Think back to what you were doing 20 years ago. Some of us were in college. Others were not yet parents or grandparents. A few people hadn’t even been born yet. But in 1998, West Tennessee became a proving ground for an important question: could the sunset side of the Volunteer State sustain multiple minor league baseball teams? It hadn’t been tried in almost 50 years.
EASTBOUND AND UP
When the Memphis Chicks relocated from the Bluff City in 1998, this was the challenge they faced. Memphis had just received a Triple-A expansion franchise in the Pacific Coast League. The Chicks had to find a new ballpark, a new name, a new affiliation. There was so much to do, and they had to make their way without knowing how a new fanbase would receive them. Jackson became home, and beside Interstate 40, a stadium sprouted. Over time, Pringles Park (as it was known then) came to feel like a chip off the old block, but the legacy of a fruitful new franchise was just beginning to be written.
With a minor-league deal from the Chicago Cubs in hand, the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx began play in the Southern League in 1998. Dave Trembley, who would go on to manage the Baltimore Orioles, steered the inaugural Diamond Jaxx to a sub-.500 finish in their first year, but Trembley’s troop improved quickly, winning 84 games in 1999.
Trembley’s departure after the second season brought in Dave Bialas, who skippered the Jaxx to a Southern League title in 2000. Future big-leaguers like Eric Hinske, Corey Patterson, and Carlos Zambrano all contributed during the championship season, etching their names onto a growing roster of marquee-worthy Jaxx alumni.
For one weekend in 2004, baseball lightning struck West Tennessee.
Since winning the 1998 National League MVP award, Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa had been a perennial MLB All-Star candidate and ever-present home run threat in Chicago. But in 2004, the 35-year-old Sosa had an unusual injury. He injured his back while sneezing, forcing him to the disabled list. When Sosa felt ready to return, the Cubs sent him to West Tenn.
On Sunday, June 14, 2004, Sammy Sosa began what would be the final minor league series of his career. Hitting in the leadoff spot as the designated hitter, Sosa struck out and walked in his first two plate appearances against Birmingham, but his third at-bat set the ballpark buzzing.
With two outs in the bottom of the fifth inning, Sosa smashed a 1-1 pitch off the center field wall, driving in Jaxx outfielder Mike Mallory to break a scoreless tie. Sosa’s bullet ricocheted off the woodwork so hard that Birmingham center fielder Michael Spidale was able to hold the slugger to a single.
”In that situation, the whole crowd went crazy, which motivated me,” Sosa told Jackson Sun writer Dan Morris at the time. ”This Double-A team is trying to clinch (the Southern League’s first-half pennant), and (the hit) made me feel great. I gave them what they want.”
Sosa wasn’t the only big-league name to toe the batter’s box dirt for West Tenn. 1997 AL Rookie of the Year Nomar Garciaparra played a few games for the Jaxx in 2005, bringing his wife, soccer superstar Mia Hamm, along with him.
WEST COAST WELCOME
Prior to the 2007 season, the Diamond Jaxx entered a new affiliation with the Seattle Mariners, bringing American League players to West Tenn. The first four seasons with Mariners prospects saw the Diamond Jaxx make the playoffs twice. Following the 2010 season, West Tenn rebranded themselves as the Jackson Generals, drawing the new name from the old Class-D minor league team that called Jackson home in the Kentucky-Illinois-and-Tennessee-based Kitty League of the early 1950s.
Since the name change, Jackson has twice made the playoffs. The high-water mark was set by the 2016 squad, which Daren Brown managed to the franchise’s second Southern League championship. The 2012 season featured a talented 19-year-old pitching prospect named Taijuan Walker, who led the team that year with 118 strikeouts. Now 24, Walker was traded this past winter to the Arizona Diamondbacks, re-aligning a face familiar to Jackson with their new big league affiliate.
As The Ballpark at Jackson awakens for its 20th season, we’d like to appreciate all of you who have made your way to 4 Fun Place in the course of our journey. Your support of and interaction with our team has made the magic of pro baseball in Jackson possible, and the Generals are honored to bring you another year under the lights. We hope you enjoy this one and many more to come.