In addition to Crystal Springs native and Mississippi State alum Hunter Renfroe, Tampa Bay’s right fielder and cleanup batter tonight, there are several other Magnolia State connections on this year’s World Series clubs. Former Mississippi Braves standout Charlie Morton, who pitched for the Southern League playoff team in 2007, is likely to start Game 3 for Tampa Bay. The veteran right-hander has seven career postseason wins and is 3-0 in this year’s playoffs. The Rays’ roster also includes former Biloxi Shuckers outfielder Brett Phillips, a self-anointed player-coach of sorts. “I’m looking around and I’m like, we got the manager and the bench coach, and the analytical guy, but we don’t have the keep-it-simple guy,” Phillips said in a recent Sports Illustrated story. “So I call myself the keep-it-simple guy. I consider myself a player-coach.” Phillips played for the Shuckers in 2015 and 2016, belting 16 homers the latter season. He has been with four organizations in his brief pro career and batted .150 in 20 at-bats for the Rays this season. The Los Angeles Dodgers have a couple of Mississippi ties: left-hander Alex Wood, a onetime M-Braves star, and, behind the scenes, Director of Player Health Ron Porterfield, who was the trainer for the Double-A Generals when the Houston farm team first arrived in Jackson in 1991. Wood pitched at Trustmark Park in 2013, going 4-2 with a 1.26 ERA in 10 starts before earning a promotion to Triple-A. He has an MLB career ERA of 3.45. Porterfield, a widely acclaimed trainer, spent 12 years in the Rays’ organization before joining the Dodgers in 2017.
Cristian Pache gave Atlanta fans something to feel good about on Wednesday night, hitting his first career big league home run in an otherwise desultory Game 3 of the National League Championship Series. The former Mississippi Braves standout may also have sent fans of the old Jackson Generals on a trip down memory lane. Pache, who had four at-bats in the regular season, became just the seventh player to hit his first career homer in the postseason and the first position player to do so since Melvin Mora in 1999. Mora, who came through Houston’s Venezuelan pipeline in the early ’90s, spent parts of two seasons with the Double-A Generals, batting .298 for the ’95 team and .286 for the ’96 club that won a Texas League title. A versatile infielder, Mora left Houston as a minor league free agent and signed with the New York Mets in 1998. He debuted in the majors in ’99 and shined in the NLCS against the Braves. In addition to hitting his first homer – off Kevin Millwood in a Game 2 loss – Mora had five other hits, drove in two runs, scored three and stole two bases as New York fell in six games. The Mets ultimately dealt Mora to Baltimore, where he blossomed into a two-time All-Star. He batted .277 with 171 homers over 13 seasons, playing until he was 39. The 21-year-old Pache, a Dominican Republic native, can only hope for a career that good, though there is much promise. He is the Braves’ top prospect, having drawn comps to Andruw Jones, and likely will be their center fielder next season. He spent parts of the ’18 and ’19 seasons with the M-Braves, hitting .274 with 12 homers in 133 games. M-Braves faithful might remember Pache’s performance from June 15, 2019, the night of Dallas Keuchel’s tuneup appearance. Pache hit a game-tying homer in the seventh inning – the final scheduled inning – and threw out a runner at the plate in the eighth. The M-Braves went on to win.
Some locally familiar names popped up in an mlb.com article entitled “Rookie greats who never reached that level again.” Every Mississippi Braves fan knows the tale of Jeff Francoeur. Old Jackson Generals fans surely recall Mitch Meluskey, and Ole Miss faithful no doubt remember Chris Coghlan. Coghlan was an All-SEC outfielder in Oxford and a .339 career hitter who was drafted 36th overall by the Florida Marlins in 2006. Three years later, he won National League rookie of the year honors. Hampered by injuries, he played eight more years in the big leagues – winning a ring with the Chicago Cubs in 2016 – but never really captured his ROY magic again. Meluskey was a switch-hitting catcher who showed great promise during his time at Smith-Wills Stadium. He was on the 1996 Texas League pennant-winning team and batted .340 with 14 homers and 46 RBIs for the Double-A Gens the next year. He stuck with Houston as a semi-regular in 2000 and hit .300 with 14 homers. But, the mlb.com story notes, Meluskey didn’t fit in well with the Astros and was traded after that season, got hurt and rather quickly faded away. Francoeur arrived in Mississippi in 2005 as a highly rated prospect, heated up after a sluggish start at Trustmark Park and was promoted to Atlanta in July of that year. His sensational start in the ATL landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated as “The Natural” and generated all manner of over-the-top hype. Though Francoeur never quite achieved the “greatness” many predicted, he did have a solid career: .261, 160 homers and 698 RBIs over 12 seasons.
Mississippi baseball aficionados may get a dose of nostalgia today if they follow the semifinals of mlb.com’s Dream Bracket 2, the computer-generated tournament matching some of the outstanding teams of recent years. The 1986 New York Mets, loaded with former Jackson Mets, are in the National League semis against the 1975 Cincinnati Reds. On the American League side, the 2001 Seattle Mariners, featuring three ex-Jackson Generals, take on the 2004 Boston Red Sox. The ’86 Mets, feeding on a farm system that had produced three Texas League titles (1981, ’84 and ’85), trotted out former OJMs Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra, Jesse Orosco, Mookie Wilson, Wally Backman and Rick Aguilera, to name a few. The Generals, Houston’s Double-A club, claimed two TL pennants during their nine-year run at Smith-Wills Stadium and produced a long list of major leaguers. Three of them – Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen and John Halama — were on the ’01 Mariners club that won an MLB-record 116 games in the regular season before falling to the New York Yankees in the ALCS. Those three were part of the blockbuster trade in July of 1998 in which the Astros acquired Randy Johnson from the M’s. Johnson went 10-1 for the Astros down the stretch but was 0-2 in the NLDS and then departed as a free agent to Arizona. Seattle, meanwhile, got long-term returns on the trade. All three ex-Gens were impactful players on the ’01 club. Garcia, a starting right-hander, went 18-6 with a 3.05 ERA and logged 238 2/3 innings, most on the staff. Halama, a lefty swingman, was 10-7 with a 4.73 in 31 games, 17 starts. Guillen, a good fielding shortstop, batted .259 with five homers and 53 RBIs as a complimentary piece in a loaded lineup with Ichiro Suzuki, Edgar Martinez and Bret Boone. P.S. On June 2, 1935, Babe Ruth announced his retirement at age 40. On July 11, 1914, Ruth, pitching for the Boston Red Sox, struck out in his first career at-bat against Pleasant Grove native Willie Mitchell. On May 30, 1935, batting third for the Boston Braves, Ruth grounded out against Jackson native Jim Bivin in the first inning. It was Ruth’s final career at-bat; he was replaced in left field by Ludlow native Hal Lee. In between those two ABs, Ruth belted 714 home runs, which stood as the record for almost 40 years.
The real Lance Berkman, the former Jackson Generals star, batted .296 with 366 homers over a sweet 15-year MLB career that rated more Hall of Fame consideration than it got. The virtual Lance Berkman, now “playing” for the all-time Astros team in the computer-generated MLB Dream Bracket tournament, has been pretty darn good, too. The “Big Puma” is batting .447 with three homers and 12 RBIs through 10 games over two series (see mlb.com for all the box scores). The Astros have reached the quarterfinals with wins against the Orioles and Tigers. Roy Oswalt, the Weir High and Holmes Community College alum, is 3-0 with a 3.05 ERA in three starts for the Astros’ dream team. Oswalt spent 10 years with Houston and was arguably as good in that stretch (143-82, 3.24 ERA) than any pitcher the Astros ever trotted out. That includes Nolan Ryan, J.R. Richard and Mike Scott, the other members of the Dream Bracket rotation. Billy Wagner, another ex-Generals standout with Hall of Fame cred, has three saves for the all-time Astros, who’ll meet the Yankees in the next round.
On what would have been Opening Day in the major leagues, here’s a few themed trivia questions to jog the memories of Jackson-area pro baseball fans. (Answers below.)
1. When the Jackson Mets played their first game 45 years ago at Smith-Wills Stadium, who was their starting pitcher?
2. What future big leaguer threw a one-hitter for the JaxMets in their 1982 home opener?
3. How many future major league players were in the lineup for the JaxMets in their 1984 home opener?
4. What future major league catcher hit a walk-off home run for the Jackson Mets in their 1985 home opener?
5. What former Ole Miss star hit a walk-off home run in the Jackson Generals’ home opener in 1995?
6. What former Tupelo High standout knocked in the winning run for the Jackson DiamondKats in their home opener in 2000?
7. What former Purvis High star was the winning pitcher in the Jackson Senators’ home opener in 2003?
8. Who hit the first home run in Mississippi Braves history in their season opener in 2005?
9. When the M-Braves played their inaugural home game at Trustmark Park, who scored their first run?
10. What three players hit home runs for the Atlanta Braves when they played a season-opening exhibition game in 2013 at the TeePee?
1. Greg Pavlick, who would go on to be a longtime major league pitching coach, beat Arkansas 6-4 with relief help from Joe Klenda, who threw four perfect innings. A crowd of 2,862 turned out on a drizzly Saturday afternoon.
2. Jeff Bittiger beat Arkansas 2-0; the Travelers’ lone hit was an infield single by Jose Gonzalez with two outs in the eighth inning. Bittiger went 12-5 that season and led the Texas League in strikeouts.
3. Eight: Lenny Dykstra, Mark Carreon, Billy Beane, Dave Cochrane, Randy Milligan, Al Pedrique, Greg Olson and Jay Tibbs. The OJMs, who would win the Texas League pennant in 1984, beat Tulsa 6-0; Dykstra was on base five times, scored twice, drove in a run, stole a base and threw a runner out at third base.
4. Barry Lyons, the ex-Delta State standout from Biloxi, went yard on the first pitch in the bottom of the ninth to beat Shreveport 3-2. Led by Lyons’ 108 RBIs, the ’85 OJMs won their second straight Texas League crown.
5. Kary Bridges, the Oak Grove product now the coach at St. Martin High in Ocean Springs, belted a three-run bomb in the ninth to beat Arkansas 7-6. Bridges batted .301 that season but hit just two more homers.
6. Willie Gardner’s eighth-inning single scored Perry Miley with the go-ahead run in a 5-4 defeat of Alexandria, one of the rare highlights of the independent D-Kats’ lone season at Smith-Wills.
7. Kenny Rayborn cruised through five innings to beat Springfield/Ozarks in a 10-3 game. Rayborn, in the seventh of his 13 minor league seasons, went 10-2 for the Sens, who won the Central League title that year.
8. Jeff Francoeur went deep – very deep — at Montgomery’s Riverwalk Stadium in a 9-8 defeat on April 7. Francoeur hit 12 more homers for the M-Braves before his July promotion to Atlanta, where he famously homered in his first game.
9. Jonathan Schuerholz, son of the former Atlanta GM, scored on an infield hit by Scott Thorman in the first inning of an 11-6 loss to Montgomery. The younger Schuerholz is now Atlanta’s assistant director of pro scouting.
10. Dan Uggla, Chris Johnson and Evan Gattis, a former M-Braves catcher whose three-run bomb in the seventh inning landed somewhere in the parking lot beyond left field. Gattis hit 21 homers for Atlanta that season, his rookie year.
The list of first-timers on the baseball writers’ 2020 Hall of Fame ballot includes two notable names with Mississippi ties: Cliff Lee and Bobby Abreu, both of whom figure to get decent support. Neither, however, is likely to be named on 75 percent of the ballots to earn election. The real question is, will they get enough support to stay on the ballot for a second term? A player needs to appear on at least 5 percent of the ballots to do so — a bigger hurdle than you might think. Consider: Weir native and Holmes Community College product Roy Oswalt and former Jackson Generals Lance Berkman and Freddy Garcia were first-timers on the 2019 ballot, and none of them came close to making it for 2020. Both Lee, who pitched at Meridian Community College before going on to Arkansas, and ex-Generals star Abreu have some eye-catching numbers. Lee, a four-time All-Star and a Cy Young Award winner, went 143-91 with a 3.52 ERA over 13 seasons. Abreu, a two-time All-Star, batted .291 with 288 homers, 400 steals and eight 100-RBI seasons. But it’s a very crowded field. Still on the ballot is Billy Wagner, another ex-Gens star who has lasted five years. The little left-hander, who has 422 career saves (sixth all-time), got just 16.7 percent of the votes in 2019. The only Mississippi-connected players enshrined in Cooperstown are former Negro Leagues stars Cool Papa Bell and William Foster.
Atlanta hosts St. Louis in Game 5 of the National League Division Series today, 14 years to the day after one of the most painful losses in Braves history. Atlanta lost 7-6 at Houston in an NLDS game that lasted 18 innings – at the time the longest in postseason history – and eliminated the Braves. The Oct. 9, 2005, game also featured the first postseason intersection of players from two different eras of Jackson-area Double-A baseball. Atlanta’s lineup included Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur, both of whom started that season with the Mississippi Braves in Pearl. Lance Berkman, who played for the Jackson Generals in 1998, started for Houston, and Raul Chavez, another ex-Gen, also played that day. McCann hit a home run as the Braves built a 6-1 lead. But Berkman belted a grand slam in the eighth and Brad Ausmus hit a solo homer in the ninth – both shots coming off Kyle Farnsworth — to tie it. Among the parade of pitchers in the extra frames was Vicksburg native John Thomson, who worked two scoreless innings for Atlanta. Weir’s Roy Oswalt was on the Houston roster but didn’t pitch; he had started and won Game 3 the day before. Roger Clemens pitched the last three innings for the Astros and got the win when Chris Burke took M-Braves alum Joey Devine deep for the walk-off winner 5 hours, 50 minutes after first pitch. Rest assured, no Braves fan has forgotten that game.
With its season down to one game, Milwaukee will hand the ball to Brandon Woodruff to start Tuesday’s National League Wild Card Game at Washington. The former Wheeler High and Mississippi State star went 11-3 with a 3.62 ERA in 2019 and threw four scoreless innings in his last two starts after a long stint on the injured list. He put up a 1.46 ERA in 12 1/3 postseason innings a year ago. “Obviously, I probably won’t be able to go six, seven innings,” Woodruff told mlb.com, “but I’ll be ready to go as long as I can until they take me out.” … Tampa Bay will throw ex-Mississippi Braves right-hander Charlie Morton (16-6, 3.05) in Wednesday’s American League Wild Card Game at Oakland. … East Central Community College alumnus Tim Anderson of the Chicago White Sox won the AL batting title with a .335 average, which also led all of MLB. The last Mississippian (native or college alum) to win a batting title was Grenada native Dave Parker, who took the National League crown in 1978 with Pittsburgh. … A pair of former M-Braves swept the stolen base crowns in the majors: Ronald Acuna of Atlanta led the NL with 37 bags and Seattle’s Mallex Smith topped the AL with 46. For the record, Jackson Generals product Brian Hunter twice won the AL title – in 1999 with Detroit and Seattle and in 1997 with Detroit – and Chuck Carr, a Jackson Mets alum, won the NL title in 1993 with Florida. The only Mississippi native to lead a league in steals is Ellisville’s Buddy Myer, who bagged 30 for Boston in the AL in 1928. … Former Madison Central High star Spencer Turnbull, who yielded three runs in 5 1/3 innings for Detroit against the White Sox on Sunday, absorbed his 17th loss of the season, most by a Tigers pitcher in 11 years. But he has good company: Justin Verlander dropped 17 in 2008. … Former JaxMets skipper Clint Hurdle was fired as Pittsburgh manager prior to Sunday’s finale, which he did not work. Hurdle went 735-720 with three playoff teams in nine seasons with the Pirates, who finished 69-93 this season.
Congratulations to Phillip Wellman, the former Mississippi Braves manager who piloted the Amarillo Sod Poodles to a Texas League championship on Sunday, beating Tulsa 8-3 in the decisive fifth game. This is the team’s first year in Amarillo after the franchise – still a San Diego affiliate — moved from San Antonio. (Sod poodle is a pioneer nickname for prairie dog.) It was the second championship for Wellman in 19 seasons as a minor league skipper; he won the other in 2008 in the second of his four seasons with the M-Braves. … Condolences to the Biloxi Shuckers, who lost at Jackson, Tenn., on Sunday in Game 5 of the Southern League Championship Series. The Shuckers, a Milwaukee affiliate, have lost in the SL finals in three of their five seasons on the Coast. … It’s now been 11 years since Mississippi celebrated a pro baseball championship, which is beginning to feel like a drought. Over a 15-year span starting in 1981, Jackson’s Texas League clubs won five championships – the Mets in 1981, ’84 and ’85 and the Generals in ’93 and ’96. The independent Senators won a Central League crown in 2003, and five years later, the M-Braves won their lone Southern League title. Long before that, Jackson-based teams won league championships in 1908, 1913, 1925, 1927, 1931, 1940 and 1947, according to research in the Minor League Encyclopedia of Baseball. The 1913 team, known as the Lawmakers, posted an impressive 71-24 record (.747 winning percentage) in the old Cotton States League. Mississippi did not have a pro club from 1953, when the original Senators left town, to 1975, when the Mets moved into Smith-Wills Stadium.