Under cool spring skies on April 15, Pascagoula’s glorious baseball past was very much on display at historic Ingalls Field. On this morning, Panther players from the last 50 years or so gathered to play an alumni game, plus honor the 1983 state champions on that team’s 40th anniversary. The event was organized by the Dugout Club and present Panther head coach Richie Tillman.
That 1983 PHS team was indeed very strong, and it is one of five Pascagoula nines to win it all, joining the 1967, 1968, 1996, and 2012 editions. Pascagoula has also won seven south state championships, plus 24 (wow) district championships over the years.
On this particular occasion, 27 former Panthers, dating back as far as 1964, took the field. Also appropriately present were numerous coaches and supporters of the program from over the years, plus several Goula Girls (the program’s prestigious team of young ladies who serve as bat girls and handle other tasks as well), including some of the original group established in 1983.
“It was a great time seeing so many faces that have been a part of such an outstanding tradition as Panther baseball,” said Michael Moreland, a member of the 1983 championship team. “I believe having events such as alumni games, honoring great teams of the past, recognizing former players, Goula Girls, and so on is important in maintaining that history and tradition.”
I, along with my colleague Gary Stevens, had the distinct honor and privilege of serving as announcers of the contest and festivities from the press box (Used to do that some for city league games back when I was in high school. I also kept the scorebook for the games, when I wasn’t playing, for $3.00/game).
What we watched unfold in front of us was impressive as the group of former players has aged well. Solid pitching, crisp fielding (for the most part), and some loud hitting displays took place. Will Tomes, a star on the 2012 champs, went deep with a bomb over the left field wall. Jimmy Colmer, a closer at Ole Miss in the early 80s, looked right at home on the mound. Phillip Haigler, Class of ’92 and later a top pitcher at Vanderbilt, looked like he hasn’t missed a beat. Mike McCarty, who was a key pitcher for the 2012 team (won game two in the championship series) wore his old uni and looked outstanding on the diamond.
The only facet of play that would appear to have gone down a bit would be running speed. Let’s just say that the old “hustle down to first” deal was not a big thing on the day, and a couple of sure doubles to the gaps were turned into long singles. Hey, we didn’t need any pulled hammies out there, right?
After the game, a special ceremony was held on the field to honor the 1983 state champs. That team really was something else, still holding numerous school records, including a .368 team batting average, 331 runs scored, and 39 home runs, while averaging an impressive 10 runs per game.
Stars on that team were too numerous to mention all of them here, but let’s recall a few. Mike Thomas was a phenomenal pitcher/hitter combo, and was named as the Mississippi Player of the Year. Other first team all-staters were outfielder Paul Tanner (he went 49 for 98 that year—the only Panther to ever finish the season at .500) and shortstop Danny Holifield. All told, 12 members of that squad signed college scholarships.
The 1983 team was coached by Donnie Davis, who had played on the 1967 state champs himself. Assistant coach was Johnny Olsen, a Panther great from 1974-76 who went on to a sterling run as head coach for many years, winning the state championship in 1996. Mike Thomas, Donnie Davis, Johnny Olsen, and Michael Moreland, along with numerous other Panther baseball standouts, have been enshrined in the Pascagoula Athletic Hall of Fame.
The concluding part of the day’s events was both meaningful and quite touching. Pascagoula-Gautier School District Athletic Director Steven Engle announced that, going forward, the aforementioned Ingalls Field would now be known as Richie Tillman Field, in honor of Coach Tillman, who has been the Panther head coach since 2011 and will be retiring from that position at this season’s conclusion.
Richie has been a Panther through-and-through. A 1986 PHS grad, he was a star catcher and team captain. After playing at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, Richie went into coaching and teaching, eventually becoming Coach Olsen’s assistant at Pascagoula from 1996-2010. After being named head coach in 2011, Coach Tillman has led the Panthers to the 2012 state championship, plus a couple of south state titles, the most recent in 2021.
Upon hearing the announcement, which was a surprise to him, Richie was very emotional. “To me as a coach, it’s always been about the players and the team, and playing baseball the Panther Way” said Richie. “I have to thank my mother and father for so much. My dad taught me how to play the game the right way before he died when I was very young. My mom picked up the pieces after we lost him and did an incredible job with the family the rest of the way up. Of course, my wife Kim has always been a rock for me. Having this field, which has been such a big part of my life, named after me is an honor I will never forget.”
So, having watched the “old guys” play, the ’83 team honored, and the field being named for Coach Tillman, I drove on out on Tucker Street to head home. It was a good day, one that makes you feel glad to be alive and to live where you live and to know who you know. Pascagoula baseball has long been the standard bearer for the sport in Mississippi, and the events of this particular Saturday serve to remind one of how lucky we are locally to be a part of a cool city, with successful athletic programs standing tall as one of our many points of pride.