From high school baseball where the Rockets have played in the regional tournament 20 of the last 30 seasons to Marion’s two stints with a semi-pro baseball club, the diamond has given this community more than its share of successes. It has produced one Major League Baseball player, Rip Wheeler, who pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs in the 1920s. Lefty Bridwell was a Bonus Baby with the Twins, but never got a shot at the big leagues.
Today, Marion can hang its hat on a number of professional players who passed through during the Bobcats’ years. One former Bobcat is currently in the big leagues and at least three others are in professional baseball at various levels.
The Bobcats played here from 2008 to 2013. Most of their six seasons were as an affiliate of Ohio Valley Collegiate Summer Baseball League. It’s through his Bobcat ties that current San Diego Padres outfielder Travis Jankowski has forever staked himself to a kinship with Crittenden County as have others who may eventually make a name for themselves in the big leagues.
Perhaps the best chance for a second MLB player from the Bobcats’ den is James Naile, who is among the top prospects in the Oakland A’s organization. His fastball has a lot of sink to it, which makes him a great candidate for late innings when a ground ball double play could be in order. Pitchers with that kind of “stuff” sometimes get a shot at the big leagues simply because of their special skill.
Naile pitched briefly in Triple-A last season, just one rung below the big leagues. He was reassigned to Double-A to begin this summer, but has been very effective and is ranked the 14th best pitching prospect in the Athletics’ organization.
Cody Brown, coming off of a career season with the Mississippi State Bulldogs, is the most recent professional with Bobcat ties. He played in Marion during the Bobcats’ final season of 2013. Last week, Brown signed a undrafted minor league free agent contract with the New York Yankees. He played every infield position at Mississippi State, but spent most of his time at shortstop during the stretch run that ended with LSU beating the Bulldogs in a three-game Super Regional series just one step from Omaha, Neb., and the College World Series.
Brown was en route to Tampa, Fla., last week to sign his pro contract when contacted by The Press. He remembers fondly his days playing in Marion.
“I was there my redshirt season, so I didn’t have any collegiate experience at the time,” said the 23-year-old from Biloxi, Miss.
“I remember how well Mrs. Kory Wheeler took care of all us ball players,” he said. “It was a great experience. We shot guns on off days and had a big time.”
Brown lived here for two months that summer, rooming with six other teammates in the old cannery building behind the former Marion High School on College Street.
“That was interesting,” he said with a snicker.
Also, last week a young man with ties to Salem was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals. Cory Malcom was taken in the 34th round. He set some pitching records at Arkansas-Little Rock after a stellar career at Elkhart (Ind.) Central High School. In college, he was a Rawlings All-American Honorable Mention.
Malcom is the grandson of James Malcom, formerly of Salem, and great-nephew of George Maclom, who owns and operates Deer Lakes Golf Course in Salem.
Below are snapshots of the former Bobcats playing professional baseball at various levels:
College: Stony Brook
San Diego Padres
60-day disabled list
Career BA: .229
- Jankowski has missed more than the last 2 months with a bone bruise on his right foot. On June 6, the Padres moved him from the short-term DL to the long-term list. Jankowski was a first-round MLB draft pick in 2012 by the Padres. He’s played in 182 big league games over the past three seasons. A speedy center fielder, Jankowski began the season as one of the starting outfielders for the Padres. He struggled early with a .160 batting average then hurt his foot in late April.
Cape Girardeau, Mo.
RH Pitcher Double A
60-day disabled list
Career ERA: 3.17
- Naile, a sinker ball pitcher, is currently on the disabled list following a 1-1 record on six starts in the Texas League this spring. Naile had Tommy John surgery before his senior season at Alabama-Birmingham. Though he reached Triple-A while pitching at four levels last year in his first full professional season, Naile's shining moment came in the Texas League finals, when he tossed six scoreless frames to lead Double-A Midland to their third straight title and he won a Minor League Gold Glove. While starting in the minors, he projects as a long reliever or ground-ball specialist in the majors. MLB Pipeline rates him the 25th best prospect in the A’s organization.
College: Columbia St. CC
RH Pitcher Class A
W.Virginia Black Bears
Career ERA: 2.86
- Hightower was drafted in 2015 by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 15th round. He has pitched in 32 minor league games during his career, which included two Class A teams last year and rookie ball in 2015. Hightower has not thrown in a professional game so far this season. Hightower was a relief pitcher and sometimes a position player for the Marion Bobcats in 2013, the team’s final season of existence. In the pros, he has an 8-7 career record and WHIP of 1.12. He has started four games and earned two saves in two save opportunities. In 94.1 innings pitched, Hightower has given up 91 hits.
College: Mississippi State
Unassigned at this point
Undrafted Minor League Free Agent
- Cody Brown had a stellar senior season at Mississippi State as the Bulldogs made a valliant playoff run before bowing out of post-season play in a close series against LSU last week. He was a career .292 hitter at Starkville. Brown hit cleanup and played mostly shortstop for Mississippi State in the final weeks of this season. He played one summer in Marion for the Bobcats, finishing third on the team in hits and leading the club with a .453 on-base percentage in 2013. He hit three homers for the Bobcats, including one inside the park. The Yankees signed Brown two weeks ago to a minor league contract. He reported to the club’s developmental headquarters in Tampa, Fla., where he will be evaluated and likely will end up on the organization’s rookie league roster.
ALSO OF INTEREST
College: Ark.-Little Rock
Drafted in 34th Round
St. Louis Cardinals
- Malcom never played for the Bobcats, but he does have local roots. His family hails from Salem. Malcom is a RH pitcher who was drafted last week during the MLB 2017 first-year player draft. He set the Arkansas-Little Rock record for strikeouts in a single season with 109, appearing in 16 games.