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Not So Little Anymore

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Oviedo Little League celebrates its 50th anniversary

On February 23, several hundred young baseball and softball players – along with their families, friends, and other supporters – gathered on the playing fields next to the First United Methodist Church of Oviedo on King Street for a special celebration. Oviedo Little League marked its 50th anniversary on Opening Day of the 2019 spring season by bringing back several players, coaches, and volunteers who played a part in making the league a special place where young children are molded and friendships last a lifetime.

Longtime volunteers and former Oviedo Little League parents Cindy Baumgardner and Karen Jacobs can attest to that.
“From the humble beginnings of a small town to the time we live in now, Oviedo Little League still promotes friendship, good camaraderie, and family,” says Karen, whose husband Wayne coached their children Tracy, Katie, and Maurice in the league in the 1970s. “Once you participate, you’re a member of the Oviedo Little League family. It’s a wonderful tradition.”

Cindy first got involved with Oviedo Little League when her son Jason played T-ball in the mid-1980s. She continues to volunteer for several hours twice a week and now enjoys watching her two grandchildren play in the league.

“Oviedo Little League is about a community coming together to do something for the kids, and that’s the type of community we live in,” says Cindy, who is known for bringing her cowbell to league games and traveling all over the country to watch her favorite teams play. “It’s special because of all the kids and how they play together, laugh together, and cry together. We’re one big family.”

Little to Big
Many of those family members gathered for the 50th anniversary celebration, including all of the league’s current players, some players from the first teams who played in the 1960s, and some players who went on to play Major League Baseball. Those big-league alumni include Oviedo High graduates Mark and Todd Bellhorn, Hagerty graduate Zach Eflin (currently a pitcher with the Philadelphia Phillies), and former Lake Howell and Oviedo player Carlos Cortes, drafted last year by the New York Mets.

“Little League is a true family environment that flourishes when families get involved,” says Todd Cluxton, a longtime Oviedo Little League president, coach, and parent. “We are a family run by volunteers, and when you get like-minded people involved, you can do great things. We created a family atmosphere that people wanted to be a part of.”

Todd first got involved in 1999. His wife Debbie was already busy running the concession stand, and Todd would go on to coach his daughter Maddie and sons Cade and Cody. During his 15 years as president, Todd helped Oviedo Little League make several major improvements, both on the field and financially.

One of Todd’s fellow coaches, Stan Merrell, was also instrumental in raising funds for the league through annual golf tournaments that he organized with his father, Joe, who was a board member and coached young Stan and his brother Whit in the 1980s. Stan’s son Cole, now 15 and a junior varsity pitcher for Trinity Preparatory School, played in the league from age 5 to 12.

Stan, a 1989 Oviedo High graduate, recalls playing in the Oviedo Little League with Eddie and Alex Martinez, the younger brothers of current Washington Nationals manager and former MLB player Dave Martinez, a Lake Howell High graduate.
“It’s been a labor of love over 30-plus years for the Merrell family,” Stan says. “It’s Americana at its finest. It’s baseball, apple pie, and mom. All of us have made lifelong friendships. My parents still go out to dinner with friends they made from those days.”

Oviedo Little League is the city’s oldest nonprofit youth sports organization and currently has approximately 400 players on 27 teams – boys and girls ranging in age from 4 to 14. The league also has a Challenger Division for children with physical and developmental disabilities. Oviedo Little League is run 100 percent by volunteers and has always relied on donations from local businesses and community members.

“Our fields look great, our numbers are strong, and we’re still chugging away after 50 years,” says Brian Nolan, current league president, whose son A.J. (now 10) has been playing in the league since age four. “I think Oviedo is just a really big baseball town. Look at our high schools. Both Oviedo and Hagerty have had so many kids who have gone on to play college baseball and get drafted.”

The Humblest of Beginnings
Even though Oviedo Little League wasn’t officially incorporated until 1969, the league started in the early 1960s with three teams: Oviedo, Chuluota, and Slavia. Karen Jacobs was in high school at the time, and she recalls a very different town back then.

“Oviedo was very small; you knew everybody,” says Karen, who graduated from Oviedo High School (which included first grade through 12th back then) as part of the 33-student Class of 1965. “If you drove through a stop sign, you could be sure somebody would see you and call your parents!”

Dr. Ed Stoner – the town’s only doctor in the ‘60s – founded Oviedo Little League in partnership with First Methodist Church. Encouraged by Dr. Stoner, a member of the church, First Methodist leased some of its land to the league for just $1 per year.
Today, that land boasts four baseball fields complete with concessions and practice facilities. Back then, though, it was just a heavily wooded area full of cabbage palm roots. Instead of fancy team uniforms, players simply wore long-sleeved white shirts and jeans. And then there was the issue of nearby bathrooms.

“The first bathroom was no bathroom,” laughs Karen. “We went in the woods.”

Eventually, the league procured a couple of porta potties, but they were placed next to some beehives. So, let's just say the woods remained a popular alternative. It wasn’t until Karen stood up to the Oviedo Little League board in the mid-1980s that permanent bathrooms were built on the grounds. She contacted a local contractor, got permission from the church, and then secured donated supplies and labor to complete the project.

“It’s all about the community coming together to do something for the kids,” Cindy says.

For the countless volunteers who make Oviedo Little League run, it is truly a labor of love. One month before Opening Day, a couple of volunteer parents – Kevin Gallaher and John Corrao – could be found touching up the paint on the dugouts and enjoying every minute of it.

“Oviedo, in general, is something special,” says Kevin, a former pro baseball player who now coaches Hagerty High’s pitchers. 

“We’re all volunteers, and there’s a different family-oriented feeling from other leagues. It’s pretty neat.”
Cindy certainly agrees.

“If you want to be involved in an awesome organization, Oviedo Little League is the one,” she says. “It’s been around for 50 years, and it will be here for another 50 years... I hope!”

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