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.
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.
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.
Rivalries in baseball may not boil the blood as they do in football and basketball, but they still have a special feel. Red Sox-Yankees. Dodgers-Giants. Mississippi State-Ole Miss. Similarly, Jackson State-Alcorn State isn’t just another conference series. The longtime rivals meet this weekend to open SWAC play. Today’s Game 1 and Sunday’s series finale will be played at JSU’s Braddy Field, with the middle game on Saturday moving to Smith-Wills Stadium. Fans of the two schools don’t need to be reminded that Alcorn State won the 2019 football game – in convincing fashion – and Jackson State swept the two men’s basketball games this season. There’s a measure of pride at stake this weekend. The Tigers lead the all-time series 158-101-1, according to an Alcorn press release. JSU is 3-4, led by a dynamic offense that features C.J. Newsome (.500, eight runs, three steals) and Jaylyn Williams (.500, six RBIs). Steven Davila has been JSU’s steadiest pitcher, with a 1.23 ERA over three appearances. Alcorn’s staff ERA is 7.16, though Joe Smith, a product of Jackson’s Jim Hill High, has pitched well (3.60 in two outings). Travaris Cole paces the 2-3 Braves’ attack at .391 with three homers and 11 RBIs. Tristan Garcia (.438) had a four-hit game at Ole Miss last week. P.S. It was announced Thursday that the SWAC Tournament will be played at Smith-Wills for the next three years. The 2020 dates for the eight-team, double-elimination tournament are May 13-17. This isn’t the first time the event will be played at the old ballpark on Cool Papa Bell Drive. The 2000 and 2007 tourneys were played there. The 2006 event was held at Trustmark Park in Pearl. From 1988-95, the SWAC played its championship in Natchez.
Ran across a good story on milb.com about former Jackson Generals manager Rick Sweet, who notched his 2,000th career minor league managerial win on June 25. Only 12 others have reached that milestone. Sweet was the manager of the first two Generals clubs in 1991 and ’92, winning 131 games overall with the Houston Astros’ Double-A affiliate. Sweet, 66, a former big league catcher, has logged 30 seasons as a manager and is now at Triple-A San Antonio in Milwaukee’s system. Sweet has had some other jobs in the game, including two stints as a big league coach, but managing apparently suits him best. “I love going to the ballpark every day,” Sweet said in the article. “The fact that I get to help and be a part of so many young people’s lives, even when I started managing 30-something years ago, that’s what resonates with me. That’s what drives me every day.” The mustachioed “Sweetie,” as everyone called him at Smith-Wills Stadium back in the day, was a very vocal kind of guy but was always easy to work with for those who covered the Gens. “He’s lasted so long because of his commitment to open, honest communication,” writes Joe Bloss.
Once upon a time, there was a Double-A team at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson. Twenty years ago, the Jackson Generals, a Houston Astros affiliate in the Texas League, played their ninth and final season before bolting for Round Rock, Texas. Twenty years is a long time. No former Generals are still playing in the big leagues. There isn’t – or wasn’t — much left to remember them by here in central Mississippi. Until now. The Mississippi Braves will rekindle good memories for some old Smith-Wills fans on Friday night when they don throwback apparel and give away Generals replica jerseys at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Former Generals have been invited to attend. Con Maloney, former owner of the Texas League franchise, will throw out the first pitch. (Yes, the M-Braves are playing a team called the Jackson Generals, a Southern League club from Tennessee. Don’t let that confuse you.) The Mississippi-based Generals, who followed the Mets at Smith-Wills in 1991, won two league titles during their time at the ballpark on Lakeland Drive. Future big league stars such as Bobby Abreu, Lance Berkman, Billy Wagner, Freddy Garcia and Richard Hidalgo played there. (There’s a long list.) Former big leaguers Rick Sweet, Gary Allenson and Sal Butera managed there. Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell rehabbed there for the Astros. If all goes well, maybe a Jackson Mets throwback game will be next — though the idea of putting Braves prospects in Mets unies seems a little weird.
From the Off the Beaten Path file: It was 25 years ago today, Mother’s Day ’94, that the Colorado Silver Bullets became the first women’s team to play against a men’s professional team. The starting pitcher for the men’s team, the Northern League All-Stars, was Meridian native and former major leaguer Oil Can Boyd. The first batter he faced ripped a single off the glove of the second baseman. “My stuff’s so sore, I can’t get a woman out,” Boyd, per a Los Angeles Times story, said in the dugout after retiring the side. The All-Stars, a collection of independent leaguers and ex-big leaguers, were generally dismissive of the Silver Bullets, according to the Times story, and showed them no mercy, winning the game 19-0 at Fort Mill, S.C. Leon Durham, 37 at the time, hit two homers. The Silver Bullets, managed by Phil Niekro, toured the country for four seasons, playing – and beating — men’s indy league, semi-pro and amateur teams. They played twice against amateur teams at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson, going 1-1.
Has it really been 20 years? The first home game of the final season of the old Jackson Generals was played on April 19, 1999, at Smith-Wills Stadium. It could’ve gone better, to say the least. Gov. Kirk Fordice bounced the ceremonial first pitch. The Generals, the Double-A affiliate of the Houston Astros, then surrendered five first-inning runs and lost to Texas League rival Arkansas 9-2. Rick Ankiel got the win and also homered for the Travelers, who were managed by Jackson native and current Mississippi Braves skipper Chris Maloney. The loss dropped the Generals’ record to 3-8. Only 1,955 people turned out to see the lame-duck club, which had announced a year earlier that it was moving to Round Rock, Texas. The ’99 Gens would prove to be a pretty good team. Quite a few future big leaguers appeared on the roster, including Chris Truby (who hit 28 homers), Julio Lugo (.319, 25 steals), Keith Ginter, Brian Dallimore, Jeriome Robertson (15-game winner) and Wayne Franklin. They also occasionally started an all-Johnson outfield: A.J., J.J. and Ric. The Generals, managed by Jim Pankovits, finished 68-72 overall after making a run at the TL East second-half title. The championship actually came down to the last game of the season, also played at Smith-Wills. Alas, before the biggest crowd of the year (a turnstile count of 4,367), the Gens lost in heartbreaking fashion, 9-4 to Tulsa. It was 3-3 in the seventh inning when the Drillers’ Juan Pinella hit a grand slam that sucked the energy out of the old ballpark. The 25-year Texas League era at Smith-Wills began on April 19, 1975, with a pitch by the Jackson Mets’ Greg Pavlick. It ended on Sept. 8, 1999, on a pitch by Tulsa’s Matt Miller, a Delta State alum from Greenwood who would go on to pitch in the big leagues. … The M-Braves will pay tribute to the Generals and that bygone time during a series at Trustmark Park in Pearl from June 25-29.
Here’s a timely trivia question: Who was the winning pitcher for the Jackson Senators in the deciding game of the 2003 Central League Championship Series? It was none other than Jeremy McClain, then a crafty right-hander for the independent Sens, now the newly named athletic director at Southern Miss. McClain enjoyed a highlight-filled playing career. The Houlka native went 45-9 at Delta State – where he is in the Hall of Fame – and still holds school records for career wins, strikeouts and innings pitched. He went 15-0 for the 1999 team that made the NCAA Division II regionals. He had a fling in affiliated ball with the Boston Red Sox, then pitched for two different independent teams at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium. McClain won seven games for an awful DiamondKats team in 2000 and spent two seasons with the Senators, helping them reach the CBL title series in 2002 and claim the pennant the next year. He was the starter for the Sens’ first home opener in 2002, and in Game 5 of the ’03 finals, he came on in relief in the 10th inning and earned the victory when Keto Anderson delivered a game-winning knock in the bottom half. It was McClain’s final appearance as a player, and he said after the game that season was as much fun as he had ever had playing baseball.
Hill Denson. You’d be hard-pressed to find a baseball fan in Mississippi who doesn’t know that name. In fact, a large percentage of them probably know him personally. He has been involved in the game here for much of his 75 years, playing it, coaching it and elevating it along the way. Belhaven University, where Denson has coached the last 19 years, is throwing a party Saturday at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium in honor of the Hall of Famer’s pending retirement. The Blazers will play Texas-Tyler at 1 p.m. The celebration will start well before that and won’t end ’til long after the game finishes. Denson played high school ball at Bay Springs, his hometown, then at Jones Junior College and Southern Miss. He is something of a state semi-pro legend. He coached high school ball, including 10 years at Callaway, before taking the job at USM, which he built into a first-rate program during a 14-year tenure. He’s also had tremendous success at Belhaven, winning more than 600 games. He’s part of the fabric of the game here, and Saturday’s celebration is richly deserved.