For 43 years, the Mallard Creek Optimist Club has hosted the springtime ritual for its baseball and softball programs, the most recent being April 5 at its Mallard Creek Community Park fields.
Under a crystal-blue sky with perfect seasonal temperatures, about 500 baseball and softball players lined Field 3’s infield rim separating the dirt from the outfield grass. They stood or took a knee and listened to MCOC President Stewart Mallard declare the season open.
“I’ve got one more thing to say,” Mallard said in conclusion: “Play ball.”
The MCOC’s baseball leagues are affiliated with the PONY national sanctioning body and range in age groups from Shetland (a T-ball league for 5- to 6-year-olds) to the Colt division for 15- to 16-year-olds. All age groups through 11- to 12-year-olds play in house leagues, while those 13 and older have interleague play with members of the North Meck Pony League, which includes associations from Lake Norman-area towns.
The spring season will continue through early June, at which time all-star teams will be selected to represent MCOC in tournaments. The MCOC also runs a fall baseball program.
Last weekend’s opening-day ceremonies started with the annual parade of teams toward Field 3, where Mallard waited with a microphone to address the players and parents who lined the chain-link fence from first base to third.
Mallard remarked on how pearly white the players’ pants were before they took the field and said he was especially fond of the neon-green jerseys worn by the Cheetah’s softball teams standing near first base.
“I’m almost blinded by the light of the lime-green girls over there,” said Mallard. “I love it.”
Mallard’s surname matches the club he serves and the community in which he lives, but his lineage is from eastern North Carolina, not northeast Charlotte. Mallard made it a point, however, to move his family into a Mallard Creek neighborhood when they relocated to University City 16 years ago.
Tommy Oehler, 75, is deeply connected to the MCOC, its baseball program and the Mallard Creek community. His family’s name is the “Oehler” in Johnston-Oehler Road, the address of Mallard Creek Community Park.
Oehler, called “The Godfather of Mallard Creek baseball” by Mallard, is the only original member of the MCOC still active. He has served the league as a coach, groundskeeper and umpire, and helped build the league’s “BBQ Fields,” at the Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church property on Mallard Creek Road.
Oehler grew up on the family farm about a mile from Mallard Creek Community Park. He was the coach of the first Mallard Creek 11- to 12-year-old team, which formed a couple years before MCOC was founded in 1971.
It has become an annual ritual for Oehler to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on opening day. This year, he pitched to MCOC Baseball Commissioner Scott Watson.
“There have been a lot of changes (over the years),” said Oehler. “We used to not play on weekends. Most people in the area were small, part-time farmers who worked on the weekends. Or we went fishing or something like that.
“Now (the weekend) is when people want to do things.”
Oehler and his brother Craven Oehler are the main caretakers of both sets of MCOC fields. Tommy also is director of the booking agency that provides MCOC with umpires.
Other sports sponsored by the MCOC include football, basketball, golf and cheerleading. Additional youth programs the local club leads include bicycle safety and an oratorical contest.
“Optimist Clubs are all about bringing out the best in kids,” Mallard said.