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.
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.
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 visits 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.
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.
Barry Lyons, former Delta State star and major league catcher, has been named manager of the Lexington Legends of the independent Atlantic League. Lyons, 62, who has been involved with the Double-A Biloxi Shuckers in an off-field role since the team’s inception, has managerial experience, having worked in the Cincinnati system in the late 1990s. Biloxi native Lyons is a recent inductee into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. After an All-America career at DSU, he was drafted by the New York Mets and played for Double-A Jackson in 1985 en route to the big leagues, where he spent parts of seven seasons. He won a World Series ring with the ’86 Mets. Lyons’ nephew, Nathan, is the owner of the Lexington club. “Barry’s experiences in baseball have equipped him with a unique understanding of all aspects of the game, and we can’t wait to see what he does with the team on the field,” Nathan Lyons said in a team release. … Jackson native and ex-big leaguer Stan Cliburn is the manager of the Atlantic League’s Southern Maryland Blue Crabs. P.S. Mississippi State product Zac Houston has signed a minor league deal with the New York Yankees and been assigned to the Double-A Somerset roster. Houston, a 6-foot-5 right-hander, went 2-7 with a 5.47 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A in the Detroit system in 2022. He missed much of the ’21 season with an injury. Drafted by the Tigers in 2016, Houston has a 2.98 career ERA in the minors.
The Baltimore Orioles, a young team seemingly on the rise in the rugged American League East, have added a versatile veteran to their roster for 2023, signing former Mississippi State standout Adam Frazier. Frazier, 31 and a seven-year big leaguer, reportedly has agreed to a one-year, $8 million contract as a free agent. A left-handed hitter, he batted .238 with three homers, 42 RBIs and 11 steals in a down year with Seattle in 2022. While primarily working at second base, he played five different positions and may be headed for a utility role with his new club. The O’s currently list Ramon Urias as their starting second baseman. Frazier, 5 feet 10, 181 pounds, is a .273 career hitter who has popped as many as 10 homers in a season. He was an All-Star with Pittsburgh in 2021. Baltimore went 83-79 in 2022 — a huge turnaround from the year before — and finished fourth in the AL East behind three playoff teams. P.S. Ole Miss alum Lance Lynn has pledged to play for the U.S. team in the World Baseball Classic next March. The veteran right-hander, 35, went 8-7 for the Chicago White Sox in 2022. Teammate Tim Anderson, an East Central Community College alum, also is expected to play for the U.S. … Ole Miss shortstop Jacob Gonzalez and ex-Southern Miss pitcher Hurston Waldrep, now at Florida, are ranked Nos. 5 and 10, respectively, on MLB Pipeline’s new list of the Top 100 MLB draft prospects for 2023. Magnolia Heights shortstop Cooper Pratt is No. 31, USM pitcher Tanner Hall, the 2022 Ferriss Trophy winner, is No. 89 and Oxford High catcher Campbell Smithwick No. 92.
The market for free agent Mississippians — and there are a bunch of them — has not been very active. Jonathan Holder signed a minor league deal with the Los Angeles Angels and Chuckie Robinson re-upped as a minor league signee with Cincinnati. Anthony Alford, who started last season in Pittsburgh and ended it in Korea, re-signed with his KBO team, the KT Wiz. There has been scant news on possible destinations for major league free agents Corey Dickerson, Adam Frazier and Billy Hamilton. Frazier, in particular, should be attractive. He’s a lefty hitter who can play multiple positions. An All-Star in 2021, the Mississippi State alum scuffled at his last two stops — San Diego and Seattle — but at age 31 he can certainly rebound. McComb native Dickerson is 33 and a career .281 hitter; he’ll land somewhere. Taylorsville’s Hamilton, 32 and limited to pinch-running and defensive-sub duties of late, might have run out of opportunities. Minor league free agents with state ties include Ti’Quan Forbes, Trent Giambrone, Wyatt Short, Delvin Zinn, Zac Houston, Dalton Moats, Cody Reed, Jack Kruger and Demarcus Evans. Also out there are Mike Mayers, Bobby Bradley and Chris Ellis, each of whom spent time in the majors in 2022. Spring training isn’t that far away.
Add Jake Mangum’s name to the list of former Mississippi State outfielders changing teams this off-season. Miami has acquired Mangum from the New York Mets to complete an earlier trade. The 26-year-old Jackson Prep alum is a .284 career hitter over three minor league seasons with 13 homers (in 807 at-bats) and 45 steals. A switch hitter with center-field skills, he hit .333 in Triple-A in 2022, missing some time with a back injury. “He’s got a lot of tools,” Marlins general manager Kim Ng told mlb.com. “(P)retty happy about it.” Mangum was eligible to be taken in Wednesday’s Rule 5 draft since he was not on the Mets’ 40-man roster but wasn’t selected. He isn’t on Miami’s 40-man either but likely will get a shot at making the big league team in spring training. P.S. In other news: Justyn-Henry Malloy and Jake Higginbotham, both of whom played for the Double-A Mississippi Braves in 2022, were dealt to Detroit on Wednesday for big league reliever Joe Jimenez. … Former Jackson Generals manager Rick Sweet was named the winner of Minor League Baseball’s Mike Coolbaugh Award, given “to an individual who has shown outstanding baseball work ethic, knowledge of the game and skill in mentoring young players on the field.” Sweet, the Gens’ skipper in 1991-92, managed Milwaukee’s Triple-A club in 2022. … Chuckie Robinson, the former Southern Miss star who made his MLB debut with Cincinnati in 2022, re-signed as a minor league free agent with the Reds. … MSU product Jonathan Holder, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2020, signed a minor league deal with the Los Angeles Angels. The injury-plagued right-hander pitched limited innings in the Chicago Cubs’ system the past two seasons. … Former Northeast Mississippi Community College standout Tyler Samaniego was named as the relief pitcher on Pittsburgh’s 2022 Organization All-Star team by milb.com. Other Organization All-Stars from Mississippi named thus far include Mangum (Mets), Blaze Jordan (Boston), Matt Wallner (Minnesota), Colt Keith (Detroit) and Jordan Westburg (Baltimore). … MLB, in association with the players association and Ken Griffey Jr., will hold the first HBCU Swingman Classic next summer as part of the All-Star Game festivities in Seattle. Fifty players from NCAA Division I HBCUs will be invited for what is described as an “All-Star experience.”