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.
Former Mississippi high school stars Bobby Bradley (Harrison Central) and Austin Riley (DeSoto Central) faced off, sorta, in the International League playoffs on Wednesday when Columbus and Gwinnett tangled in the semifinals. Riley homered for the Gwinnett Stripers (Atlanta’s Triple-A club), but Columbus (Cleveland) won Game 1 5-4 as Bradley went 2-for-5 with two RBIs, a run and a stolen base. Riley, currently on a big league rehab assignment, hit 15 homers for the Stripers this season before moving up to the majors, where he hit 17 more for the Braves. Bradley, who also got a look in MLB this summer, led the IL with 33 homers. … Biloxi won its Southern League South playoff opener 11-10 on a Dillon Thomas walk-off homer in the 10th inning at MGM Park. In the North opener, Delta State product Dalton Moats threw a scoreless inning in Montgomery’s 4-0 win against Jackson. … Ex-DSU star Zack Shannon hit a home run for Kane County in a loss to Clinton in the Class A Midwest League playoffs. Shannon hit 12 homers during the season. Also in the MWL, Ole Miss product Grae Kessinger and former Southern Miss standout Matt Wallner, both 2019 draftees, are on opposing sides in the Quad Cities-Cedar Rapids series. Kessinger had a hit and a run QC’s Game 1 win, while Wallner went 0-for-4. … Former Itawamba Community College star Tyreque Reed belted a homer for Hickory as the Crawdads beat Delmarva in the Class A South Atlantic League playoffs. Reed hit .282 with 13 homers for Hickory this season. … Walker Robbins, the George County High alum, notched a hold for Johnson City as the Cardinals beat Burlington to claim the rookie Appalachian League championship. Robbins, in his fourth pro season but first as a fulltime pitcher, posted a 2.52 ERA in 17 games for Johnson City.
Nobody doubts that Jake Mangum can put the bat on the ball. After a sluggish start to his pro career, the ex-Mississippi State and Jackson Prep standout is batting .345 over his last 10 games, boosting his average to .252 for short season Class A Brooklyn in the New York Mets’ chain. A fourth-round pick in June, Mangum is rated the No. 24 prospect (by MLB Pipeline) in the Mets’ system. He’s shown off his plus speed, with 11 stolen bases. He has made just one error in 31 games in the outfield, playing mostly center. The question about Mangum is power, which seems to be of utmost importance in today’s game. So far, Mangum hasn’t shown much: five extra-base hits and no homers in 113 at-bats. … Former George County High two-way star Walker Robbins’ switch from hitter to pitcher in the St. Louis system has gone well. The 6-foot-3 left-hander has a 3.95 ERA and two saves in 11 games at rookie-level Johnson City. A fifth-round pick in 2016, he batted .170 over three seasons before going on a pitching program this past off-season. “Hitting’s fun and playing every day is great, but striking somebody out is an adrenaline rush. All eyes are pretty much on you when you’re on the mound. It’s fun.” Robbins told the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press. … Tyreque Reed, the Itawamba Community College product from Houlka, took one step forward and then one step back this season and appears to have regained his footing. Reed began 2019 at high Class A Down East in the Texas system but batted just .216 with four homers in 32 games. He returned to low-A Hickory, where he is hitting .268 with 11 homers in 42 games. Reed batted .267 with 18 bombs at Hickory in 2018, his second pro season. This is a guy who hit .504 with 15 homers at ICC in 2017. … Ex-State star Jacob Lindgren is making progress in his bounce-back season from two Tommy John surgeries. The onetime big leaguer has allowed one run in nine innings at high-A Winston-Salem (Chicago White Sox) and has punched out 13, including four in two innings Thursday. (Ole Miss product Tate Blackman hit a home run for the Dash in that game.) … Southern Miss alum Bradley Roney, also coming back from injury, has an 0.69 ERA in his last 10 appearances for the Double-A Mississippi Braves. He has 27 strikeouts in 17 2/3 innings. … MSU product Nate Lowe was bumped back to Triple-A Durham — despite a .294 average and five homers over 30 MLB games – when Tampa Bay acquired Jesus Aguilar. MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis predicts that the lefty-hitting Lowe will soon get another call-up, which would be his fourth of 2019. The Rays are an American League wild card contender.
Former Ole Miss standout Ryan Rolison jumped up to No. 2 in Colorado’s farm system rankings after MLB Pipeline reshuffled the lists of top prospects in every organization following Wednesday’s trade deadline. Left-hander Rolison, a first-round pick in 2018, is currently pitching at high Class A Lancaster, where he is 4-6 with a 4.85 ERA. He had dominated hitters at the low-A level this season. Also ranked as pitchers in the Rockies’ system are State product Reid Humphreys (19) and UM alum Will Ethridge (24), a fifth-round pick this year. … Former Southern Miss standout Nick Sandlin, a second-round pick last year by Cleveland, saw his ranking drop from No. 17 to No. 30. Sandlin had reached Triple-A but reportedly is done for the season with a forearm strain. … Also tumbling (again) was ex-Petal High star Anthony Alford, down to No. 21 (from 11) in Toronto’s system. The injury-plagued Alford, who has some big league time, is on the Triple-A roster but is currently on a rehab assignment in rookie ball. … MSU alum Ethan Small, a first-round draft pick in June by Milwaukee, jumped into the Brewers’ prospect rankings at No. 5. The SEC pitcher of the year has made two appearances in rookie ball. Hattiesburg’s Joe Gray, a second-round pick in 2018 currently in short season Class A, is the Brewers’ No. 10 (down from 7), and Ole Miss alum Thomas Dillard, a 2019 fifth-rounder, is No. 25. … Grae Kessinger, Houston’s second-round pick from Ole Miss, is No. 13 on the Astros’ chart; he is playing in low A. … Former USM star Matt Wallner, the 39th overall pick who is off to a good start in rookie ball, checks in at No. 15 in Minnesota’s system. MSU product Brent Rooker, currently on the injured list in Triple-A, is the Twins’ No. 8 (down from 6). … Loyd Star High alum James Beard, the first high school player picked (fourth round) from the state this year, is No. 22 in the Chicago White Sox’s system. Rated by some as the fastest player in the 2019 draft, Beard is batting .192 with six steals in rookie ball. … Ex-MSU standout Jake Mangum, the SEC’s career hits leader, is rated No. 24 in the New York Mets’ organization; the fourth-round draftee is hitting .230 in short season A-ball. … Former George County High star Trevor McDonald, an 11th-round pick by San Francisco, jumped in at No. 26 in the Giants’ system. The right-hander has yet to make his pro debut.