Summer is when current athletes are made and future athletes are formed. But it's also a time to take off the competitive edge and have fun. The Wildcat Baseball League and Lifetime Sports Academy, both community staples, are gearing up for another summer of sports fun.
While watching Little League tryouts in 1960, Dale McMillen couldn't help but notice the disappointment on faces of young boys as they left the baseball diamond after failing to make the team.
Known as Mr. Mac to his friends, McMillen created the Wildcat Baseball League within a year, allowing everyone to play, no matter their skill level.
He referred to it as, “the greatest thing I ever did.”
Still following that “everybody makes the team” motto 59 years later, the Wildcat season starts Monday for boys and girls ages 6 to 15.
The league is broken down by age group, with the youngest group called the Kitten leaguers and the oldest the Tigers.
Just like when it was created, the league is spread over 10 different sites: Aboite, Arlington Elementary School, Blackhawk Middle School, Foster Park, Hamilton Park, Leo, New Haven at Havenhurst, Bob Arnold Northside Park, St. Joe Park and Washington Center.
Each site has its own director, assistant director and junior coach.
The season lasts seven weeks, from Monday to July 19. Each week, the team completes three activities, including one practice and two games.
Games are always played at the same site, with players never having to travel to another diamond for a game.
During practices, a fundamental of the week is taught by league officer Gary Rogers. The skills range anywhere from pitching to outfield play.
Bill Derbyshire, president of the league, said the goal of the league is to keep the sport fun and enjoyable as the members are taught the fundamentals of the game.
“We want them to enjoy the game without saying, 'If you're not a .300 hitter, you're not any good.' We're not interested in that,” Derbyshire said.
Derbyshire began his Wildcat career in 1969 as a director at the Kekionga site. He then served as league secretary for 11 years and has been president since 2004.
He said what makes the league so special is its longevity.
“This is our 59th year, and we still accept all kids. They can play every time they come. There's not a fear of being embarrassed by not playing well,” Derbyshire said. “Our staff is really good at helping the little ones. The first timers feel comfortable playing baseball.”
This season, Derbyshire is expecting about 1,500 members across the 10 sites, a number they typically see every summer.
What keeps him coming back every year, though, is watching the youngest players grow and improve their skill level.
“They come, they're shy, saying, 'I don't know if I want to play,' ” Derbyshire said. “By the time the season is over, they may be the first ones there, 'I'm ready to play, I'm ready to play!' That enthusiasm, you can't beat that. That's special.”
After team members arrive for practice Monday, Derbyshire said he and his staff hope to create a remarkable season that mirrors past years.
“We'll have adults say, 'I played Wildcat at McMillen Park.' They have great memories,” Derbyshire said. “We hope that the kids, when they finish this year, will have the great memories that all of the thousands of kids have had in the past.”
Lifetime Sports Academy
In its 23rd year, the Lifetime Sports Academy will return to McMillen Park on Wednesday to teach children the basics of golf, tennis and swimming.
Funded by the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department and Lifetime Sports Academy Committee, the program offers free lessons to children from ages 7 to 18, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Jason Smith, a member of the Parks Department, has worked closely behind the scenes and on the field with the program since 1997.
“First and foremost, the kids are there to learn the three sports,” Smith said. “They're given lessons in all three sports from very skilled instructors, anywhere from college players to pros.”
The idea of the program came to Tom Jehl and Jerry Fox as they were making their way around a golf course in 1996.
Jehl thought it would have been great to learn to correctly play the sport as a kid, as opposed to adulthood where he adopted some bad playing habits.
From there, they outlined a program of lifetime sports, or sports you can play for life without a toll on your body, including golf, tennis and swimming.
They brought the idea to the Parks Department, working together to create the academy.
The department also saw a need for a pavilion program, as many children participating had younger siblings who did not meet the age requirement. At the pavilion, there are activities including arts and crafts, board games, pingpong and foosball.
Under the supervision of academy director and Wayne High School teacher and track coach, Tom Hogan, the academy expects 1,000 to 1,200 participants.
While completing the lessons, participants work toward earning a prize in the sport they're learning about. For golf, a set of clubs and a game on the par 3 course at McMillen Park can be earned; tennis players work toward a tennis racket; and swimmers have prizes such as a cap and goggles or a towel.
“The goal is the same as every season,” Smith said. “To teach as many kids as we can the three sports, and to develop an interest or possible love for any of the various sports, and to just continue them on.”
Smith said members don't have to stick to one activity but can choose to take lessons in all of them, since the program is designed so lessons are on different days.
Even if a lesson isn't scheduled for a particular sport, there are still activities involving it going on around the park.
“That's kind of the beauty of this program. You can show up as much as you want, or as little as you want,” Smith said. “It's not a progressive program, so to say. The putting lesson on the first day of the program is the same as the putting lesson on the last day of the program.”