This is what remains of the Amory High baseball park, home of the 2022 state champs, after last Friday night’s tornado. (Rick Cleveland)

AMORY — The defending baseball state champion Amory Panthers, off to a sparkling 14-1-1 start this spring, were supposed to play a home doubleheader against rival Noxubee County here on Tuesday afternoon.

That won’t happen. There’s no place to play. The Friday night tornado that turned many Amory neighborhoods into rubble, damaged hundreds of homes and downed thousands upon thousands of trees left the ballpark unrecognizable. 

Rick Cleveland

Amory High School suffered heavy damage and the baseball and softball complex was essentially blown away. The outfield fences were gone. The press boxes blew over onto the grandstands, which were dislodged. The screen behind the home plate is no more. Light poles were down all around the fields. The infield, carefully manicured before Friday night’s horrific storm, was strewn with trash and debris. Outside what used to be a concession stand were soiled baseball uniforms. The indoor batting cages were leveled, as was the team’s clubhouse. Amazingly, last year’s state championship trophy survived the storm. Across the campus, the football stadium was also heavily damaged with one set of goal posts sheared in half.

Nearby, Amory baseball coach Chris Pace spent the weekend helping with neighborhood clean-up in the heavily damaged Meadowbrook Circle area, where many of the Amory coaches and faculty live. Like it or not, Pace has become an expert at applying blue tarps to damaged roofs, including his own.

“I think Chris has helped about everyone in this neighborhood with their roofs,” down-the-street neighbor Mike Price said. “There’s been a lot of neighbors helping neighbors.”

Amory baseball coach Chris Pace outside his home in the Meadowbrook Circle neighborhood of Amory. (Rick Cleveland)

Just as Price said that, a couple came by in a small pickup truck. “Y’all need some cold bottled water?” the driver asked. “Can I interest you in a hamburger? Got some hot off the grill in here.”

A few doors down live James and Dorothy Burrow, both in their 90s, in the same house they have lived in for nearly 60 years. James was once a point guard at Mississippi State. Dorothy is one of the all-time Mississippi high school girls’ basketball greats, averaging 50 points a game one season. You’ve probably heard of their grandson: Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, the former LSU Heisman Trophy winner.

The storm severely damaged the Burrows’ home when the brick chimney fell through the ripped apart roof into the den. The Burrows were safe, riding out the tornado in the storm cellar they built beneath their carport after the deadly EF-5 tornado that ravaged nearby Smithville in 2011. Jimmy Burrow (Joe’s dad) and his wife drove all night from Athens, Ohio, after they received news of Friday night’s storm. 

Jimmy Burrow outside his parents’ Amory home. (Rick Cleveland)

For now, the Burrows are staying at a Tupelo motel until contractors can determine whether their house can be saved. Like hundreds in this town of 6,600, the Burrows will then deal with insurance and, hopefully, rebuilding. All know it could be worse. A short drive around town is all it takes to know how amazing is is that nobody within the Amory city limits died as a result of the tornado.

Said Jimmy Burrow, standing outside the house where he grew up, “Much of this town is unrecognizable, but you can’t imagine how much has already been cleaned up. These are tough, strong people here in this town and everybody’s helping everybody.”

Pace, the Amory baseball coach since 2007, says the doubleheader with Noxubee will be rescheduled but he does not know where the games will be played. A home game with Saltillo on Saturday will be played at Saltillo instead. Pace said schools from all over north Mississippi have called offering to help and support. He’s heard from Chris Lemonis at Mississippi State and Richie Harralson at Northeast Community College offering support and a place to practice. He says nearby high schools in Hatley, Smithville and Hamilton have offered their baseball fields as a home away from home for the Amory Panthers to play and practice.

Amory lost five key players off last year’s state champs, but the Amory baseball program is one that traditionally reloads rather than rebuilds. Pace has 44 players in his high school and middle school baseball program.The goal remains a repeat state championship, but the Panthers will have do it as baseball nomads.

Don’t put it past them, says Will Hall, a former state championship quarterback at Amory who also played point guard for the basketball team. Hall, the Southern Miss football coach who played for his father Bobby Hall here, became emotional Monday morning when discussing his old hometown. “I believe in Amory. I believe in its people,” Will Hall said. “I know the fiber of those people. You just watch, Amory has been knocked down but those people build back better than ever. That’s who they are.”

The view from pitcher’s mound at Amory baseball field. (Rick Cleveland)

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.