New Little League season evokes nostalgic thoughts from former players

New Little League season evokes nostalgic thoughts from former players
Navy Ortega Lakeshore team were the 1997 Florida Section 1 Champs when Lee Wedekin coached.

At the inaugural game of the Navy Ortega Lakeshore (NOL) Little League, a field full of boys looked upward in wide-eyed wonder as the season opener started with the Blue Angels roaring overhead, leaving trails of blue and gold smoke across the sky. The year was 1960, and the game took place at Blue Angel Park at Naval Air Station Jacksonville. It was the beginning of an era that has echoed down through several generations. 

NOL has gone through a kaleidoscope of changes since that day, but the sense of camaraderie and community that developed in the early days of the league has strengthened as fathers passed their proverbial bats down to their sons and daughters, and then to their grandchildren. 

Parents sit in the weeds behind a chain-link fence to watch their sons play Little League baseball in the 1970s.
Parents sit in the weeds behind a chain-link fence to watch their sons play Little League baseball in the 1970s.

One of the NOL pioneers, Lee Wedekin, was 10 years old and played on the majors when the league started. His father was on the first board of directors, and father and son spent five years bonding through baseball. After that, Wedekin didn’t return to the field for 19 years, when his firstborn was old enough to play. He spent a total of about 15 years coaching his four sons, but gave it up when he injured his elbow throwing curve balls. 

“Now I’m back out there with my grandson, but I’m sitting in the stands watching and my son is coaching,” said Wedekin. “We have had four generations of family out there, and I hope there will be a lot more of them.”

He has many fond memories of being on the field during childhood, including the time he was 12 years old and played on an all-star team that went to the state championship. He chuckled as he recollected standing at bat, facing a formidable pitcher during his time playing for NOL. 

“I remember being hit by Percy Rosenblum every time I faced him,” said Wedekin.

Rosenblum, who was also part of NOL at the beginning, played as a minor leaguer his first year, then played two years on the major league and three as a senior leaguer. The friendships forged during his time playing on the teams, including his friendship with Wedekin, have deepened through the years. 

Mark Hulsey, age 9, back in the day when he played for Navy Ortega Lakeshore (NOL) Little League.
Mark Hulsey, age 9, back in the day when he played for Navy Ortega Lakeshore (NOL) Little League.

“The Little League has been a big part of a lot of lives in the area for many years; people tend to stick around in this area,” he said.  “I played there, my two boys played there and now my grandson plays there.”

Another original NOL player, Mark Hulsey, was on the same team as Wedekin. Hulsey played second base, and Wedekin played first.   

“I always was proud of the fact that I was there for opening day at Blue Angel Park. The first year I made the majors somehow; I was in the 4th grade and Navy squadrons sponsored all the teams. My team was the VA44 Hornets,” said Hulsey.  “It was a really important part of my life at that point, and I also coached my boys for a total of about seven years in the Ponte Vedra league.”

During the late 1970s, Ortega resident Perry Walthour began playing for NOL and was there until about 1983. He spent most of that time playing in the majors for the Coke team. At that time, the teams were named after their sponsors. 

His first time at bat was a memorable experience – instead of the anticipated crack of the bat against the ball, he was hit square between the eyes and his glasses broke in half. Even that couldn’t put him on the bench – someone taped his glasses back together and the next time he went to bat, he ended up scoring a run.

Dennis Fedor

About three years ago, Walthour returned to NOL when his daughters were old enough to play softball. A few months ago, he took on the role of player agent for the softball divisions.

“It’s definitely a generational league,” he said. “There are several people I went to high school with that are parents out there, and a lot of people I know in the community are volunteers or on the board.”

In the early 2000s Steve Moore began coaching the first of his four children at NOL, and he continued to coach through last summer, when his youngest child aged out of the league. He coached over 20 teams, served on the board and the executive committee and was president of the league in 2011.

He was there to witness the fire that consumed the concession stand, boardroom building and press box, burning all the memorabilia. Although he doesn’t recall the exact date, he remembers getting the phone call about the fire. He worked nearby and was able to be there within a matter of minutes. Firefighters put out the blaze, caused by faulty wiring, but the building was in ruins. 

Perry Walthour at bat

“It was in the off season, but the season was coming up. The NOL community and NOL alums quickly rallied together, and in a matter of probably two or three months had the place rebuilt better than before. It was operational by the spring season” he said. “It was a labor of love where everyone came together to rebuild, and I have no doubt that if something like that were to happen again, they would do the same thing – that’s the way the community feels about NOL.”

Since NOL first began, it has expanded from one field to multiple fields, and numerous improvements have been made recently. At present, the NOL league has 329 registered players and 29 teams, but the goal is to expand to 400 players and about 40 teams, according to Patrick Barnett, league president.

Coca-Cola team 1979-80 with Coaches Doug Milne and Russell Walthour
Coca-Cola team 1979-80 with Coaches Doug Milne and Russell Walthour

“I feel like we are going through a transformation to bring a fun experience with enhanced facilities to the park,” said Barnett. “During the past 14 months, we put over $30,000 in private funds back into the facility. We have new scoreboards, new storage sheds, new equipment and new signage all throughout the park. We have upgraded the restrooms and the concessions as well.”

When the NOL opens its 59th season on March 2, a mix of the new and the old will be evident. Improvements to the physical facility will be much appreciated, but it’s the community spirit of NOL, pitched from one generation to the next, that makes the league strong.   

“It’s people you see at school, church, in the park and at the grocery store,” said Barnett. “It’s more of a family experience – you know everybody. It’s a tight-knit group for everyone there.” 

By Kandace Lankford
Resident Community News

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)
Loading...

You must be logged in to post a comment Login