29 Jan

on the juco menu

The junior college season, which will serve up an array of delectable games this week, delivered quite the appetizer on Saturday. Kaden Irving belted a go-ahead grand slam in the eighth inning to propel Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College to an 8-7, season-opening win against Baton Rouge in Perkinston. Saucier native Irving, 6 feet 2, 235 pounds, is a reverse transfer from Ole Miss. “We know what he’s capable of,” Gulf Coast coach Bob Keller said in a school release. “We’re glad he chose us.” Marc Stephens went 3-for-4 with two RBIs for the Bulldogs, who play again today at Baton Rouge. Pearl River, ranked No. 3 in the NJCAA Division II preseason poll, opens Tuesday against Coastal Alabama South in Poplarville. No. 13 Meridian opens Friday in the Panama City Beach Baseball Classic, facing Wallace-Dothan of Alabama. PRCC is also in the Panama City event, a three-day, 16-team affair featuring juco teams from across the South. Tenth-ranked East Central, the defending MACCC and Region 23 champion, opens Saturday in a twinbill against Marion Military Institute of Alabama. Other openers of note: Itawamba is at Bevill State (Ala.) on Wednesday; Hinds hosts Logan College (Ill.) on Friday; Holmes welcomes Bevill State on Saturday; and Northeast hosts Columbia State (Tenn.) on Saturday.

28 Jan

big money, big expectations

Forty-five years ago this month, Mississippi native Dave Parker signed a five-year, $5 million contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, creating lots of buzz in the sports world by becoming the first MLB player to earn a million a year. Parker, a slugging outfielder, had been in the majors for six years at the time and was coming off an MVP campaign. Boy, have times changed. Today, the Detroit Tigers announced they have signed ex-Biloxi High star Colt Keith to a six-year, $28.6M contract with options that could push its value to $82M. Keith is 22 and has yet to play a game in the majors. The lefty-hitting infielder, rated the No. 22 prospect in the minors by MLB Pipeline, reportedly will get every opportunity to win the second base job this spring. Keith moved to Biloxi from Arizona in 2019 and was the state’s Gatorade player of the year that season. He was an Arizona State commit before the Tigers picked him in the fifth round of the curtailed 2020 draft and offered a $500,000 bonus. Keith, 6 feet 2, 211 pounds, batted .306 with 27 homers and 101 RBIs between Double-A and Triple-A in 2023. He also played in the All-Star Futures Game last summer. The Tigers are showing tremendous faith in Keith, who’ll certainly face a lot of pressure to perform when he cracks the Detroit lineup. It’s worth remembering that Parker, who helped Pittsburgh win the ’79 World Series, soon fell out of favor — to put it mildly — with Pirates fans when his production fell off and he left Pittsburgh as a free agent after the 1983 season.

27 Jan

more cowbell?

With the signing of Adam Frazier, Kansas City has now collected three former Mississippi State players in free agency, all three having been teammates on the 2012 Bulldogs team that won the SEC Tournament. That might be a good vibe for a Royals team that could use it. Frazier joins Chris Stratton and Hunter Renfroe on the Royals’ 40-man roster, which also includes ex-Ole Miss standout James McArthur. Frazier, 32, a lefty-hitting second baseman who played in Baltimore in 2023, reportedly has a one-year deal with the Royals, who’ll become his fifth team since 2021, when he was an All-Star with Pittsburgh. He hit .240 with 13 homers and 11 steals for the playoff-bound Orioles last season and is a career .269 hitter over eight MLB campaigns. Stratton, a right-hander, was on Texas’ World Series-winning team last year, and Renfroe, an outfielder, played for the Los Angeles Angels and Cincinnati before being released in September. KC was 56-106 last year, missing the postseason for the eighth straight year since winning the 2015 World Series. Incidentally, another player from the 2012 State roster is a current free agent: right-hander Brandon Woodruff, who is expected to miss the 2024 season after arm surgery. (Future big leaguers Kendall Graveman, Jonathan Holder and Jacob Lindgren were also on the Bulldogs’ roster in 2012.) P.S. Kudos to ex-State standout Brad Freeman, an NFL referee who has been selected to work the Super Bowl next month. Freeman was a seventh-round pick by St. Louis in 1998 and played two seasons in the Cardinals’ minor league system.

26 Jan

new man in charge

The list starts with Brian Snitker — who has gone on to achieve a measure of fame — and will conclude in 2024 with Angel Flores. The Atlanta Braves have named Flores manager of the Double-A Mississippi Braves, who’ll end their 20-year run at Trustmark Park in Pearl this summer. Flores, who played minor league ball in the Detroit system, managed the High-Class A Rome Braves last season and previously served as a coach on Bruce Crabbe’s M-Braves staff in 2022. “I am well aware that this is the team’s last year in Mississippi, and our goal is to make it a special one for the city that has opened its arms to us for so long,” Flores said in a release from the M-Braves. Snitker, the award- and World Series-winning manager of the big-league Braves, was the team’s first skipper back in 2005. He was followed by Jeff Blauser, Phillip Wellman, Rocket Wheeler, Aaron Holbert, Luis Salazar, Chris Maloney, Wyatt Toregas/Dan Meyer, Crabbe and Kanekoa Texeira. Wellman managed the 2008 Southern League championship team, and Meyer, who replaced Toregas at midseason in 2021, skippered that club to the franchise’s only other pennant. At Rome last year, Flores managed several top Braves prospects who could be in Pearl this season, among them David McCabe, a corner infielder/DH; catcher Drake Baldwin; shortstop Ignacio Alvarez; and infielders Keshawn Ogans and Gerald Quintero. … The M-Braves will begin the 2024 season on the road on April 5 and play their home opener on April 9 against Biloxi.

24 Jan

wait till next year?

Billy Wagner, the former Jackson Generals standout, is down to his last strike. In his ninth and next-to-last year on the National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, the left-hander fell just short of the 75 percent threshold needed to make it to Cooperstown. With five more votes, Wagner would have been the first player from the Jackson Mets/Generals era (1975-99) to make the Hall. A first-round pick by Houston in 1993 out of NCAA Division III Ferrum College, Wagner reached the Double-A Generals in 1995. He went 2-2 with a 2.57 ERA in 12 starts, fanning 77 batters and walking 36 in 70 innings. He debuted with the Astros later that year, launching a 16-year MLB career. Pitching exclusively in relief, he was a seven-time All-Star who registered 422 saves (sixth all-time) with a 2.31 ERA. He ranks first all-time (live-ball era) in opponents batting average (.187), hits allowed per nine innings (6.0) and strikeouts per nine (11.9). Those are mighty strong credentials. P.S. Cool Papa Bell, former Negro Leagues star, is the only Mississippi native in the Hall, and fellow Negro Leagues alum William Foster, a former Alcorn State player, coach and administrator, is the only other state-connected player to be selected. Dizzy Dean, an Arkansas native, retired to Mississippi and is buried here. Red Barber, a Columbus native, is in the broadcasters wing of the Hall.

23 Jan

poll positions

To the list of life’s certainties, you can add this: When an NJCAA poll comes out, several Mississippi schools will be near the top. The Division II preseason poll was released Monday and three state jucos are ranked in the top 13: Pearl River Community College is No. 3, East Central No. 10 and Meridian No. 13. PRCC went 45-13 in 2023 and returns left-hander Conner Ware, an LSU signee, and Jonah Katsaboulas, an infielder who hit .292 last season. The Wildcats open Jan. 30 in Poplarville against Coastal Alabama South. ECCC won the state and Region 23 championships last year and welcomes back second-team All-America Mo Little, who hit .340 with 12 homers as a freshman. … Preseason polls can and often do miss the mark. Case in point: William Carey University wasn’t ranked in the NAIA coaches preseason poll in 2023 but went 49-11 and reached the World Series. The Crusaders are ranked fourth in the 2024 preseason poll, which was released back in the fall. … Neither Ole Miss nor Mississippi State, both coming off rough years, appears in the d1baseball.com Top 25. But, in the site’s 2024 transfer class rankings, UM checks in at No. 7 — ex-Arizona State shortstop Luke Hill being the most notable newcomer — and State at No. 24. In the site’s freshman class rankings, State is No. 9 and UM No. 15. … Jackson State is ranked No. 5 in Black College Nine’s HBCU large school rankings and Rust College is No. 3 in the small school class. JSU finished 28-25 in 2023. Rust, an NAIA member, went 25-25 and won the regular season title in the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference. P.S. The new National Baseball Hall of Fame class will be announced today, and there is a decent chance that former Jackson Generals pitcher Billy Wagner will make the cut for Cooperstown.

18 Jan


On the heels of a strong season in the Korean Baseball Organization, Kirk McCarty will travel over to Taiwan in 2024 to play for CTBC Brothers of the Chinese Professional Baseball League. The former Southern Miss standout and Hattiesburg native pitched in Major League Baseball for Cleveland in 2022. A diminutive left-hander, the 28-year-old McCarty went 9-6 with a 3.39 ERA in the KBO last season after going 4-3, 4.54, in 13 games for the Guardians the year before. He was released by Cleveland after the 2022 season. McCarty has a fairly impressive resume. He was an All-State performer and a strikeout machine at Oak Grove High, going 25-3 and winning a pair of state titles. He was a two-time All–C-USA pitcher at USM, going 22-4, 3.50, in three seasons in Hattiesburg. Drafted in the seventh round by Cleveland in 2017, McCarty was 23-28, 4.30, overall in the minors, 13-8 in Triple-A. He made his MLB debut on April 24, 2022. P.S. Today is the birthdate of another USM pitcher who made the majors: Hugh Laurin Pepper. Pepper, born in 1930 in Vaughan, died in 2018. A Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer, he was a baseball and football standout at USM, throwing a no-hitter in 1954 and rushing for 1,000 yards in 1952. He signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in ’54 and played parts of four seasons in the big leagues.

16 Jan

a lost season

Tough news out of Houston today. The shoulder discomfort that kept ex-Mississippi State star Kendall Graveman out of the postseason with the Astros last fall has been diagnosed as a shoulder injury requiring surgery. A veteran of nine big league campaigns, the 33-year-old Graveman will miss the 2024 season, the Astros announced. Right-hander Graveman has a 3.95 ERA in 280 career games; he put up a 2.42 in 23 games for Houston last year after being acquired from the Chicago White Sox at the trade deadline. He missed the 2019 season following elbow surgery but converted from starter to reliever and excelled over the next four years, registering 56 holds and 24 saves for three different clubs. He is slated to be a free agent after the ’24 season. P.S. Ole Miss product Jacob Waguespack has signed a minor league contract with Tampa Bay. The 30-year-old right-hander spent the last two years in Japan, winning a championship in 2022. Undrafted out of Ole Miss in 2015, he reached the big leagues in 2019 with Toronto and has appeared in 27 MLB games. … Samuel Richardson of Lewisburg High and Kevin Roberts Jr. of Jackson Prep took part in the DREAM Series camp sponsored by MLB and USA Baseball in Tucson over the MLK Jr. Day weekend.

12 Jan

looking ahead

There were some splashy pro debuts last summer from Mississippians taken in the 2023 draft — see Colton Ledbetter, Cooper Pratt, Matthew Etzel — but Tanner Hall, the fourth player chosen out of the state, did not make an official appearance. The most-decorated pitcher in Southern Miss history will make a much-anticipated debut sometime this season in Minnesota’s system. Hall, a 6-foot-1, 186-pound right-hander, was a two-time All-America pick, a two-time conference pitcher of the year and the 2022 Ferriss Trophy winner. He posted a 22-8 career record and 2.92 ERA in three seasons at USM. Not a hard thrower, Hall might best be described as a crafty right-hander who relies on a changeup and control. He averaged 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings at USM. The Twins drafted him in the fourth round ($510,000 bonus), and he is rated their No. 15 prospect by MLB Pipeline. … The ’24 MLB draft is roughly six months away, but when the high schools and colleges hit the field there are several players with local ties who’ll be getting lots of attention from pro scouts. Jackson Prep’s Konnor Griffin (No. 8), former Madison Central High star Braden Montgomery of Texas A&M (No. 10) and Mississippi State’s Dakota Jordan (No. 27) are ranked among the top 100 prospects by MLB Pipeline, and MSU’s Hunter Hines reportedly just missed that list. … Ole Miss’ Campbell Smithwick, former Oxford High catcher, made Baseball America’s short list of potential impact freshmen for the coming season, which starts for NCAA Division I schools on Feb. 16. … A well-maintained, 20-year-old, 5,500-seat ballpark in a metro area with a population of 400,000-plus might be attractive to an independent team owner. Pearl is losing its Double-A team after the 2024 season (see previous post), and there’s really no telling what the future might hold for Trustmark Park. But indy ball could be a possibility. Jackson has hosted indy teams before at Smith-Wills Stadium. There are slew of independent leagues out there, and four of them (American Association, Atlantic, Frontier and Pioneer) are designated as partners of Major League Baseball and collaborate with MLB on various initiatives. Both the AA and the FL have teams in the midwest. … Reports are that Garrett Crochet, the Ocean Springs High product now with the Chicago White Sox, is going to be moved to the team’s starting rotation this spring. A first-round pick out of Tennessee in 2020, the hard-throwing left-hander has a career ERA of 2.71 in 72 relief appearances. He missed the 2022 season following elbow surgery. P.S. On the transaction front: Ex-Ole Miss star Errol Robinson has signed a minor league deal with Baltimore. The 29-year-old shortstop, a minor league vet, played in the St. Louis chain in 2023. … Former Mississippi State and MLB pitcher Jonathan Holder has signed as a minor league free agent with Texas. He had a 5.40 ERA in Triple-A for the Los Angeles Angels last year. … Ex-MSU star Travis Chapman is returning to the New York Yankees’ staff as first base coach and infield instructor. … Ex-Delta State standout Barry Lyons, after a season of managing in the independent Atlantic League, recently announced he is returning to his ambassador role with the Double-A Biloxi Shuckers in his hometown.

09 Jan

going, going … gone

It is not a shock to those who follow local baseball that Pearl is losing its Southern League franchise. You could see this coming. The Mississippi Braves have not drawn well at Trustmark Park during most of the club’s 20-year run there. The average attendance over the last three seasons, since the minor leagues came back from the lost year of 2020, has been about 2,300, ranking near the bottom in all of Double-A baseball. (And that 2,300 is an announced figure, not an actual turnstile count, which would be significantly lower.) The real surprise was that the city of Pearl got a team in the first place back in 2005. Nearby Jackson, which hosted a Texas League franchise for 25 years, lost its team in 1999 because of declining attendance — and rising operating costs — at Smith-Wills Stadium. As Con Maloney, the former TL franchise owner said just after he sold the club, “There are a lot of good baseball fans here — just not enough of them to support a minor league team.” The Double-A Generals, a Houston Astros affiliate, averaged roughly 2,500 fans in their best season, 1996. (The turnstile count that year was 1,866.) In their final, lame-duck year of 1999, the team drew 1,416 per game — though 4,367 turned out for the final game that year. The independent DiamondKats moved in in 2000, drew about 700 a game and promptly folded up shop. The independent Senators arrived at Smith-Wills in 2002 and averaged about 1,700 per game for four years, opting to fold after the 2005 season, when the Braves began playing — to much initial fanfare — at Trustmark Park. It took an odd confluence of events and the involvement of some powerful people to get Trustmark Park built and get the Atlanta Braves to move their Southern League franchise from Greenville, S.C., to Pearl. But it happened. The team drew relatively well at first: over 3,500 per game (announced) the first three seasons at the 5,500-seat TeePee. But attendance dropped under 3,000 a game in Season 5 and was down to 2,600 per in 2010. They averaged 2,378 in 2023; the national MiLB average last season was 4,076. Rocket City (Huntsville, Ala.) led the SL at 4,911 per game. Bottom line, the M-Braves are averaging roughly what the Generals averaged in their best years — and that wasn’t enough to sustain the franchise. For the record, the Jackson Mets, who preceded the Generals at Smith-Wills (from 1975-90), never averaged more than 2,000 a game in announced figures. So, with the Trustmark Park lease up after this season, Diamond Baseball Holdings, which bought the franchise from Atlanta in 2021, is moving it to Columbus, Ga., into a renovated ballpark that — oddly enough — once housed the Astros team that moved to Jackson in 1991. Going back to 1953, when the original Jackson Senators pulled up stakes after their downtown stadium was destroyed by a tornado, central Mississippi has been jilted by six baseball teams. Will there be a seventh marriage?