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.
Numbers can be deceiving. Some of the newfangled defensive metrics paint Austin Riley as a sub-par third baseman. Regular followers of the Atlanta Braves know this ain’t so. Anyone who watched Tuesday night’s All-Star Game in Seattle also got an eyeful of the type of plays Riley makes routinely for the Braves. In the fifth inning, having just entered the game, the ex-DeSoto Central High star charged in, fielded a grounder with one hand and threw out the batter. In the bottom of the eighth, after the National League had taken the lead, Riley speared a 106.2 mph line drive off the bat of Brent Rooker and, from one knee, threw across to first to double off a runner. Both were key plays in the NL’s 3-2 win, which snapped a nine-game losing streak in the Midsummer Classic. Riley also went 1-for-2 at the plate and is 2-for-4 in his two All-Star appearances. Justin Steele, the lefty from Lucedale, pitched a scoreless inning for the NL in his All-Star debut; he was on the bump when Riley made the first of his two glittering plays. Former Mississippi State star Rooker, also an All-Star rookie, went 1-for-2 for the American League; his sixth-inning double was a big hit in the inning in which the AL took a 2-1 lead. P.S. On the final day of the MLB draft, three more players from state schools were selected: The Braves took Itawamba Community College third baseman Will Verdung — the MACCC’s player of the year — in the 13th round; Detroit took Tupelo High right-hander Johnathan Rogers in the 20th round; and the New York Mets plucked MSU’s Kellum Clark in Round 20. In all, 14 players were drafted out of Mississippi, four each from Ole Miss and Southern Miss. Worth noting: Landon Tomkins, a former Hinds CC and Northwest Rankin pitcher, was drafted in Round 10 out of Louisiana Tech by Pittsburgh. … Today marks the 50th anniversary of Dave Parker’s MLB debut with the Pirates. The Grenada native went 0-for-4 that day but went on to bat .290 with 339 homers in a 19-year career that included an MVP award, two World Series rings, two batting titles, seven All-Star nods, three Gold Gloves and a Home Run Derby crown.
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.
While memories of Pete Rose’s record-setting hit are still fresh — the 30th anniversary of No. 4,192 was Friday — here’s a look at the all-time hits leaders among players with various Magnolia State connections. The leader among Mississippi college alumni to play in the major leagues is Rafael Palmeiro, who finished with 3,020 and is one of just four retired players (along with Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray) to have both 3,000 hits and 500 homers. (He is also the only one not in the Hall of Fame, but that’s another story.) For the record, Will Clark, the other half of the Thunder and Lightning duo at Mississippi State, finished with 2,176 hits. Dave Parker leads Mississippi natives with 2,712 hits. Three others from the state are in the 2,000 hit club: Buddy Myer (2,131), Ellis Burks (2,107) and Frank White (2,006). George Scott, with 1,992, came up just short, as did Gee Walker (1,991). Interesting fact: Jeff Francoeur has more career hits (1,289) than fellow former Mississippi Braves star Brian McCann (1,281). Would never have guessed that. Who’s the all-time leader among former Jackson Mets? No, not Darryl Strawberry or Lenny Dykstra. It’s Hubie Brooks with 1,608. Gregg Jefferies is second on that list with 1,593. The highest ranking ex-Jackson Generals player is Bobby Abreu with 2,470. Lance Berkman had 1,905. P.S. Bobby Bradley, the former Harrison Central High star, made Baseball America’s All-Low Class A team as the first baseman. Bradley hit .269 with 27 home runs and 92 RBIs for Lake County in the Cleveland system.
You have to be hoping that McComb native Jarrod Dyson gets on base tonight in Game 1 of the World Series. Even some San Francisco Giants fans have to be hoping for that. You want to see the Kansas City Royals speedster run. And you want to hear what he says about it afterward. Dyson has always been fast — and he’s always been outspoken. “That’s J-Rod,” said Chuck Freeman, Dyson’s coach at McComb High from 2002-04. “We tried to keep the reins on him, but his personality always shined through. That’s how he is.” Dyson, who stole 36 bases for KC in the regular season — four against the Giants in the Royals’ three-game sweep back in August — and is 120-for-140 in his big league career, has gotten just one bag in the postseason. But he’s a major threat to steal, as are several of his teammates, which makes for compelling theater. As Dyson told mlb.com, “They give us an inch, we are going to run a mile.” P.S. Both Pittsburgh and Oakland made the postseason this year but both lost in the wild card round (to the Giants and Royals, as a matter of fact.) Still, both towns have reason to celebrate this month. The Pirates won the World Series in 1979 — 35 years ago — and the A’s captured the Fall Classic in 1989 — 25 years ago. Significant anniversaries, to be sure, and Mississippi native Dave Parker was a common thread. He batted .345 with four RBIs for the Pirates in the ’79 Series and contributed a homer and two RBIs for the A’s in ’89. The oft-controversial slugger, one of baseball’s first big-money players, batted .290 with 339 homers over a 19-year career spent with six different clubs. He was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame this summer, though his chances of making it into Cooperstown appear slim. Sadly, Parker is battling Parkinson’s disease.