Born and raised in Laurel Hill, Tim Herndon remembers his days playing first base as both an Optimist Club and Scotland County Parks and Recreation baseball player. Herndon was also a member of the varsity Fighting Scots baseball team.
Now an assistant coach of the Pitt County Girls Softball League 10U All-Stars, Herndon made the three-hour journey with his team and fellow coaches to compete in the Eastern North Carolina Babe Ruth state softball tournament. And upon his arrival, Herndon reminisced about how far the Optimist Club has come since his playing days some 35 years ago.
“When I was the same age as these kids out here, we didn’t have facilities this nice,” said Herndon, whose stepdaughter Lexie Vincent plays for the Pitt County All-Stars. “It’s definitely special for me to return home, but things have progressed a long ways since I remember suiting up for the Optimist Club.”
If you ask those who helped organize the opening ceremony for the ENC softball tournament Tuesday evening, there is one man to thank for the rapid expansion of the Optimist baseball and softball programs. And despite the rainy weather that threatened to put a damper on Tuesday’s festivities, that man was honored by the more than 1200 players, coaches and family members in attendance as the beginning of the tournament commenced.
His name was John Phillip Hayes Jr, former commissioner of the Optimist Club Baseball Committee who passed away in June of 2010 at the age of 57. And as the tournament was dedicated to his memory, current Optimist Club President Richard Massey came equipped with a list of statistics which he read aloud to attendees which emphasized Hayes’ lasting legacy.
“When Hayes joined the club, Optimist Club had two lighted fields, a small concession stand and just 12 total teams,” Massey said. “By the time he passed away, we were fielding 37 teams, 450+ players and had four baseball and two softball leagues. It will take a lot to fill his shoes, but Phillip’s presence is definitely still felt out here every day.”
In addition to Massey, Mayor Tommy Parker was also on hand to welcome the 35 teams from throughout North Carolina to the city of Laurinburg. 12 year-old Gibson McLaurin sang the National Anthem, and in a fitting tribute, Hayes’ wife Deborah, son Phil (accompanied by wife Molly), and mother Catherine Seales Hayes Marvin threw out the ceremonial first pitch to signal the start of the tournament.
“This is the one tournament that Phillip really wanted to see be brought to Laurinburg,” said Optimist Club Director of Baseball and Softball Operations Jamie Sutherland. “This is a great opportunity to really show the non-locals what we have to offer in Laurinburg, but for those who helped set it up, this tournament holds special significance because it was Phillip’s dream to see our Optimist Club come this far.”
The scale and magnitude of the Optimist Club’s opening night ceremony didn’t go unnoticed in the eyes of Melodee Wolfe, team manager of the Pitt County All-Stars. Though her team has yet to play an inning at the park, they will be amongst the first squads to experience Optimist Park when the tournament officially begins Wednesday morning at 9:00 a.m.
And though she hasn’t been in town long, Wolfe already sees just how much Optimist baseball and softball means to Scotland County.
“This team and these girls can certainly relate to how seriously everything is taken here in Laurinburg,” Wolfe said. “Just like the Optimist Club here understands, we also understand how much of a difference a league like this can make in the lives of the young people that take part in it.”