barry Lyons) and won the pennant again. Those truly were the glory days at old Smith-Wills. P.S. Props to Williams Perez and Kyle Kubitza for being named by the Atlanta Braves as the pitcher and hitter of the year at Double-A Mississippi. There were several others who could have won the awards on a very talented club that missed making the Southern League postseason by a hair.
The 40th anniversary of the first game at Smith-Wills Stadium comes next April. What a shame it would be if the Jackson ballpark is no longer standing at that time. Reports are out there that the old yard may be demolished. To make way for a Costco. A Costco on Cool Papa Bell Drive? Squeezed in between the Sports Hall of Fame and Museum and the Murrah High baseball field? Smith-Wills still serves a purpose. Not only does Belhaven University play there, but in recent years so have junior colleges, high schools, youth teams and semi-pro squads. Heck, maybe Biloxi’s homeless Southern League team could move in there next season. Smith-Wills has an unappreciated history. It has been nine years since the last pro game was played there and 15 since the final Texas League game. People forget. They should be reminded. This was a place where stars came out, from Lee Mazzilli to Selwyn Langaigne. Darryl Strawberry called it home, and Mookie Wilson and Jeff Reardon and Lenny Dykstra and Gregg Jefferies. And Billy Wagner and Bobby Abreu and Lance Berkman. Fernando Valenzuela made a visit there, and Pedro Martinez and Mark McGwire and Roberto Alomar and Johnny Damon. The list goes on. Will Clark and a host of other Mississippi State and Ole Miss stars played there, too, in the old Mayor’s Trophy Game. Max Patkin and the San Diego Chicken performed there. And the Silver Bullets and The King and His Court and two U.S. Olympic squads. Six pro teams won league pennants while playing there. These things should not be forgotten; they should be celebrated. They want to take this tradition and put up a wholesale store? Carole King ought to write a song.
Some nights at the ballpark stay with you. Here’s one: It was May 9, 1996. The Jackson Generals were playing host to the Wichita Wranglers in a Texas League game at Smith-Wills Stadium. There was a player photo giveaway that night: Russ Johnson, the former LSU star who was playing shortstop for the Houston Astros’ Double-A club that season. And wouldn’t you know it: Johnson put on a show. He hit for the cycle, one of baseball’s rarest feats. It was the first time a Generals player had done it in the six years the team had been in Jackson. Johnson, who would go on to play in the big leagues, scored three times and drove in a run as the Generals won 8-4. Former Ole Miss star Kary Bridges also played for the Gens in that game, as did Richard Hidalgo, Chris Hatcher, Donovan Mitchell, Tim Forkner and Dennis Colon. Doug Simons got the win. The announced attendance was 2,284. Still have the box score and the photo. And the memory.
While eagerly looking ahead to the start of the 2014 season, it’s the perfect time to note some significant anniversaries related to the Jackson area’s minor league clubs. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the 1984 Jackson Mets’ dominant season. That team swept both halves in the Texas League East Division and then claimed the franchise’s second pennant in the playoffs. The ’84 JaxMets, managed by Sam Perlozzo, featured the likes of Lenny Dykstra, Mark Carreon, Billy Beane, Greg Olson, Dave Cochrane, Al Pedrique, Steve Springer, Jay Tibbs, Calvin Schiraldi, Randy Myers and Floyd Youmans — all future big leaguers. Ten years later — and 20 years ago — the Jackson Generals won the TL East playoffs in one of Smith-Wills Stadium’s most unforgettable games. The Gens, down 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth of the decisive Game 5, got back-to-back home runs from Tom Nevers and Jeff Ball to stun rival Shreveport. The ’94 Generals, managed by Sal Butera, lost in the TL Championship Series. Bobby Abreu (still not retired) was the star hitter for that club. Of course, who could forget that in 2004 reports surfaced and were later confirmed that the Greenville Braves of the Southern League were going to move to a new ballpark in Pearl for the 2005 season. Hard to believe this will be the Mississippi Braves’ 10th season at Trustmark Park.