I believe that baseball, regardless of the scandals rocking the major league sector of the sport, still has the ability to change the life of a child. I believe that the game, when played with an emphasis on fundamentals, sportsmanship, and equality, can become something more than a game. It can turn a small of patch of dirt and grass into a community.
The reason I believe this is because of Wildcat, a small but mighty program tucked away in a likewise small but important corner of Northeast Indiana where every year, more than 3,000 kids don red, white, and blue shirts and caps and head to the diamond to play baseball all summer for free. Wildcat’s founder, Dale “Mr. Mac” McMillen started the league in 1960 in Fort Wayne, Indiana when he saw lines of youngsters returning devastated from competitive little league tryouts because they’d been cut from the team. That was how Wildcat’s motto, “Where Everybody Makes the Team” was born. Mr. Mac didn’t want any child shut out of summer baseball because of a lack of on-field finesse or empty pockets.
This week, Wildcat will be holding its annual signups at fourteen sites across the city. Boys and girls will jump out of minivans and SUVs and sedans and run to card tables manned by their favorite coaches—high schoolers and college kids, most of them former Wildcatters—eager to try on their new shirts and hats and chatter about the upcoming season. They will then spend the next two months learning how to treat the baseball like an egg and their coaches, teammates, and opponents with respect and kindness.
I started playing Wildcat when I was seven-years-old, determined to be just as good as my older brothers, despite my long ponytail and my Barbies waiting for me at home. I became a coach nine years later. Those were summers of dirty knees and tiny triumphs, of sunburns and life lessons. A string of beloved coaches and later, Wildcatters under my own supervision, taught me that winning is never as important as playing with heart.
Last year my brother, Brian, and I attended the culminating event of the Wildcat baseball season—Mr. Mac Day, a morning of friendly competition that takes place every year on the first Tuesday in August—to revisit a little slice of our past. We had spent the previous weekend preparing to move my mother out of her home of thirty years into a condo near me in Northern Kentucky and were worried about severing most of our ties to our hometown in the process. Everything was changing. The question my brother and I asked ourselves as we parked our car and followed the sea of Wildcatters toward coaches pounding in bases and diamonds festooned with bunting, was ‘Had Wildcat changed?’ We inspected everything—the accuracy throw—they were still using the same old tires as targets—the lunch menu—Twinkies and this yellow concoction called Jungle Juice were still featured fare—and the Kitty league All-Star game. A young boy with dark hair like my brother’s and a wiry arm took to the mound and fired a fastball toward Casey, a little girl with red hair and pink cleats. The air was thick with anticipation and humidity. Somehow Casey’s performance at the plate became tied to my need for reassurance that whether my mom moved away from Fort Wayne or not, a little part of me would always be there, in that city, on the baseball diamonds of my childhood. I’m happy to say that on that muggy day in Fort Wayne, unlike the fateful one in Mudville, Casey, little Casey, did not strike out.
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