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?
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.
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.
There were rumblings about Craig Kimbrel the last couple years. He was getting hit, coughing up runs. Was the former Mississippi Braves star headed toward the sudden crash-and-burn that strikes many relief pitchers? Nah. Forget that. Kimbrel converted his 13th straight save opportunity Thursday night in the Chicago Cubs’ 2-0 win against the New York Mets. He hasn’t allowed a run in seven appearances this month. He hasn’t allowed a hit since May 26, eight games ago. He is 19-for-21 in save chances this season with a 0.64 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings. In the bigger picture, he moved into the top 10 in all-time saves with No. 367, matching the total of former Jackson Mets hurler Jeff Reardon. They are two of the four Mississippi connections in the top 10. Former Generals star Billy Wagner is No. 6 with 422 and Mississippi State product Jonathan Papelbon is ninth at 368. There are three other former Jackson area Double-A players in the top 23: Randy Myers (Mets) at No. 13 with 347, Todd Jones (Generals) at No. 22 with 319 and Rick Aguilera (Mets) at No. 23 with 318. (Note: Lee Smith, No. 3 all-time with 478 saves, actually pitched in two games for the 1998 Generals during his final pro season.) P.S. Former State star Brandon Woodruff surrendered a grand slam Thursday for the first time in his career, covering over 360 innings. Not surprisingly, it happened at Coors Field. Colorado’s C.J. Cron hit an opposite-field shot on a 98 mph fastball as part of the Rockies’ five-run first inning en route to a 7-3 win over Milwaukee. “The margin of error here is just so razor thin,” Woodruff said in an mlb.com piece. Woodruff is 5-3 despite a 1.94 ERA, which ranks fifth in the big leagues.
Freddie Freeman became just the sixth player to hit 250 homers with the Atlanta franchise when he went deep against Milwaukee on Saturday night. The former Mississippi Braves star joins a list that also includes legends Hank Aaron, Chipper Jones and Dale Murphy. Freeman is, at the moment, No. 234 on the all-time home run list. But where does he rank on the chart of former Jackson area Double-A players? He is fifth. Ex-Jackson Generals standout Lance Berkman leads that group with 366, followed by Jackson Mets icon Darryl Strawberry at 335, Gens alum Bobby Abreu at 288 and Brian McCann, the first M-Brave to make The Show, at 282. Freeman, 31, is a virtual lock to pass McCann, who hit 188 of his homers while with Atlanta. P.S. Props to Mississippi State product Ethan Small, who worked the first five innings of a four-man no-hitter for Biloxi against the visiting M-Braves on Saturday night. Small, a 2019 first-round pick and one of Milwaukee’s top prospects, notched his first Double-A win in his second start.
Longtime Jackson-area fans looking for a nostalgia fix should peruse the lists of MLB coaches. Dave Magadan, the skinny hitting machine who passed through Smith-Wills Stadium with the Jackson Mets back in 1985, is the hitting coach for the Colorado Rockies. Ron Gideon, another former JaxMets star, is the Rockies’ first-base coach. Alan Zinter, who played on the last JaxMets team in 1990, is Cincinnati’s hitting coach. Washington’s staff includes bench coach Tim Bogar, a shortstop at Smith-Wills, and pitching coach Jim Hickey, who served in that role for the Jackson Generals way back when. Bobby Magallanes, who played for the Generals, is an assistant hitting coach for Atlanta, where former Mississippi Braves skipper Brian Snitker is the manager. Chris Holt, a former Gens pitcher, is Baltimore’s pitching coach, and onetime Generals hitting coach Dave Hudgens fills that role for Toronto. Eric Duncan, who played for the M-Braves in 2010, is Miami’s hitting coach, and M-Braves alum Antoan Richardson coaches first base for San Francisco. Other Mississippi connections on big league staffs: Louisville native and former East Central Community College star Marcus Thames (New York Yankees hitting coach); Laurel native Bobby Dickerson (San Diego third base coach); Biloxi native and Mississippi State alum Chris Young (Chicago Cubs bullpen coach); former Biloxi Shuckers pitching coach Chris Hook (Milwaukee pitching coach); and Jackson native Donnie Veal (Chicago White Sox rehab pitching coach). P.S. The Los Angeles Angels still list Ole Miss product Mickey Callaway as their pitching coach, but he is currently suspended and under investigation for inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment. It’s highly unlikely he’ll return to that job. … Former Southern Miss standout Kevin Young has joined the Pittsburgh Pirates’ broadcast team. He spent 11 of his 12 MLB seasons with the Bucs.
Eleven years ago today, Chris Coghlan became the first and so far only Mississippi native or college alumnus to win an MLB rookie of the year award. Coghlan, a former Ole Miss star, claimed the trophy with the Florida Marlins in 2009. He is one of only three Magnolia State natives or college alums to win one of baseball’s three big individual player awards. Grenada native Dave Parker won the National League MVP trophy in 1978, and Meridian Community College product Cliff Lee was the American League’s Cy Young Award winner in 2008. … Former Mississippi minor league players raked in a nice haul of awards this year, including former Mississippi Braves standout Freddie Freeman winning NL MVP and Biloxi Shuckers alum Devin Williams NL rookie of the year. Williams also won the league’s Trevor Hoffman Award as reliever of the year. Freeman won a Silver Slugger, as did M-Braves alum Ronald Acuna. Former M-Braves pitcher Max Fried and ex-Shuckers outfielder Trent Grisham, who plays for San Diego, picked up Gold Gloves. … Freeman is the first M-Braves product to win an MVP but not the first former Jackson area Double-A player to do so. Former Jackson Mets star Kevin Mitchell was NL MVP in 1989 with San Francisco, narrowly beating out former Mississippi State star and Giants teammate Will Clark. The M-Braves have produced two rookies of the year, Acuna in 2018 and Craig Kimbrel in 2011, and Jackson Mets alum Darryl Strawberry took that honor in 1983. Mike Scott, a former JaxMets pitcher, won the Cy Young Award in 1986.
On this date in 1986, the New York Mets – led by a host of former Jackson Mets – won Game 7 of the World Series, claiming the franchise’s second and last championship to date. The Mets, who had stayed alive with their unforgettable comeback in Game 6, won the clincher over Boston 8-5 at Shea Stadium. The New York roster was replete with former JaxMets: Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra, Mookie Wilson, Jesse Orosco, Kevin Mitchell, Roger McDowell, Lee Mazzilli, Wally Backman and more. Davey Johnson, the manager, managed the JaxMets to a Texas League crown in 1981, and coach Greg Pavlick played for the OJMs in the first game at Smith-Wills Stadium in 1975. The big Mets came to Smith-Wills for an exhibition against their Double-A club prior to the ’86 season. In Game 7 of the Series, the Mets fell behind 3-0 early but roared back to break the Red Sox’s hearts again. McDowell got the win, Orosco the final out and Strawberry hit a monstrous eighth-inning home run that made it a 7-5 game.
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.
Most local baseball aficionados are well aware that this year marks the 15th anniversary of the arrival at Trustmark Park in Pearl of the Mississippi Braves, who moved from Greenville, S.C., in 2005. (Hopefully, there will be a 2020 season during which to celebrate that fact.) This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the Jackson DiamondKats’ one and only – and otherwise forgettable — season at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium and the 30th anniversary of the Jackson Mets’ final season at Smith-Wills. The 1990 JaxMets, managed by Clint Hurdle, won a division title and made the Texas League playoffs, marking the 10th postseason appearance for the Double-A club in its 16 years in Jackson. This year also marks the 80th anniversary of a somewhat forgotten championship team, the 1940 Jackson Senators. Playing in the Class B Southeastern League, the Senators went a league-best 89-58 that season and crushed both the Selma Cloverleafs and the Pensacola Fliers in the playoffs, going 4-1 in each series. Managed by Footsie Blair, the unaffiliated Senators played at League Park, a stadium near what is now the Fairgrounds. (It was destroyed by a tornado in 1953.) That team was led by future big leaguer Tom McBride, a .316 hitter who topped the SL in hits with 194 (according to statscrew.com); Paul Fugit, who batted .317 with 11 homers; and 16-game winners Harry Durheim and Gordon Maltzberger, who led the loop in ERA and later coached in the majors for several years. The Senators’ championship in 1940 was the last league title celebrated in the Capital City until Davey Johnson’s JaxMets won the TL pennant in 1981.