'Step back in time': Hays Larks celebrate 75th anniversary in style

Rick Peterson Jr.
Hays Daily News
Former Hays Larks' players gather for a photo Friday night for the Larks celebration of their 75th anniversary season.
Former Lark Aaron Cornell hugs Larks' pitching coach Keith Harper as former Larks were honored between innings on Friday's night game.
Arlen Walters, who played and managed for the Hays Larks in the 1950s and 1960s is recognized between innings on Friday at Larks Park.
Former Lark Jim Leyritz, who won two World Series championships with the New York Yankees, acknowledges the crowd before Friday's game at Larks Park.

Once a Lark, always a Lark. 

Though their time in the program may be fleeting, every player that has donned a Hays Lark uniform is part of a longstanding and treasured baseball tradition. 

And the tradition was celebrated in style on Friday night at Larks Park.

The Larks welcomed back about 60 former players as the team celebrated its 75th anniversary during a 10-4 win over the Denver Cougars.

"The guys, I don't get to be with them but for one summer, sometimes a couple summers. It goes pretty quick," Larks manager Frank Leo said. "But the relationships, they're lasting."

For Leo, in his 40th season at the helm of the Larks, it was "a step back in time."

"The last time I saw a lot of them, they were on the other side of the fence playing," he said. "Just a great feeling. This program has come a long ways since some of these guys played here. The guys that played for me early just can't believe the atmosphere. They'd say 'Coach, we had more people here tonight than we did in three total seasons when we played.'

"It's a tribute to where our program is and what the community is doing for our program and what we're doing for the community."

The alums on hand were honored between innings. 

"It's cool to come back and see that every year, they're trying to get better, and the community is still supporting them; that's the coolest thing about coming to Hays," said Aaron Cornell, who played for the Larks for four years from 2011 to 2014 and then coached with the team until 2018. 

Memories came flooding back to Cornell, who played at Oklahoma State and now is an assistant coach at Murray State. 

"The biggest thing is being a (beverage) batter on a night and having those nerve-racking at-bats," Cornell said with a smile.

The Lark Legends present included Jim Leyritz, who won World Series championships with the New Yankees in 1996 and 1999. He played with the Larks in 1985. 

"It's a tribute to Jim, coming in all the way from California," Leo said. "This was a part of his step, he signed right after the NBC World Series with the Yankees. A pretty special time for him."

One of the biggest thrills for Leo was seeing a couple players — Bruce Anthony and Greg Bailey — from the first Larks' team he coached in 1981. 

"It's been a long time since I've seen them," Leo said. "It was pretty special for them to come back."

Larks' teammates that Leo played with in the 70s were also on hand, including Pat James, Rod Ruder, Denny Staab and Galen Pfannenstiel.

"It's been a pretty special weekend for me," Leo said. 

Arlen Walters, a significant figure in Larks' history, was honored before the game by taking the lineup out to the umpire. Walters played and managed for the Hays Larks in the 1950s and 1960s.

"He's a Lark from back in the day," Leo said. "He just lost his wife back in the fall. He made a drive from Vegas all the way by himself to be here. Pretty proud of him.

"He got to take the lineup out to home plate tonight and he was thrilled to death with that."

Cornell, who Leo called a fan favorite, said he enjoyed re-connecting with former Lark teammates. 

"Ran into some guys I didn't expect to see here and haven't seen (for a long time)," he said. "Catching up with them is just unbelievable, seeing where every one is at. People have kids, people have gotten married. Just seeing those guys have those things is kind of shocking. It's been really cool. And seeing some of the older guys has been really cool."

Cornell said Hays was like his home away from home for four summers. 

"I give a lot of credit to my host family, Danielle Lummus and Lane Lummus," Cornell said. "It was just like home. They were like my second mom and dad. The host families really take you in and make you feel at home."

Gary and Deb Weatherbee, who have been serving as a host family for the Larks since the mid 1990s, were recognized between innings.  

Cornell praised Leo for building the Larks into a community staple and welcoming a family atmosphere. 

"He's always out for the best interest for you as well as the team — that's what I loved about him. I'm a big team guy," Cornell said. "He looks after this program and takes care of it."

On the field, the Larks moved to 8-1 on the season.

Fourth-year Lark Wyatt Divis gave up just one run on seven hits in six innings on the mound, striking out six with no walks. Grant Lung had three hits and Leo Jiminian came up with two clutch hits, including a two-run double off the top of the wall to drive in two. 

"Leo had a heck of a night tonight," Leo said. "Barreled the ball, got us ahead. Had a great game. And Wyatt is Wyatt, he's going to compete. And I'm hoping his competitiveness just keeps wearing off on our ball club."

Leo said it was fitting for the team to play well in front of the former Larks. 

"We showed our alums that this could be the club that maybe takes us to the promiseland this summer," Leo said. "A lot of good things have to happen and we have to stay away from injuries. 

"I like the club we have. We've got a lot of special things."

The Larks were set to play the Cougars in the second game of the series on Saturday before closing the series out at 7 p.m. Sunday at Larks Park.