Today’s challenge is to build a player. Drawing from the pool of Mississippi-born big leaguers, put together a Super Player based on the five tools scouts evaluate in a position player. Those are hit, hit for power, field, throw and run. Start with the latter, which might be the easiest call here. Taylorsville’s Billy Hamilton, currently signed to a minor league contract with San Francisco, is one of the fastest to ever play the game, a modern day equivalent of Starkville native Cool Papa Bell, the Negro Leagues legend and Hall of Famer. Hamilton has 299 career steals in his seven MLB seasons and holds the all-time pro record with 155 bags in the minors in 2012. Check. Hamilton also is a standout defender in center field, but Jackson native Chet Lemon arguably was better. Lemon, who played from 1975-90, recorded 509 putouts in center field for Detroit in 1977 to set a major league record. He had three more as a right fielder that year, and that 512 total ranks as the fourth-most all-time in a single season. Lemon ranked among the top 10 center fielders in putouts in a season seven times and among the fielding percentage leaders five times. No less an authority than Sparky Anderson called Lemon the best center fielder he had ever seen. Good enough. When it comes to throwing ability, one can’t go wrong with Grenada native Dave Parker. Anecdotal evidence: His throw from right field to nail a runner at the plate in 1979 All-Star Game is widely regarded as one of the most jaw-dropping ever. When players dared run on him, Parker made them pay. A three-time Gold Glover, he recorded 143 assists – 26 in 1977 alone — over a 19-year career from 1973-91, though he played little outfield the last four years. The best hitter, based on average alone, among Mississippi natives is Buddy Myer, the Ellisville native who played from 1925-41. A lefty-swinging singles hitter, Myer batted .302 for his career and won a batting title with a .349 mark in 1935. Gulfport’s Gee Walker, who played from 1931-45, batted .294, including a single-season best of .353 in 1936. Among more recent players, the best hitter is, surprisingly enough, Dmitri Young, the big (6 feet 2, 295 pounds) switch-hitter from Vicksburg who batted .291 from 1996-2008. He had more pop, with 171 career homers, than Myer or Walker, but for just pure hitting, Myer is the pick. When it comes to raw power, there are several great candidates, from Parker to George Scott to Ellis Burks to Hunter Renfroe. But, from many accounts, there was something special about the threat that Luke Easter brought to the plate. The 6-4, 240-pound Easter, from Jonestown, clubbed 93 big league homers in the 1950s and another 247 in a long minor league career. He hit some legendary bombs, including a 500-footer in Buffalo’s Offermann Stadium and a 477-footer in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. So, that’s Hamilton’s wheels, Lemon’s glove, Parker’s hose, Myer’s bat and Easter’s power. A star is born.
JaCoby Jones, an exceptional athlete, runs down a lot of balls in center field for Detroit. Check out the catch the former Richton High star made Saturday, taking a home run away from a Washington batter. Though he hasn’t been as good with the glove this year (.974 fielding percentage, four errors in 65 games), Jones actually topped all major league outfielders in 2018 with 21 Defensive Runs Saved. In 120 games and just over 1,000 innings, he made 284 putouts, some of those as a left fielder. He also had eight assists and just one error. As good as he might be, Jones isn’t likely to make longtime Tigers fans forget Chet Lemon. The Jackson native is the gold standard for Tigers center fielders. “The Jet” (aka “Juice”) recorded 509 putouts in center field for Detroit in 1977 to set a major league record, and he had five seasons of 400-plus putouts. Longtime manager Sparky Anderson called him the best center fielder he had ever seen. “(H)e plays each game as if it were the seventh game of the World Series. Chester doesn’t know any other way to play and that’s his greatest asset,” Anderson once said. Lemon, now a youth baseball instructor and coach in Florida, grew up in California, was a first-round draft pick by Oakland in 1972 and played 16 years in the majors, making three All-Star teams and winning a ring with the 1984 Tigers, who coincidentally, were honored at Comerica Park this weekend. He hit .273 career with 215 home runs and 884 RBIs. Jones (.252 this year, .213 career) hasn’t hit like that either.