25 Jan

on the doorstep

In his eighth year on the Hall of Fame ballot, Billy Wagner got 68.1 percent of the vote, a very nice jump from 51 percent a year ago. It takes 75 percent to make Cooperstown. So, the left-hander is close to becoming the first player from Jackson’s Texas League era to make the Hall. Maybe next year. He is certainly deserving. Wagner, who came out of NCAA Division III Ferrum College in Virginia, was a highly regarded Houston Astros prospect when he arrived in Jackson throwing gas in 1995. The diminutive Wagner, nicknamed “Little Country” by Generals broadcaster Bill Walberg, went 2-2 with a 2.57 ERA in 12 starts for the Double-A Gens, fanning 77 batters, walking 36 and hitting four in 70 innings. He was promoted to Triple-A in midseason, made his MLB debut that September, moved to the bullpen in 1996 and took off from there. Wagner retired in 2010 with 422 saves, still No. 6 on the all-time list and more than Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter. A seven-time All-Star, Wagner posted a 2.31 career ERA and averaged almost 12 strikeouts per nine innings, an eye-popping number. He didn’t have much postseason success and never won a ring, but he did help seven teams reach the playoffs. Jackson’s Texas League teams (1975-99) produced a bunch of standout closers — see Jeff Reardon, Randy Myers, Todd Jones, Rick Aguilera — who never came close to making the Hall. Wagner, who has two years left on the BBWAA ballot, should be the one to break through.

19 Jan

on comeback trail

There will be a small crowd of Mississippi-connected pitchers on the proverbial comeback trail when major league spring training camps open next month. MLB veterans Spencer Turnbull, Garrett Crochet and Drew Pomeranz and minor league prospects Ryan Rolison and Colby White missed the entire 2022 season rehabbing from arm injuries that required surgery. Ole Miss product Rolison and Mississippi State alum White appeared to be on the brink of their big league debut last season before injury shut them down. Turnbull, the ex-Madison Central High star, hasn’t pitched in a game since May of 2021. The Detroit right-hander had Tommy John surgery that summer, shortly after throwing a no-hitter on May 18. He was 4-2 with a 2.88 ERA over nine starts in 2021 and is 11-25, 4.25, for his MLB career with the Tigers. He is penciled in as one of their top starters, assuming he regains his 2021 form. Ocean Springs native Crochet, a flame-throwing left-hander with the Chicago White Sox, had Tommy John surgery last spring, a blow to the White Sox’s bullpen. Crochet, 23, exploded on the scene in 2020, shortly after being drafted out of Tennessee. He has a 2.54 ERA over his two MLB campaigns with 73 strikeouts in 60 1/3 innings. It’ll be interesting to see how his velocity is affected by the injury. Former Ole Miss star Pomeranz, now with San Diego, went down with a flexor tendon injury late in the 2021 season and had surgery that off-season. The big left-hander made some rehab appearances last summer but never made it back to the Padres’ active roster, missing all the drama of their ’22 season. Now 34, the former first-round pick had a 1.75 ERA as a key bullpen piece for the Padres in 2021 and carries a 3.91 career ERA. Rolison, another UM alum and former first-rounder, was derailed by shoulder surgery last year. The 25-year-old lefty, who has slipped on Colorado’s prospect list to No. 22, reached Triple-A in 2021. Over three minor league seasons, he is 12-12, 4.35, in 50 games. He’ll likely debut with the Rockies sometime this season. White, a Hattiesburg native drafted out of MSU in 2019, had Tommy John surgery last April after going to camp with Tampa Bay as a non-roster invitee. He made the 40-man this off-season. In 2021, the right-handed reliever, now 24, rose through four levels of the minors with the Rays. He had a 1.86 ERA at Triple-A Durham and in 58 pro games overall has a 1.76 ERA and 12 saves. His MLB debut may be coming soon. P.S. Here’s a prep player to watch in 2023 and beyond: Samuel Richardson, a junior third baseman at Lewisburg, was recognized by mlb.com as one of the top hitting prospects at last weekend’s DREAM Series in Arizona. Richardson, who played at Senatobia last year, was among the 80 players, predominantly African-American, invited to the annual instructional event held on MLK Day weekend and sponsored by MLB and USA Baseball. … Mel Rojas Jr., who played for the Mississippi Braves in 2016, got the walk-off hit on Wednesday night as Licey won the Dominican Winter League championship. Ex-M-Braves catcher and longtime big leaguer Jesus Sucre also plays for Licey.

15 Jan

totally random

Culley Rikard is among that passel of Mississippians whose big league career was brief and relatively obscure. The Oxford native and Olive Branch High alum played in 153 games over parts of three seasons, breaking in with Pittsburgh in 1941, a year noteworthy for DiMaggio’s 56 and Williams’ .406 but not so much for Rikard. He had just 20 at-bats. He got a few more ABs in 1942, spent three years in military service and returned to the majors with the Pirates in 1947, a year noteworthy for the debuts of Robinson and Doby but not really for Rikard. He batted .287 and scored 57 runs as the occasional leadoff batter for a really bad Pirates club. That was his final fling in the big leagues. But the tale of Culley Rikard would not be complete without recounting the incident of June 5, 1947, which mostly involves another player and takes up a significant portion of Rikard’s Wikipedia entry. Rikard hit a fly ball that was caught by Pete Reiser in center field at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Reiser, famous for crashing into walls, did so on this occasion, knocking himself unconscious and actually receiving last rites before recovering in a hospital. P.S. Kudos to Brandon Woodruff, the ex-Mississippi State standout who received a $10.8 million contract from Milwaukee as the sides avoided arbitration. Woodruff, who has become one of the National League’s best pitchers, went 13-4 with 3.05 ERA in 2022 and is 41-25 career for the Brewers.

10 Jan

a capital idea

Corey Dickerson, the former Meridian Community College star from McComb, reportedly has found a good home for 2023, reaching agreement with Washington on a 1-year, $2.25 million contract. The rebuilding Nationals, who have a need for lefty-hitting outfielders (among other things), will be Dickerson’s fourth team in three seasons. He spent 2022 with St. Louis, batting .267 with six homers (and a 0.0 WAR) in 96 games on a 1-year, $5M deal. Dickerson, 33, who broke in with Colorado in 2013, is a .281 career hitter with 134 homers, 27 of those during his All-Star season with Tampa Bay in 2017. He joins Mississippi State alum Adam Frazier (Baltimore) and Taylorsville’s Billy Hamilton (Chicago White Sox, minor league deal) as Mississippi-connected MLB free agents to sign this off-season. A handful of minor league free agents also have inked for 2023. The start of spring training is just a few weeks away. P.S. Jackson Prep junior Konnor Griffin has been named the top high school prospect in the 2024 draft by Baseball America. Griffin, an LSU commit who goes 6 feet 3, 180 pounds, batted .472 with six homers as a shortstop/outfielder and went 6-2 with a 1.64 ERA on the mound in 2022. BA’s new Top 100 list for the ’24 draft includes seven players committed to Mississippi State and four Ole Miss commits. … Belhaven University opens its season Feb. 7 against Rhodes College at Trustmark Park in Pearl, the Blazers’ new home field. BU and fellow NCAA Division III member Millsaps will play two their three Maloney Trophy games at the TeePee on Feb. 21 and March 7. The third game is March 28 at Millsaps’ Twenty Field. Belhaven’s first Collegiate Conference of the South game is March 17 at Maryville (Tenn.). (The CCS is a group of schools that recently broke away from the USA South.)

04 Jan

high praise

Though he hasn’t yet cracked the Texas Rangers’ Top 30 prospects chart, former Mississippi College star Blaine Crim isn’t being overlooked in the organization. “He’s what we call ‘a Rangers player,'” Texas player development director Josh Bonifay told milb.com. “He works extremely hard, he’s dedicated to his craft … .” Crim, a 19th-round pick in 2019, batted .293 with 24 home runs and 96 RBIs in 2022, playing at the Double-A and Triple-A levels. He was pegged by milb.com as the first baseman on the Rangers’ Organization All-Star team. Mississippi State alum Justin Foscue was named the second baseman on that team. Crim, now 25, has hit everywhere he has been. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound right-handed hitter batted .350 for his career at NCAA Division II MC and is a .305 hitter in pro ball. He won the batting title in Puerto Rico’s winter league after the 2021 season. He’s one to watch this year. … Foscue, the 14th overall pick in 2020, also drew praise from the Rangers’ farm director. “He knows who he is. And he executes his plan, man,” Bonifay told milb.com. Rated the Rangers’ No. 5 prospect, Foscue hit .288 with 15 homers and 81 RBIs at Double-A Frisco, helping the club win a Texas League championship.

01 Jan

still on top

Two Mississippi colleges won national championships in 2022, and one of them will start the new year where it finished the old. Pearl River Community College, defending NJCAA Division II champ, is ranked No. 1 in Collegiate Baseball Magazine’s preseason poll. The Wildcats went 45-11 in claiming the program’s first national crown, joining NCAA Division I champ Ole Miss in that regard. Star hitters Tate Parker and D.K. Donaldson have moved on from Poplarville, but the Wildcats’ cupboard remains well-stocked. “We are extremely talented and expect to have more depth on the mound than last year,” PRCC coach Michael Avalon told CB. Among the Wildcats’ four returning regulars are third baseman Alex Perry, who hit .385 with 17 homers and 22 stolen bases, and shortstop Gabe Broadus, a Southern Miss commit who batted .382 with 39 bags. Seven pitchers also return. … Hinds CC is ranked 12th in CB’s poll, with Jones College checking in at No. 17 and Meridian CC at No. 20. LSU-Eunice, a traditional Region 23 powerhouse, is ranked third. … USM, 47-19 and a Super Regional participant last year, is ranked 18th by CB in its D-I poll, followed by Mississippi State at No. 22 and Ole Miss at No. 24. The Golden Eagles are projected to win the Sun Belt in their first year in the league. MSU and UM are pegged fourth and fifth in the SEC West. In the SWAC, Jackson State is slotted fourth in the East Division with Mississippi Valley State sixth (last). Alcorn State is picked to finish sixth in the West.

28 Dec

not to be forgotten

You could put together a fairly impressive list of star-quality seasons by Mississippi natives in the major leagues. Fred Valentine’s 1966 campaign belongs on that list. The Clarksdale native, who died on Monday at the age of 87, batted .276 with 16 homers, 29 doubles, seven triples, 59 RBIs and 22 stolen bases for the Washington Senators that year, after which he got MVP votes. On July 29, 1966, the switch-hitting outfielder enjoyed what might have been his greatest day in The Show. He banged out seven hits, drove in four runs and scored four more in a doubleheader sweep against Boston at D.C. Stadium. Valentine, nicknamed “Squeaky,” went to high school in Memphis and was a two-sport star at Tennessee State before signing with the Baltimore Orioles in 1956. He debuted in the big leagues in 1959, with the Orioles, and spent parts of seven seasons in the majors. He finished with a .247 career average, 36 homers and 47 steals in 533 games.

26 Dec

simple pleasures

Baseball card aficionados of a certain age will appreciate this: Pulled from five random Topps wax packs from the late 1980s, cards of three Jackson natives, each from a different year, each of whom enjoyed a fair amount of success in the big leagues. There was a 1986 Chris Brown (in a San Francisco uniform), a 1987 Chet Lemon (Detroit) and a 1989 Curt Ford (St. Louis). What are the odds of such a thing? How is it that such a small thing still brings such a thrill? That’s baseball. It’ll grab you and hold you and never let you go. Also found among the cards in these five packs were other players of local interest: Reggie Williams (current Alcorn State coach), Jay Tibbs (former Jackson Mets pitcher), Jim Pankovits (ex-Jackson Generals manager) and Mark Bailey (ex-Gens hitting coach). Bust open the memory bank, ’cause there’s a lot more: Joe Torre (as Atlanta’s manager), John Smoltz, Tony Perez, Mike Schmidt, Wade Boggs, Andre Dawson, Bert Blyleven, Ron Guidry, Dan Quisenberry, Don Baylor, Willie Randolph (two, from different years, actually), Shawon Dunston, Doug Drabek, Mike Easler and a rookie Kevin Seitzer. Simple pleasures from a thoughtful Christmas gift. P.S. Ole Miss alum and big league vet Mike Mayers signed a minor league contract with Kansas City last week. Mayers, 31, posted a 5.68 ERA in 50 2/3 innings for the Los Angeles Angels last season, when he also spent time in the minors. The right-hander has had his ups and downs but was an effective reliever for the Angels in ’20 and ’21.

20 Dec

it’s coming up …

Something to warm you up on a cold, wet day: The start of the college season in the Magnolia State is just six weeks away. William Carey University, an NAIA program, will get it started on Feb. 2 at home against Cumberland University. So there. … There was news of note on Monday, when Collegiate Baseball Magazine released its preseason All-America team. Southern Miss pitcher Tanner Hall and Ole Miss shortstop Jacob Gonzalez have been named to the first team. Hall, the Ferriss Trophy winner in 2022, went 9-3 with a 2.81 ERA for the Golden Eagles. Gonzalez, the top MLB draft prospect in the state for 2023, batted .273 with 18 homers for national champion Ole Miss, which beat USM in a thrilling Super Regional in Hattiesburg to advance to Omaha. Rebels lefty Hunter Elliott was a second-team choice by CB, and USM first baseman Christopher Sargent made the third team. … The NCAA Division I start date is Feb. 17. The defending champion Rebels, minus some stars but fortified by a highly touted recruiting class, open at home against Delaware. USM, which moves from C-USA into the Sun Belt this season, hosts Liberty, and Mississippi State welcomes VMI on opening day. Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State will play in the Cactus Jack HBCU Classic at Houston’s Minute Maid Park on opening weekend. The Tigers play Southern University, Valley and Prairie View A&M in that order. Alcorn State opens at home against Alabama A&M on Feb. 17. … The annual college series at Trustmark Park in Pearl will feature USM-State on Feb. 28, Ole Miss-USM on March 28 and State-Ole Miss (the Governor’s Cup) on April 25. … Other opening days for state schools: On Feb. 3, Division II Mississippi College hosts Arkansas-Monticello and NAIA Rust visits Tuskegee; on Feb. 4, D-II Delta State hosts Harding for a twinbill; on Feb. 5, NAIA Tougaloo is at Xavier of New Orleans; and on Feb. 10, D-III Millsaps is at home against LeTourneau. D-III Belhaven, now in the new USA South Conference, has not released its 2023 schedule. … USM pitching coach Christian Ostrander will be the speaker for Hinds Community College’s first First Pitch Banquet on Jan. 28. The juco season also starts in early February. Defending NJCAA Division II champ Pearl River CC opens on the road on Feb. 4.

18 Dec

transaction watch

News that ex-Taylorsville High star Billy Hamilton, Mississippi’s all-time MLB stolen base leader, has signed a minor league deal with the Chicago White Sox rates some attention, but an under-the-radar signing of another South Mississippi product might be more intriguing. Petal High alumnus Demarcus Evans, a big man with a big fastball, was plucked off the minor league market by the New York Yankees. Evans pitched rather ineffectively (4.75 ERA) in the big leagues for Texas in 2020-21 (yielding a homer to Albert Pujols on the second pitch of his career) but had good numbers in the minors on his way up. He spent all of last season at Triple-A Round Rock and registered a 1.00 ERA with four saves over his last 18 games. The 6-foot-5 right-hander, only 26, became a six-year free agent after the season. Control is an issue for Evans, but if the Yankees can straighten him out, he might be a factor in their bullpen next season. He has been assigned to the Triple-A roster. … The well-traveled Hamilton, 32, played sparingly in 2022 for Miami and Minnesota but showed he can still run. With the White Sox in 2021, he hit .220 with nine bags in 71 games for a playoff team. He has 324 career stolen bases. P.S. Former Ole Miss slugger Thomas Dillard, who hit 12 homers (with a ton of strikeouts) at Double-A Biloxi last season, was released by Milwaukee. Pearl River Community College product Dexter Jordan, who played two seasons of rookie ball with Houston, also has been released.