31 Jul

officially famous

The baseball branch of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame is quite impressive, featuring major league Hall of Famers Cool Papa Bell, William Foster and Dizzy Dean plus an array of other stars who could form a juggernaut of a dream team. That roster added a pair of luminaries on Saturday, when Barry Lyons and David Dellucci were formally inducted into the state shrine. Lyons, a catcher, was a standout at Biloxi High and Delta State (under the legendary Boo Ferriss) and with the Double-A Jackson Mets on his path to the big leagues. He was the proverbial aircraft carrier for the 1985 Texas League champion JaxMets. He debuted with the New York Mets in 1986, when they won their second World Series, and played parts of six more years in the big leagues. What’s more, he is one of the nicest guys you could hope to meet. Dellucci, an outfielder and also a very personable fellow, played four years at Ole Miss, earning All-America recognition and winning an SEC batting crown in 1995. He would go on to play 13 years in the big leagues, batting .256 and winning a World Series ring with the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks, the team built (though not managed) by Buck Showalter. Dellucci now works for the SEC Network. Lyons and Dellucci join a Hall of Fame team that includes Guy Bush and Buddy Myer, Will Clark and Jeff Brantley, Don Kessinger and Joe Gibbon, Jim Davenport and Roy Oswalt, plus many more. Those are names to know. And if you don’t know them, perhaps you should visit the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Jackson. You’d be impressed. P.S. On Saturday in San Francisco, Will Clark’s No. 22 was retired by the Giants in a big pregame ceremony. The former Mississippi State star was drafted No. 2 overall by the Giants in 1985 at a time when the club was struggling. Two years later, they won the National League West. Two years after that, they went to the World Series. Clark “made it cool to be a Giants fan again,” a teammate said. No. 22 jerseys and T-shirts were all over Oracle Park on Saturday. Clark was a five-time All-Star during his eight seasons with the Giants and still ranks among the franchise leaders in numerous hitting categories.

24 Jul

summer of straw

In the summer of 1982, Cal Ripken started his consecutive games streak and Gaylord Perry won his 300th game. Dale Murphy and Robin Yount were putting up MVP numbers for postseason-bound teams in the big leagues. Forty years ago, Oil Can Boyd was blowing away hitters in the Eastern League, Buck Showalter was cranking out hits in the Southern League and Brian Snitker was managing his first team in Anderson, S.C. In Jackson, Miss., at Smith-Wills Stadium, 1982 was the Summer of Straw. Darryl Strawberry made his Double-A debut with the Jackson Mets that season. He was 20 years old, a California kid starting just his third pro season in the New York Mets’ system. No one really knew what his future held — but a lot of folks thought it would be special. “There was a tremendous amount of hype when he arrived,” said Bill Walberg, longtime radio broadcaster for Jackson’s Double-A teams. “He was the No. 1 overall pick (in the 1980 MLB draft). The unusual name was another thing that attracted attention. Plus, he was tall (6 feet 6), he hit with power, he could run and he was a plus-defender in the outfield. … Clearly, he was as hyped as any player who ever came into Jackson in the Texas League era.” Strawberry’s numbers at Class A Lynchburg in 1981 weren’t jaw-dropping: .255, 13 homers, 78 RBIs, 31 steals. And he was joined in the 1982 JaxMets outfield by two other former first-round picks and well-regarded prospects, Billy Beane and Terry Blocker. But Strawberry, presaging his impact in New York a few years later, immediately became the straw that stirred the drink. He hit for the cycle in his first Double-A game. Jackson’s home field, Smith-Wills, had a reputation as tough park for hitting home runs. It was no problem for Strawberry. “He hit these towering home runs,” Walberg said. “People might remember the old Marlboro Man sign out in right-center field. He came close many times to hitting the man in the head. Another player told me that Strawberry had heard the ball didn’t carry at Smith-Wills and he wanted to prove he could make it carry.” Strawberry finished that season with a franchise-record 34 homers that still stood when the team moved to Texas in 2000. He also set a record with 45 steals, batted .283, hit nine triples, drove in 97 runs and walked 100 times. He was named the league MVP. The next year, he won National League rookie of the year honors with the big Mets. At a recent reunion of JaxMets players in Jackson, Strawberry acknowledged that the summer of ’82 was when his pro career took off, when he really developed the confidence he could play in the majors. He would go on to be an eight-time All-Star, a three-time World Series champ, a seven-time Sports Illustrated cover boy. “I found him to be a likable, very mature person with immense potential as a player that he realized,” Walberg said. Strawberry had some highly publicized off-field problems during his career which he overcame through his religious faith, and he is now a widely sought-after motivational speaker. During that reunion at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, which featured a bunch of former JaxMets heroes, Strawberry was the main attraction among fans, signing autographs and posing for pictures. Forty years after the Summer of Straw.

11 Jul

it’s on: mets-braves

New York Mets vs. Atlanta Braves. Three-game series at Truist Park. Mets lead the Braves by 1 1/2 games in the National League East. This is going to be so much fun to watch, especially for Mississippi baseball aficionados. The Mets, after a late collapse in 2021, have been reinvigorated by manager Buck Showalter, the former Mississippi State star from the 1970s. The Braves, world champs in 2021, are back in championship form, led by former Mississippi Braves manager Brian Snitker and an armada of ex-M-Braves stars. All three of Atlanta’s scheduled starting pitchers for the series cut their teeth in Pearl. All-Star Max Fried (9-2, 2.52 ERA), who goes tonight, pitched for the M-Braves in 2017 and briefly in 2018. Flame-throwing Spencer Strider (4-2, 2.60, 102 strikeouts in 65 2/3 innings) pitched at Trustmark Park just last season, going 3-7, 4.71, but fanning 94 in 63 innings. And veteran Charlie Morton (5-3, 4.21) helped the 2007 M-Braves reach the postseason in the Southern League. Atlanta has five players picked for the All-Star Game, including M-Braves alums Ronald Acuna, William Contreras and Dansby Swanson. Former Braves star Mark DeRosa said on MLB Central today that it’s “a sin” that Austin Riley didn’t make the Midsummer Classic. The third baseman out of DeSoto Central High, also a former M-Braves standout, is batting .282 with 23 homers and 56 RBIs. DeRosa marveled over Riley’s at-bats in Sunday’s win against Washington; Riley went 3-for-6 with a homer and three RBIs, including the game-winner. The Braves, whose Double-A club has been in Pearl since 2005, have plenty of followers in the Jackson metro. But there are some Mets fans around, too, holdovers from the Jackson Mets era (1975-90) that produced so many big league stars and three Texas League pennants at Smith-Wills Stadium. P.S. The Braves have traded M-Braves alums Drew Waters, C.J. Alexander and Andrew Hoffman (who just joined the team on July 8) to Kansas City for the 35th pick in the upcoming draft. Waters, who was at Triple-A Gwinnett, won the Southern League batting title in 2019. Alexander was one of the best players on the current M-Braves club.

03 Apr

memory lane

The scene was reminiscent of the final act in the movie “A League of Their Own.” A group of ballplayers, a little worn down by time, wandered onto their old playground again, rekindling memories of days gone by. It was a sight to behold. A large number of former Jackson Mets players, back in town for a special reunion, made the short trek over to Smith-Wills Stadium on Saturday from the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, where a bunch of fans had come out to greet them. The JaxMets played the last of their 16 seasons at Smith-Wills in 1990, and most of the players here Saturday were from seasons well before that. Clearly, they have not been forgotten. There was Darryl Strawberry, perhaps the most accomplished of all the old JaxMets. Mississippi’s own Barry Lyons was there. And Randy Myers, Calvin Schiraldi, Rusty Tillman, Ed “Smoke” Pruitt, DeWayne Vaughn, Bill Latham, Al Carmichael, Mickey Weston and Joe Graves, to name a handful. Sam Perlozzo, manager of the Texas League championship teams of 1984-85, was there. Mike Feder, the longtime GM, was there with his son, Nate, who had the run of the ballpark as a kid back in the ’80s. Museum director Bill Blackwell is also a former JaxMets GM. Former franchise owner Con Maloney was there, and longtime radio broadcaster Bill Walberg and team trainer Rick Rainer, also. Several former Smith-Wills office staffers and press box workers turned out. One old sportswriter even showed up. Fans of a wide variety of ages brought old scorebooks and team photos and the like for signing. The air in the museum was thick with nostalgia. Players and fans swapping old stories is one of the things that makes baseball so very special.

01 Apr


No foolin’: The Jackson Mets are back. Some members of the minor league team that occupied Smith-Wills Stadium for 16 seasons beginning in 1975 are gathering for a reunion this weekend. A meet-and-greet is scheduled for Saturday from 10 a.m.-noon at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum adjacent to the old ballpark. The JaxMets had a special bond with the community. The Capital City had not had a pro club since 1953 before the New York Mets moved their Double-A franchise to newly constructed Smith-Wills in ’75. In some circles the team was affectionately referred to as “Our Jackson Mets,” or OJMs for short. During their stay that ended in 1990, the OJMs won three Texas League championships and sent dozens of players to the big leagues. The 1984 team, which won a pennant, trotted out eight players on opening day who reached the majors. The bond with fans was such that when The Clarion-Ledger conducted a reader poll to select an all-time Jackson team in 1999, the last year the Generals were in town, nine of the 10 players picked were former Mets. The roster of alumni includes the likes of Darryl Strawberry, Lee Mazzilli, Jeff Reardon, Billy Beane, Kevin Mitchell, Rick Aguilera, Lenny Dykstra, Greg Olson, Kevin Elster, Todd Hundley and Mississippi’s own Bobby Myrick and Barry Lyons. Davey Johnson, Clint Hurdle, Sam Perlozzo and Mike Cubbage were among the managers. Credit the late Bill Hetrick, who worked in the JaxMets’ front office in the early days, with originally hatching the idea for this event, which promises to be very special.

01 Feb

fitting tribute

MLB Network did a nice tribute to former big leaguer Jeff Innis, who died Sunday at 59 from cancer. Old Jackson Mets fans will remember Innis, a skinny, sidearming right-hander who served two stints at Smith-Wills Stadium, in 1984 and again in ’86. He was humble and witty in those days — and an effective reliever for two good teams. MLBN’s Tom Verducci, who also wrote a piece for si.com about Innis, called him a “calm port in a busy storm” with the New York Mets of the late ’80s and hailed his “humility and kindness.” Other tributes from former teammates echoed those sentiments. Innis said in a 1986 interview that he was buried in the bullpen at Illinois when he decided to start throwing sidearm. Despite a low-80s fastball, he showed enough potential that the Mets drafted him in the 13th round in 1983. Innis put up a 4.25 ERA and eight saves for the Texas League champion JaxMets in 1984 and, after being bumped back to A-ball in 1985, became the closer (2.45 ERA, 25 saves) for the ’86 team that reached the TL title series. Innis was never a star during seven seasons with the big Mets, but he was a good pitcher: 3.05 ERA in 288 games. He was also a good guy who evidently touched a lot of lives.

23 Dec

sad news

So saddened to learn of the passing this morning of a longtime friend, Bill Hetrick. We connected through baseball. One of my first assignments after moving to Jackson in 1984 was covering the Mets for the Daily News. Bill worked in the front office at Smith-Wills Stadium with Mike Feder, Bill Walberg and others. Those were fun times and memories I’ll always hold close. I later worked with Bill for a time at the paper, and we had stayed in touch over the years. He was as big a sports fan as I have ever known, with a jaw-dropping collection of autographed baseballs and other memorabilia. Bill had a big personality and a kind and generous soul. He’ll be missed.

03 Nov

hooked on a feeling

Tried-and-true fans who’ve spent their summer nights at Trustmark Park feel something special today. Young players they watched hone their skills with the Double-A Mississippi Braves have grown into world champions with the Atlanta Braves. That’s a special connection. Longtime Smith-Wills Stadium cranks felt it in 1986 when the New York Mets, with a roster filled with Jackson Mets alumni, won the World Series. Davey Johnson, the Mets’ manager in ’86, won a Texas League title with the JaxMets five years earlier. Braves manager Brian Snitker, a great guy and a most deserving champion, was the first manager of the M-Braves in 2005, when the pipeline from Pearl to Atlanta began to flow. For all the talk about the July trades that boosted the Braves’ season, it is a largely homegrown team. No fewer than 21 M-Braves products played for Atlanta this season — and many played major roles. Watching Max Fried’s brilliant effort — six shutout innings vs. Houston, the best hitting team in the game — in Game 6 on Tuesday night, one is reminded of the first time watching the skinny left-hander snap off a curveball in Pearl in 2017. (He was a work-in-progress with a 2-11 record and 5.92 ERA that season, but he quickly figured things out, actually making his big league debut that August.) M-Braves fans may also recall the first time they saw Freddie Freeman take a swing, the first time they saw Ozzie Albies run the bases, Dansby Swanson field a ground ball or Austin Riley hit one out. There’s a special connection there. It was a shame that Ronald Acuna, injured in July, missed the Series. Who could forget that he hit a home run on the first pitch he saw as an M-Brave? He hasn’t stopped raking since. Acuna can take heart: This Atlanta team stands a good chance of returning to the big stage. The core of the 2021 Braves is young, and there is more talent on the way. The 2021 M-Braves won the Double-A South pennant with a prospect-filled club. When do pitchers and catchers report?

25 Oct

history’s path

Since the Mississippi Braves arrived in Pearl in 2005, the Double-A club has funneled literally scores of players to Atlanta, including the entire infield and the top three starting pitchers on the 2021 team that has reached the World Series for the first time in 22 years. But the Braves franchise has a largely forgotten history in Mississippi that goes back 70-plus years. When Atlanta announced it was moving its Double-A team from South Carolina to Pearl, it was actually reconnecting with the Magnolia State. From 1946-50, when the Braves called Boston home, they had a farm team in Jackson, the Senators, who played at League Park near where the Fairgrounds stands now. Those were good teams, posting winning records in four of the five seasons and finishing first in the Southeastern League standings in 1947. “It was a pretty good brand of ball,” former Senators player Banks McDowell said in a 2001 interview. “It was Class B, and baseball people would tell us later that it was comparable to Double-A today.” Minor league affiliation worked a little differently in that era; research indicates only one player from those Senators teams made the big leagues. Vern Bickford pitched in Jackson in 1946 and pitched parts of seven seasons in the majors. He was on the Braves’ 1948 World Series team and threw a no-hitter in 1950. The Braves pulled out of Jackson in 1951, and Detroit came in two years later. League Park was destroyed by a tornado in August of ’53. The team moved its games elsewhere and never returned. Jackson got a Double-A team in 1975, when the Mets moved into then-new Smith-Wills Stadium. New York’s 1986 World Series championship club featured numerous former Jackson Mets, among them Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra, Mookie Wilson, Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco. After the Mets departed in 1990, Houston arrived with the Generals and from 1991-99 produced a bevy of big leaguers, many of whom fueled the Astros’ run of success in the National League Central in the late ’90s. When the Astros finally made the World Series for the first time in 2005, two former Generals — Lance Berkman and Raul Chavez — were still around. The Astros still have some fans in the metro area, and the M-Braves recognized that heritage with tribute nights at Trustmark Park in 2019 and again this summer.

01 Oct

touching the bases

Six Mississippi Braves alumni played roles in Atlanta’s division-clinching 5-3 victory against Philadelphia on Thursday night. Included in that number is ex-DeSoto Central High star Austin Riley, who hit his 33rd homer, and Ian Anderson, who followed fellow M-Braves alums Charlie Morton and Max Fried with a stellar start on the mound. The Braves have won four straight National League East titles under former M-Braves manager Brian Snitker. … Houston clinched the American League West crown by beating Tampa Bay 3-2, with Mississippi State product Kendall Graveman, just back from paternity leave, throwing a perfect eighth inning for his seventh hold in 22 games with the Astros. (There are no Jackson Generals connections remaining with the Astros, but, interestingly enough, there is one in Atlanta. Assistant hitting coach Bobby Magallanes played for the Double-A Gens in 1996.) … Former George County High standout Justin Steele, pitching in the Steel City, tossed seven shutout innings for the Chicago Cubs in a 9-0 win against Pittsburgh. Steele allowed four hits and one walk with seven strikeouts in his ninth — and best — start for the Cubs. He is 4-4 with 4.26 ERA overall as a rookie this year. … MSU alum Brent Rooker belted his ninth homer (in 179 at-bats) in Minnesota’s loss to Detroit. He hit 20 homers in 220 at-bats at Triple-A St. Paul this season. … Ex-Ole Miss star Lance Lynn (10-6, 2.72) makes his last start of the regular season today for the Chicago White Sox, who are trying to overtake Houston for home-field edge in the AL Division Series. Ex-State star Dakota Hudson, bidding to make St. Louis’ postseason roster, makes his first start of 2021 today. Coming off 2020 elbow surgery, Hudson notched a win last Friday with 3 2/3 innings of efficient relief in his first appearance this season. … Former Bulldogs ace Ethan Small, pitching at Triple-A Nashville in the Milwaukee system, notched his second win at that level with a five-inning effort against Indianapolis. Small, a 2019 first-round pick, is 2-0, 2.06 in nine starts (35 innings) for the Sounds. … Worth noting again: This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Jackson Mets’ first Texas League title. The ’81 JaxMets, managed by Davey Johnson, featured Marvell Wynne, Mike Fitzgerald, Doug Sisk and Al Pedrique.