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Mike Feder arrived in Jackson in 1979 to become general manager of the Class AA Jackson Mets, which was the Class AA affiliate of the New York Mets from 1975 until 1990.
The historic Easter Flood decided to tag along. When the Texas League season began, Smith-Wills Stadium was submerged under Pearl River floodwaters.
“I’ve never seen so much rain,” Feder said. “It almost seems as if it never stopped raining. I’ve still got scars on my knuckles from pulling that tarp. We set a Texas League record for rainouts.”
Nevertheless, Feder spent the next nine years running the Jackson team.
“We had a lot of great players, a lot of great managers and coaches who came through on their way to the Big Leagues,” Feder said. “We won some championships and we had some fun.”
Those times will be re-lived this weekend when former players, coaches and managers will travel back to Mississippi for a Jackson Mets reunion. They’ll play some golf, wine and dine, tell some stories and have a meet and greet with fans Saturday morning at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame Museum (10 a.m.).
More than 30 former players, including several who made the Major Leagues, will attend. Those include Darryl Strawberry who as a 19-year-old Jackson Met slugged 34 home runs. That figure is especially impressive when you consider Strawberry played all his home games in a cavernous, often humid ballpark where home runs elsewhere were fly ball outs.
The ball sounded different coming off Strawberry’s bat – take it from someone who would go to the ballpark just to watch him take batting practice. His home runs often soared high into the pine trees beyond the right field fence, an area that became known as “The Strawberry Patch.”
In 1982, Strawberry, Billy Beane and Terry Blocker often manned the three outfield positions in the Jackson Mets lineup. All three were former No. 1 draft choices. Strawberry and Beane, who went on to become General Manager of the Oakland A’s and subject (played by Brad Pitt) of the hit movie “Moneyball,” are both expected to attend the reunion.
Strawberry went on to hit 335 Major League home runs. If that home run number surprised anyone who watched him in Jackson, it was only because he did not hit more.
One former Jackson Met who won’t have to travel far is Mike Howard, who lives in Gluckstadt. Howard met his wife here during his Jackson Mets days (1979-80) and returned to the Jackson area when his playing days ended. Any Jackson baseball fan from that era will fondly remember Howard, known as “Mad Dog” because of his relentless playing style. Mad Dog Howard ran to first base even after he walked or was hit by a pitch.
“People asked me why I would run to first after a walk,” Howard said. “I’d tell them I was just warming up so I could steal second and third base.”
Howard stole 55 bases over his two full Jackson Mets seasons. In 1980, when he was the Jax Mets MVP for a Texas League championship team, he hit .291 with 29 doubles and eight triples and seemed on a fast track to Shea Stadium in New York.
Howard did make it to New York but the stay was short. “You’ve heard of getting a cup of coffee in the Big Leagues?” Howard said. “I had time for two cups of coffee and a bagel.”
He played parts of the 1981, ’82 and ‘83 seasons for the New York Mets. On opening day of the 1983 season, Howard started in right field against the Philadelphia Phillies. Hall of Famer Steve Carlton was on the mound for the Phillies. Hall of Famer Tom Seaver was on the mound for the Mets. The Mets won 2-0. The switch-hitting Howard knocked in the winning run. As cups of coffee go, that one was sweet. And it got sweeter.
“So the next day it’s raining, and I go to the batting cage underneath the stadium to get some B.P., and somebody was already there. It was Pete Rose getting in some swings,” Howard said. “Well, Pete Rose was my childhood idol. So I introduced myself to him and he said, ‘Oh, I recognize you. You kind of have my playing style.’ I could have died and gone to heaven right then.”
Not nearly all the former Jackson Mets returning for the reunion made it to the Major Leagues. One who did not is Kurt Lundgren, who pitched three seasons (1985-87) at Smith-Wills. In ’85, Lundgren, a New York native and lifelong New York Mets fan, won eight games, lost four and had a 3.29 earned run average and was named the Mets’ most outstanding pitcher.
But Lundgren was not your typical professional baseball pitcher. For one thing, he was only 5 feet, 10 inches tall and weighed all of 170 pounds with his spikes on. He did not throw hard. What’s more, Lundgren was an Ivy Leaguer, a graduate of Columbia where he majored in English. He was a voracious reader, who would just as soon talk about William Faulkner and Eudora Welty as how he had pitched that evening. I know. That’s often what we talked about in the Jax Mets club house.
When his baseball career ended in 1987, Lundgren, who had no money, had to decide how to make a living. He chose to become a lawyer and enrolled in the Mississippi College School of Law.
“I loved it in Mississippi,” Lundgren said Thursday after arriving in Jackson Wednesday night. “I loved the food and the people. I loved how laid back the lifestyle was. In three summers, I had made some good friends here. It seemed like the thing to do. No regrets here.”
After law school, he moved back to New York where he has become a successful litigator, a partner in a successful firm. When he heard about this weekend’s reunion, there was never a doubt.
“Of course I was coming,” Lundgren said. “I can’t wait to see all the guys and see all my Mississippi friends, both from baseball and law school. It’s funny, you know, when I walked off that plane last night, I think my blood pressure went down 20 points.”