The likely delayed start of spring training for most minor leaguers scuttles what might have been a cool scene this spring in Fort Myers, Fla., site of Boston’s spring training facility. Imagine a batting practice session that includes three big dudes from Mississippi, each a newcomer to the Red Sox, each with a well-earned reputation as a masher. Imagine Hunter Renfroe, Tyreque Reed and Blaze Jordan taking their hacks in a group. Wouldn’t that be something to see? Renfroe, 6 feet 1, 230 pounds, from Crystal Springs by way of Mississippi State, has 97 home runs over his four-plus big league seasons. The Red Sox signed him as a free agent in December. Reed is from Houlka and an Itawamba Community College product. The 6-1, 250-pound first baseman has hit 41 bombs in two-plus minor league seasons at the rookie and A-ball levels. The Red Sox took him from the Texas organization in December’s Rule 5 draft. Jordan, from prep powerhouse DeSoto Central, was drafted in the third round in 2020 and jumped in as the organization’s No. 15 prospect. The 6-2, 220 third baseman has yet to play a game above the high school level, but he has been making headlines as a slugger since he was a pre-teen. He won the high school home run derby at the 2019 MLB All-Star Game. Renfroe, Reed and Jordan, launching missiles into the Florida sky at JetBlue Park. Maybe next year. P.S. Baseball America has reported that Double-A and Class A level players won’t start spring training until after the big league and Triple-A clubs have left. That means a later start and finish to the season for the lower minors, including the Class AA Mississippi and Biloxi teams. Additionally, there will be no postseason at those levels. MLB, now running the streamlined minor leagues, has not released any schedules.
Professional baseball will return to Mississippi in 2021. Presumably. The Double-A Mississippi Braves and Biloxi Shuckers are selling season tickets, though the Southern League doesn’t have a schedule up yet. The cancelled 2020 minor league season left central Mississippi without a pro team for the first time since 2001 and just the second time since 1975, when the old Jackson Mets moved into Smith-Wills Stadium. The Texas League franchise departed in 1999 and the independent DiamondKats played just one season (2000) before folding. The indy Senators began their four-year run at Smith-Wills in 2002. But there was a pro team playing in the state 20 years ago. This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the swan song of the Greenville Bluesmen. The independent team played at Legion Field from 1996-2001 in first the Big South League and then the Texas-Louisiana League (along with the DiamondKats). The Bluesmen are remembered in some circles as the team that made a 1998 trade for a pitcher involving 10 pounds of catfish. (You can look it up.) They also won back-to-back Big South titles in 1996 and ’97. Alas, their Texas-Louisiana League years weren’t so good. They finished last every season, going 34-62 overall in 2001. Patrick O’Sullivan was the best player on that team; the former New York Mets draft pick, who played many years of pro ball, hit .323 with 18 homers. Tunica native Keith Dunn won 11 games. Southern Miss alum Danny Stout and Jackson native Sim Shanks also played on that club. There’s rich baseball history in Greenville. It’s the birthplace of former MLB stars George Scott and Frank White, and the city hosted minor league clubs in various leagues going back to 1902.
On a windy April day at Frontier Field in Rochester, N.Y., in 2019, Mississippi State alumnus Brent Rooker hit a home run. He has hit a lot of those as a pro, including one as a big leaguer in 2020, but this April 13, 2019, homer is significant because it was one of 15 balls that flew out of the park that day in a record-setting Triple-A game between Lehigh Valley and the host Red Wings. Pitchers and perhaps purists might cringe at this, but the folks at milb.com picked that game as the sixth-best of the decade (2011-19) in the minor leagues. Lehigh Valley won it 20-18, though the Iron Pigs were out-hit 22-21 by the Red Wings. Rooker went 3-for-6, and the homer was his third of that young season. … The No. 1 game on milb.com’s top 10 list also involved a Mississippi college product — and also featured a lot of offense. Ex-Ole Miss star Ryan Rolison started for Class A Lancaster (Calif.) on Aug. 14, 2019, and allowed one earned run over five innings against visiting Lake Elsinore. He departed with a 3-2 lead. But the young left-hander would get no win this day. Down 13-3 in the ninth, Lake Elsinore scored 10 times with two outs to tie it and then won 14-13 with a 10th-inning tally.
For the first time in 19 years – and just the second time over a 44-year span — there will be no minor league baseball played in central Mississippi. The minor league season was officially cancelled on Tuesday, meaning no games at Trustmark Park in Pearl, or MGM Stadium in Biloxi, where the Double-A Braves and Shuckers reside. We have to go back to 2001 to find a year here without pro ball. (And, no, semi-pro ball doesn’t count.) When Jackson’s Texas League franchise left Smith-Wills Stadium in 1999 after a 25-year run, the independent Jackson DiamondKats moved in for the 2000 season. The club folded after its first year. Smith-Wills hosted a college summer league in 2001 but no pro ball. The independent Senators arrived in 2002 and played through 2005, when Trustmark Park opened and the Southern League M-Braves began play. … Though no players will suit up as M-Braves this year, there are 13 players from the 2019 Mississippi club on Atlanta’s 60-man roster for summer camp, which starts today at Truist Park (nee Sun Trust Park). Among that group is Braden Shewmake, Atlanta’s No. 7 prospect and the M-Braves’ shortstop at the end of last season. Shortstop at the TeePee is practically a portal to the big leagues. From Luis Hernandez, the M-Braves’ opening day shortstop in 2005, to Dylan Moore, who held the job most of 2017, there have been 13 M-Braves shortstops who have made it to the majors. The list includes Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies, Johan Camargo, Andrelton Simmons, Yunel Escobar, Brent Lillibridge and Brandon Hicks. Though he isn’t expected to make Atlanta’s active roster this season, Shewmake figures to join that group someday soon. A 2019 first-round pick out of Texas A&M, the 6-foot-4, lefty-hitting Shewmake got 14 games worth of experience with the M-Braves last summer. He didn’t hit much in his Double-A debut, but his resume suggests he’ll adapt. He hit .318 at low Class A Rome before skipping a level to join the M-Braves. In his three years at Texas A&M, in the fiercely competitive SEC, Shewmake batted .322 with 22 homers and 39 doubles in 187 games. He was the SEC’s freshman of the year in 2017 after batting .328 with 11 homers for a College World Series club. Shewmake was an athlete for all seasons in high school in Wylie, Texas, competing in football, soccer, basketball and track when not on the diamond. Apparently, his best sport was never in doubt. “I always loved baseball, and every kid’s dream is to be a professional baseball player,” he told milb.com last summer. Presuming there is a 2021 season in Pearl, we might be fortunate enough to see Shewmake out there again at shortstop before he follows the well-worn path to The Show.
It might seem a bit trivial considering all else going on, but this is disturbing news in the baseball world: Hundreds of minor league players have been or soon will be released by major league clubs as it becomes more evident that there will not be a minor league season. Organizations known to already have made cuts are the Braves, Brewers, Cardinals, Mariners, Reds, Mets, Nationals, Orioles, Rockies, D’backs and Rays. For many of these players, no doubt including quite a few Mississippians, this may spell the end of their dream of making the big leagues. As cbssports.com reports, “The entire situation is horrid for the released players, who lose their source of meager income during a pandemic, and have minimal chance of latching on elsewhere.” The player cuts come on top of the news of proposed contraction of dozens of mostly lower-level minor league teams. Many minor league clubs, even those in sizable markets, are struggling to weather the current economic crisis. It is possible some of the released players could find jobs in the independent leagues, though they, like MLB, are currently in limbo. The Atlantic League announced on its website in late April that it is “making every effort to play a competitive 2020 schedule” but no start date has been announced. Same for the Frontier League. The American Association reportedly was aiming for a start date in early July but that seems iffy.
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.
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.
Halfway through the Arizona Fall League season, the Mississippi contingent of Brady Feigl, Kirk McCarty and Bradley Roney has showed out well. Roney, a Southern Miss (and Mississippi Braves) alumnus, has a 3.18 ERA with a win and a save in four games for Scottsdale. The sidearming right-hander, battling back from injuries, got the save in his most recent appearance, striking out the side in a 6-5 win Friday against Mesa. Coincidentally, McCarty and Feigl also pitched in that game for Mesa. Ex-USM and Oak Grove High star McCarty, a left-hander in the Cleveland system, made his second start (third appearance) and yielded two runs (on a homer by San Francisco prospect Joey Bart) in four innings. He has a 3.60 ERA over 10 innings all told. Feigl, a former Ole Miss standout now in Oakland’s system, worked a scoreless inning in relief, trimming his ERA to 3.60 over four appearances. Feigl, who has a doppelganger also named Brady Feigl also pitching in the minors, is out to distinguish himself in the AFL. The 6-foot-4 right-hander, 14-7 over three years with the Rebels, was a fifth-round pick by the A’s in 2018. He posted a 5-11 mark with a 4.42 ERA at Class A Stockton in the California League this season and showed enough promise to rate an AFL invitation.
Going from the Gulf South Conference to the Northwest League might have been a geographical leap for Blaine Crim, but the former Mississippi College star moved from college competition to the pros this year without breaking stride. A 19th-round draft pick as a senior out of NCAA Division II MC, Crim batted .348 with eight homers and 48 RBIs at two entry levels in Texas’ system and was named MVP of the short season Class A Northwest League. The 22-year-old Alabama native, the GSC player of the year in 2019, gets the nod as the first baseman on the all-Mississippi minor league team for this season. Former Harrison Central High star Bobby Bradley, who hit 33 homers and was a Triple-A International League All-Star, makes the team as a DH. Bradley, also a first baseman, played 15 games in Cleveland this summer, though he never got a September call-up after helping Columbus win the IL pennant. (He was one of five Mississippians who made their big league debut in 2019.) At catcher is minor league vet Kade Scivicque, a Southwest Mississippi Community College alum. He hit .295 with nine homers between Triple-A and Double-A in Detroit’s system. Delta State alum Trent Giambrone is a repeat pick from 2018 at second base. He hit .241 with 23 homers and 17 steals at Triple-A Iowa in the Chicago Cubs’ chain. The shortstop is again Errol Robinson, the ex-Ole Miss star who scuffled at Triple-A for the Los Angeles Dodgers but batted .310 in Double-A to finish the season. He hit .260 with five homers overall. Though he spent a big chunk of the season in Atlanta, DeSoto Central alum Austin Riley is the pick at third base again after hitting .295 with 15 homers in Triple-A. He belted 18 for the big Braves in a season tinged by a prolonged slump wrapped around an injury. In the outfield, start with Milton Smith II, a 2018 draftee by Miami out of Meridian CC who hit .305 with 20 stolen bases at the short season A level. Zack Shannon, the ex-Delta State slugger, smacked 12 homers (with a .260 average and 60 RBIs) at Class A in Arizona’s organization. And Jacob Robson, a fourth-year pro from Mississippi State, had another solid year, batting .267 with nine homers and 25 steals at Triple-A in the Detroit system. Somewhat surprisingly, he did not get a call-up from the woeful Tigers. Former Ole Miss standout David Parkinson, in his first Double-A campaign in the Philadelphia chain, went 10-9 with a 4.08 ERA as a starter, and Petal High product Demarcus Evans was lights out as a reliever for Texas with an 0.90 ERA, six wins and 12 saves between high-A and Double-A.
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.