BY JEFF FALK
LEBANON – In football, everyone wants to run with the ball. In basketball, everyone wants to shoot. In soccer, everyone wants to score goals.
In baseball, everyone wants to hit.
That’s the allure of the Coleman Memorial Park Hitting Contest – seeing just how far one can whack a baseball. But what makes it such a special event is its family-friendly atmosphere, its sense of community pride and its pure celebration of the game.
On Saturday at the city park’s lower big field, the Coleman Park Hitting Contest celebrated its 30th year. Some 70 participants in six division plucked down eight bucks apiece for 25 pitches of grooved batting-practice meatballs.
Just as in years past, proceeds from the event will be used to maintain and improve Coleman Park ball fields. But perhaps the biggest benefit was just getting visitors out to Lebanon’s most scenic park.
Scores were kept. Prizes were awarded. Lower-back stiffness was inflicted. And a good time was had by all.
“It’s unique in that there are some guys participating who love baseball, but never played,” said Karl ‘Skip’ Wolf, the event’s founder and organizer. “It brings them back to their youths, I guess. They swap stories. It’s a unique reunion.
“I like to see new people coming, new generations coming,” continued Wolf. “We have three-generations of families. And I like the statistical aspect of it. Over the years, 599 different males have participated and 60 different females. It’s always nice to see new faces. But I will tell you, it’s a lot of work.”
Contested at the end of the summer after many of the local baseball leagues have crowned their champions, Wolf conducted the inaugural Coleman Park Hitting Contest in 1987. The event’s list of contestants over the years reads like a Lebanon County’s Who’s-Who of baseball, including current and former minor league players Derek Fisher, Kyle Reddinger and Lyle Krall.
“It started because the lower field did not have a fence. Everything had to be run out,” said Wolf, a former coach in the Lebanon school district, an umpire and a local sports historian. “In 1986, Dr. Lazin died and left money for the park, and we used it to put fences around the field. We decided to have a hitting contest because we finally had a fence.
“Jay Putt and I saw a hitting contest in Harrisburg,” Wolf continued. “I didn’t like it, but it gave me an idea. They had a pitching machine, but I wanted to have the human element involved. I decided to have our’s as a drop-in affair. In 29 years, the scoring has remained the same. Therefore we can compare scores and performances over the years. Baseball people like statistics. They like to see how they compare to someone else.”
“Mr. Wolf gives so much of his time,” said Jeff Mease, the patriarch of a three-generation family from Elizabethtown that has been competing in the event for 22 years. “We coming once a year is the least we could do.”
“Dad first brought me here 22 years ago,” said Justin Mease, a nine-time champion and the contest’s all-time leading hitter. “It’s good to come back, have memories and pass it on to the boys. We just appreciate what Skip does. He puts a lot of time into it.”
Hand-eye coordination, experience, strength and a fluid swing are all essential elements for success at the Coleman Memorial Park Hitting Contest. But just as important is how the ball is presented by the pitcher.
Scores are accumulated by assigning points to the lengths of the balls put in play.
“It’s very important because every pitch counts,” said Wolf. “If it’s a bad pitch, you’ve got to put it in play to get the points. You don’t get 25 swings, you get 25 pitches. You’ve really got to groove it. Pitching is important and that’s the human element we brought into it.
“About two or three years ago, Ryan Schaeffer (assistant coach for the Fredericksburg American Legion team) put one over the fence in center field and over the pine trees,” added Wolf. “I’ve never seen that. The oldest man to hit a home run was Tom Morgan, Sr., at the age of 57. That’s pretty incredible.”
“Each person is a little different,” said Jeff Mease, the official pitcher for the Mease clan. “I try to talk to the batters. ‘Where’s their groove?’ ‘Do you like it inside or outside?’ But you can throw a perfect pitch and they’ll foul it off anyway.”
On this particular day, six members of the Mease family competed in the contest. Over the years, a total of eight Meases have participated.
“Now the grand kids are doing it,” said Jamye Mease Bonanno, who has captured more division titles than any other female. “It’s just something we do every year. We like the fact that the money is given back to the community. Plus, I just like hitting better than most of the boys do.
“The first year, I sat for ten hours and we only had 12 participants,” said Wolf. “So no, I didn’t think it was going to fly. We moved it to July, but we’ve been very successful having it in August. With our expenses, we don’t make all that much money. But it’s nice to have a unique event for Coleman Park. It’s nice to attract people to Coleman Park.”
“That was good. That felt good,” said Caleb Albright, a former baseball player at Cedar Crest, of his score. “Probably the last time I batted was last month, while playing fast-pitch softball. When I get into the groove of things, I’ll be back.
“It’s neat that they do this for the community,” continued Albright. “Anybody from anywhere can come out and show off their stuff. See who’s the better hitter. I’m competitive, and there’s always talking going on.”
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