23 Jun

tiger tales

Any conversation about the greatest major league teams of all-time has to include the 1984 Detroit Tigers, who started 35-5 en route to 104 wins and went 7-1 in the postseason to claim the World Series title. The “Bless You Boys” team, celebrating its 40th anniversary this season, was managed by Sparky Anderson and led by an array of stars, including a pair of Mississippi natives who were key cogs in the stacked lineup. Jackson native Chet Lemon played center field, led the American League in fielding percentage (.995) and hit .287 with 20 homers, 76 RBIs, 34 doubles, six triples and 77 runs. Sunflower native Larry Herndon, also a good defender, played left field and batted .280 with seven homers, 43 RBIs and 52 runs. Jack Morris was the ace of the staff, but closer Willie Hernandez, acquired from Philadelphia late in spring training, won both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards. The regular lineup featured — in addition to Lemon and Herndon — Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Lance Parrish and Darrell Evans. Signed as a free agent in the off-season, the 37-year-old Evans said, “I picked Detroit because it’s a hungry city and I’m hungry, too. I want that ring on my finger.” Street & Smith’s preseason magazine picked the Tigers to run second to Baltimore in the AL East. They never spent a day out of first place. The Tigers won their opener 8-1 against Minnesota with Lemon getting a triple and scoring a run and Herndon picking up a hit and an RBI. They started 9-0 and 16-1 and fairly coasted to the division title. They blew through Kansas City 3-0 in the ALCS and beat San Diego 4-1 in the Series. Lemon went 5-for-17 with an RBI and two steals against the Padres. Herndon went 5-for-15, including a go-ahead homer in Game 1, and caught the final out of Game 5 in left field. It was the only ring either of them won in lengthy careers, and Detroit hasn’t won a World Series since then either. P.S. The current Tigers team, picked by some to win the AL Central, got off to a hot start but has faded of late. And there is a Mississippian on the team: Second baseman Colt Keith, the former Biloxi High standout — and the state’s Gatorade player of the year in 2019 — who got the big contract this year before ever playing an MLB game.

17 Jun

powering up

The projected home run tally for Jordan Westburg this season was 11, according to Lindy’s Baseball 2024 Preview. Forget that. A month before the All-Star break, the former Mississippi State star already has hit 11. He reached that mark on Sunday with a blast against Zack Wheeler, one of four homers Baltimore hit against the Philadelphia ace in an 8-3 victory. Second-year big leaguer Westburg is hitting .278 with 42 RBIs, 37 runs and six steals in 66 games; he is going to get some consideration for the American League All-Star team. In the All-Mississippi Home Run Derby for 2024, Westburg stands second to Brent Rooker, the ex-MSU standout who has hit 13 bombs for Oakland. To this point in 2024, the once-promising derby competition is a two-horse race. Austin Riley, the DeSoto Central High product, led all MLB Mississippians (native or school alum) with 37 homers in 2023. Rooker followed with 30, and three others hit double figures. Lindy’s projected Riley to hit 35 in 2024, and he may be starting to perk up after a tough start. He has six, one each in Atlanta’s last three games. Riley’s homer on Sunday came hours after he learned that his personal hitting coach Mike Brumley had died in a car accident; Riley pointed and looked to the sky as he rounded first base. “He was in the back of my mind really all day,” Riley said in an mlb.com piece. No other Mississippi product has more than six homers this season. MSU alum Hunter Renfroe, tied with Riley at six, was just starting to slug for Kansas City when he went on the injured list with a foot injury. He hit 20 homers last season and was projected at 17 for 2024. Nathaniel Lowe, another State alum, has hit just two for Texas. He hit 17 last year and 27 in 2022. His power outage is a concern for the defending but fading World Series champs. Colt Keith, the Detroit rookie from Biloxi High, hit 27 in the minors last year and was projected to go deep 10 times for the Tigers this season; he has three. Former Southern Miss star Matt Wallner hit 14 for Minnesota in 2023 and was projected for 16 this year. He has 17 — but 16 of those have come in the minors, where he is today. P.S. The Chicago White Sox added USM product Chuckie Robinson to their 40-man roster on Sunday but did not call him up to the big leagues. Robinson, a catcher who got some big league time with Cincinnati two years ago, is hitting .228 with six homers and 25 RBIs at Triple-A Charlotte.

09 Jun

a case for cooperstown

Today is Dave Parker’s 73rd birthday, which makes it a good time to ask, Why is he not in the National Baseball Hall of Fame? There is only one native Mississippian in Cooperstown: Starkville’s Cool Papa Bell, a star in the Negro Leagues. Parker, born in Grenada, should be there, too. He was a seven-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner, two-time batting champion, two-time World Series champ and one-time National League MVP. He was drafted out of a Cincinnati high school in 1970 and played in the majors from 1973-91, batting .290 with 2,712 hits, 339 home runs and 1,493 RBIs. He had one of the best right-field arms in the game in his prime. Nicknamed “The Cobra,” he was baseball’s first million-dollar-a-year player. He had a controversial side. He endured weight problems and injuries at various times and was embroiled in the cocaine scandal of the early ’80s. That’s probably what hurt him with the BBWAA voters; he fell off that ballot in 2011, never coming close to election. His fate now rests with the special selection committees. Parker, who is battling Parkinson’s, is in the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and the Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame. He really ought to be in Cooperstown. P.S. Hurston Waldrep is set to become the 22nd Southern Miss alumnus to play in the big leagues. The right-hander is slated to start for Atlanta today at Washington. Waldrep, the Braves’ top draft pick in 2023 and current No. 2 prospect, pitched at USM in 2021-22 before finishing his college career at Florida. … Former USM standout Justin Storm, a seventh-round pick by Miami last summer, is having a fine season at Low-Class A Jupiter. The Madison Central High alum, a 6-foot-7 lefty, is 3-1 with a 0.55 ERA in 10 games. The lone run he allowed in a three-inning stint on Saturday against Lakeland was a homer by former William Carey standout Patrick Lee, who recently signed with Detroit as a free agent. … Ex-Madison Central star Braden Montgomery suffered a broken ankle Saturday in Texas A&M’s win against Oregon in the NCAA Super Regional. He is done for the season. Montgomery — a likely first-round MLB draft pick next month — hit .322 with 27 homers for the Aggies.

14 Apr

anniversary time

There are some relatively well-known players among the Mississippi natives who have significant debut anniversaries to celebrate in 2024. Starkville native Hughie Critz, a Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer, broke in 100 years ago. McComb’s Dalton Jones came along in 1964, Belzoni’s Herb Washington — the designated runner — in 1974, Jackson natives Chris Brown and Stewart Cliburn in 1984 and Natchez’s Nook Logan in 2004. Ninety years ago, a relatively unheralded player from Perth in Jefferson County made his debut and enjoyed one of the best first games ever by a Magnolia Stater. George Hockette, a left-hander, debuted on Sept. 17, 1934, for the Boston Red Sox. All he did was throw a two-hit shutout against the St. Louis Browns at old Sportsman’s Park. He no-hit the Browns for the first 7 2/3 innings. Hockette also went 1-for-4 at the plate in the 3-0 victory. He pitched just two seasons in the majors, going 4-4 with a 4.08 ERA in 26 appearances, all with the Red Sox. He won 88 games all told in the minor leagues, pitching his last game in 1941. … Worth noting: Critz, a 5-foot-8, 147-pound second baseman, went 2-for-4 in his debut with Cincinnati and hit .322 that season. The Mississippi State alum batted .268 with 95 triples and 97 stolen bases over a 12-year career, twice finishing in the top four in MVP voting in the National League. … Washington, a track star at Michigan State, got in as a pinch runner for Oakland on opening day in 1974 but didn’t steal a bag. He went on to steal 31 bases without ever making a plate appearance before his career ended abruptly early in 1975. … In 1994, Pontotoc’s Steve Pegues, a high school star and first-round draft pick seven years earlier, broke in with Detroit. He batted .266 in 207 at-bats over two MLB campaigns. He stole just two bases in The Show but pilfered 103 in the minors.

29 Mar

tough start

Quite the hard-luck day for the two Mississippi natives who got the nod as starting pitchers on Opening Day in the big leagues. Ocean Springs’ Garrett Crochet pitched brilliantly for the Chicago White Sox in his first career MLB start Thursday but was saddled with the loss when the ChiSox came up empty in a 1-0 defeat against Detroit. Much worse was what happened to Lucedale’s Justin Steele, who was sailing along in the fifth inning for the Cubs when he injured his left hamstring fielding a bunt. He is expected to land on the injured list with what was labeled a strain. “Spirits are high,” Steele told mlb.com postgame. “I’ll have a speedy recovery from this … . ” Steele, a 16-game winner in 2023, yielded three hits, a walk and a run with six strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings in a game the Cubs would lose 4-3 at Texas. Crochet, a converted reliever, allowed one run (a sac fly) and five singles with eight strikeouts, including the first batter he faced, over six innings. “He’s got weapons to get people out. So he stood out there like a man today and did his job,” White Sox manager Pedro Grifol said in an nbcsportschicago.com article. One of the hits yielded by Crochet was an infield knock by Biloxi High product Colt Keith, who was making his MLB debut for the Tigers. The hit glanced off Crochet’s glove and rolled under the second baseman’s hand. “I was imagining a bomb to right-center, but that’ll work, too,” Keith said with a chuckle in a TV interview. For the record, the first hit (and RBI) of the season by a Mississippian (native or school alum) was a first-inning single by ex-Mississippi State star Jordan Westburg, whose Baltimore team whipped the Los Angeles Angels 11-3. P.S. Kudos to Southern Miss leadoff batter Dalton McIntyre, who banged out five hits and scored four times in the Golden Eagles’ 14-4 win over visiting Troy. USM (17-9, 5-2 Sun Belt) had 20 hits (six doubles) all told in the seven-inning game.

11 Feb

worth noting

From the Things Discovered While Looking Up Other Things file: Until fairly recently, baseball reference works listed Sam Jethroe — a Negro Leagues star of the 1940s and the National League’s rookie of the year in 1950 — as being born in 1922 in East St. Louis, Ill. At some point, additional research turned up the fact that Jethroe was actually born on Jan. 23, 1917, in Lowndes County, Miss. (Some sites say he was born in Columbus.) So, this means we can add Jethroe’s name to the impressive array of Mississippi natives who starred in the Negro Leagues before the game was integrated: Cool Papa Bell, Sam Hairston, Howard Easterling, Rufus Lewis, Luke Easter, Bob Boyd, et al. Jethroe, who died in 2001, was nicknamed “The Jet” and may have rivaled Hall of Famer Bell for pure speed. Former big league star Don Newcombe called Jethroe “the fastest human being I have ever seen,” and a Negro Leagues contemporary claimed Jethroe could “outrun the word of God,” per The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues. He was a five-time All-Star for the Cleveland (Ohio) Buckeyes in the Negro Leagues and won a title in 1945 (teaming with Jackson native Buddy Armour). Jethroe also won a minor league championship with Montreal in 1949 and became the first African-American player on the Boston Braves in 1950 at age 33. In three years with that club, he batted .261 with 98 steals and 58 homers. He played a couple of games in 1954 with Pittsburgh, then returned to the minors and later to semi-pro ball.

08 Dec

… and we wait

While the world waits for Shohei Ohtani to pick a team, some here in the ‘Sip are just wondering when the local guys are going to sign. Former Ole Miss standout Lance Lynn signed with St. Louis on Nov. 21. Since then … crickets. Ex-Mississippi State star Adam Frazier, East Central Community College product Tim Anderson and MSU alum Chris Stratton (a World Series champ in 2023) were ranked among the top 89 available free agents by USA Today. They’re still out there. So are Brandon Woodruff (unlikely to pitch in 2024 after arm surgery), Dakota Hudson and Spencer Turnbull, a trio of quality pitchers who became free agents after USA Today published its rankings. Hunter Renfroe, the veteran slugger (177 career homers) out of Crystal Springs and MSU, hasn’t landed. (At one time, Atlanta was rumored to be interested, but the Braves have since filled — maybe — their left field void.) Other Mississippi connections with big league experience still looking for jobs include Billy Hamilton (326 career steals), Drew Pomeranz (289 career games pitched), Demarcus Evans, Chuckie Robinson, Mike Mayers and Jonathan Holder. Some of these guys may retire, but many surely want to play on in 2024. It feels like a wave of signings is coming soon.

07 Aug

stepping up

There were a slew of big games on the major league slate on Sunday, and a slew of Mississippians came up big in some of the biggest. The most dramatic moment was produced by Matt Wallner, the Southern Miss career home run leader whose first big league walk-off homer in the ninth inning gave Minnesota a 5-3 win against Arizona. The two-run shot — off the Diamondbacks’ recently acquired closer Paul Sewald — was Wallner’s seventh homer of the year for the Twins and 70th off his pro career. He also made a great catch in left field. The Minnesota native has spent much of this season in Triple-A but appears to have secured a roster spot with the first-place Twins. “He’s a big boy and hits the ball so hard,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli told mlb.com. “It’s a controlled, violent swing.” The 6-foot-4, 220-pound lefty hitter is batting .268 (.304 in his last seven games) with 16 RBIs and 16 runs in 30 games. Sunday’s win was the Twins’ fourth straight and gave them a 4.5-game lead over Cleveland in the American League Central. At Arlington, Texas, hot-hitting Mississippi State alum Nathaniel Lowe slugged his 13th home run — a two-run shot off Sandy Alcantara in the third inning — to help Texas whip Miami 6-0, the first-place Rangers’ sixth straight win. Lowe is batting .351 with four homers and 17 RBIs since the All-Star break for a club that is 14-7 over that span. Ex-MSU star Chris Stratton, a trade deadline pickup from St. Louis, threw 1 1/3 innings Sunday, his third straight scoreless appearance for the Rangers. They maintained a 2.5-game lead in the AL West over Houston, which beat New York at Yankee Stadium 9-7. MSU alum J.P. France got the win for the Astros, working 3 1/3 innings (no earned runs) in his first relief appearance of the season. The rookie right-hander, who has made 15 starts, is 8-3 with a 2.75 ERA. In the National League, the surging Chicago Cubs beat Atlanta 6-4 at windy Wrigley Field as ex-George County High star Justin Steele picked up his 13th win, which leads the big leagues. Steele, not real sharp, allowed three earned runs with seven strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings against the powerful Braves, runaway leaders in the NL East. The Cubs moved to within 1.5 games of NL Central leader Milwaukee, which lost 4-1 to Pittsburgh in ex-State standout Brandon Woodruff’s return from the injured list (see previous post). In the Sunday nightcap on ESPN, former Ole Miss star Lance Lynn allowed one run (a homer) in six innings to pace the NL West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers past San Diego 8-2. Lynn, 36, is 2-0 with a 2.77 ERA in two starts since the Dodgers got him at the trade deadline. He was 6-9, 6.47, in 21 starts for the White Sox.

04 Aug

take a little trip

If you want to take a trip sometime without leaving your chair, click into Baseball Reference’s BR Bullpen, chose a date — like, say, Aug. 4 — and peruse the significant events down through the years. The trip never fails to satisfy. Many major league history buffs might recall Aug. 4, 1982, as the day that Joel Youngblood got hits for two different teams in two different cities, having been traded midday from the New York Mets to the Montreal Expos. Three years later, Tom Seaver won his 300th game and Rod Carew notched his 3,000th hit, a remarkable coincidence for the two Hall of Famers.
Of course, there are, as you might suspect, quite a few notable Aug. 4 events with Mississippi connections. To wit:
In 1945, Tom McBride, who had played for the minor league Jackson Senators before making the majors, drove in six runs in one inning for the Boston Red Sox against Washington.
In 1966, former William Carey College star John Stephenson hit a pinch home run — his only homer that year in 143 at-bats — off Juan Marichal as the New York Mets rallied late to beat San Francisco.
In 1996, Negro Leagues star William (Bill) Foster, who grew up in Rodney and played and coached at Alcorn State, was inducted posthumously into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
In 1998, Southern Miss product Kevin Young went 4-for-4 with four runs and four RBIs in a game for Pittsburgh, and ex-Jackson Mets star Darryl Strawberry hit his second pinch grand slam, an American League record, for the New York Yankees.
In 2001, former Ole Miss standout David Dellucci, playing for Arizona, had the misfortune to be hit by a batted ball, making the final out in a 4-2 loss to the Mets.
In 2002, Chad Bradford — a Hinds Community College and USM alum — was part of a four-man one-hitter for Oakland — the Moneyball A’s — against Detroit. The Tigers’ lone hit was delivered by Hattiesburg native and Pearl River CC product Wendell Magee.
In 2005, the Baltimore Orioles fired former JaxMets standout Lee Mazzilli as their manager and named former JaxMets skipper Sam Perlozzo as his replacement.
In 2011, Meridian CC alum Cliff Lee — who would win 17 games for the NL East champs — tossed his fifth shutout of the year for Philadelphia, beating San Francisco 5-0.
Possibly the most significant Mississippi-related event on Aug. 4 occurred in 1915, when Luke Easter was born in Jonestown, up in the Delta. Easter would become, on Aug. 11, 1949, the first black Mississippi native to play in the major leagues.

10 Jul

a derby lament

Disappointing — isn’t it? — that no Mississippians are competing in tonight’s Home Run Derby. Austin Riley (DeSoto Central High) and Brent Rooker (Mississippi State), both in Seattle as All-Stars, are capable of a show of power, not to mention Hunter Renfroe (MSU/Crystal Springs), the active leader in career homers by Mississippi natives. Mississippi’s last representative in the contest was Brian Dozier, the Southern Miss product from Fulton who competed in 2014. The only other natives to participate are Grenada’s Dave Parker (1985 — when he won — and 1986) and Vicksburg’s Ellis Burks (1996). MSU alum Rafael Palmeiro took part in 1998 and 2004. The Magnolia State has produced some legendary sluggers who never got a crack at MLB’s Home Run Derby. It would have been something special to see Luke Easter take his hacks in a home run contest. The Jonestown native hit 93 homers in the 1950s in a short big league stint and another 247 in the minors; he would have been a Statcast hero had he played in the current era. He reportedly hit a 500-foot bomb in Buffalo’s old Offermann Stadium. Another legendary slugger who never got the chance in an MLB derby was Laurel’s Jack Pierce, who had a brief career in The Show. He hit eight big league bombs back in the 1970s but topped 400 overall in pro ball, most of those in the Mexican League. He is in the Hall of Fame there. George Scott, the “Boomer” from Greenville, also had a knack for the long ball, blasting 271 of them in a 14-year MLB career from 1966-79. And then there’s John Lindsey, a renowned masher from Hattiesburg who never got much of a shot in the big leagues. He reportedly belted 377 homers, many of them tape-measure shots, in his long and winding pro career starting in 1995. Maybe someday in the near future we’ll see Southaven’s Blaze Jordan in the Derby; he made a name for himself as a kid winning home run contests at national youth events. Now 20, he is now in the Boston Red Sox’s system, expected to make his Double-A debut this week.