I’m not sure I’ll ever love another team the way I loved the 2016 Jackson Generals, that is, without seeing a single one of their games.
2016, if you care to remember, was a strong year in the Mariners’ system, when every team made the playoffs, despite a shaky farm system that had not yet seen the likes of Kyle Lewis, Evan White, and Logan Gilbert; Julio Rodriguez was a baby-faced 15-year-old a year-plus away from signing with the Mariners. (Noelvi Marte might not have been born yet, I have people checking on this.) By the end of the 2016 season, Jerry Dipoto would have begun re-making the farm system, shipping out homegrown players from the big-league roster in Brad Miller, Carson Smith, Chris Taylor; higher-profile former Mariners prospects like Jesus Montero, Stefen Romero, Alex Jackson, and Luiz Gohara; and lower-level players like Freddy Peralta, Erick Mejia, Jio Orozco, and Zack Littell. All of it added up to an unceasing series of waves that eventually swept away almost all remnants of the previous regime, leaving Dipoto’s own hand-picked crew behind.
But the 2016 Jackson Generals were still a heavy concentration of the old ways, with some infusion of the new (a recently-signed Cuban expat named Guillermo Heredia played 58 games for Jackson before advancing to MLB). 2013 first-rounder D.J. Peterson was there, and posted an .805 OPS, as was 2010’s second-rounder and the one-time catcher of the future Marcus Littlewood, and 2009 first-rounder and the other catcher of the future Steve Baron (2011 fifth-rounder and other other catcher of the future Tyler Marlette was also there. Jackson went through a lot of catchers). The team was led by a brash Canadian with Popeye arms who treated baseballs like they had personally wronged him (.215 ISO!) in Tyler O’Neill, a third-rounder for the Mariners in 2013 but by far the most accomplished offensive player on the team.
And then there were less-heralded players, like Ian Miller and Tim Lopes, rounding out the Generals’ lineup. Miller and Lopes weren’t the heavy hitters of the other prospects; they played the small-ball game, getting on base (.331 OBP for Miller, .358 for Lopes) and creating havoc when they were there, with a combined 75 swiped bags between them. Each contributed defensively, as well, Miller from center field and Lopes at second base. As other players moved up and on, Miller and Lopes were stalwarts in the Generals’ lineup, contributing to a team that went 46-24 in the first half, but also providing much-needed stability to a team that finished third in the second half of the season. They also helped lift the team to capture the Southern League Championship in a series the Generals won 3-0.
I didn’t have MiLB TV, but I listened to almost every Generals game that summer, while weeding the garden or making dinner, watching the sun go down and listening to Generals announcer Brandon Liebhaber describe what the sky looked like in Jackson, Tennessee. If I closed my eyes I could see myself there, cheering on the unstoppable Generals against the hills of a place I’ve never known, could see the white ball outlined against a sky I’ve never seen, could imagine the faces of players I’d never met.
After years of grinding their way through the minors, both Ian Miller and Tim Lopes made their big-league debuts in 2019, two of the five position players from the 2016 Generals to make the majors. Miller and Lopes are not the two players, maybe, one would have picked out from that particular roster and identified as future major-leaguers, not compared to the other prospect power on the list, but they are the ones who held on, the ones who endured, the ones who showed up every day and did their jobs. They provided, from two thousand miles away, uncountable moments of delight as I stopped whatever I was doing to listen to Liebhaber breathlessly narrate the game, in what I now realize was one of the purest baseball experiences I’ll ever have. No TV, no commercial jingles, no stadium lights; nobody else but me, a voice on the radio cutting through the gathering dark, and somewhere, far away, the sound of bat meeting ball underneath a Tennessee sky.
Tim Lopes has, as Connor has outlined, a tricky path to making the Mariners roster again this year, made trickier by Jerry Dipoto’s sudden infatuation with the Patrick Wisdoms and Sam Haggertys of the world. But Lopes has taken down bigger challenges before, and has succeeded by not trying to be anything other than himself. And if it doesn’t work out, well, we’ll always have Jackson in 2016.