CONWAY Jeff Matthews doesn’t have a special-needs child, but his friend David Grimes does, and it’s baseball that brings them together.
The Conway men are co-chairing a project to raise $600,000 in private donations to build a Miracle League baseball field and a handicapped-accessible playground.
“I just love baseball and love the idea of a game that would bring the typical kid alongside the kid who has special needs,” Matthews said. “In my mind, it knocks down all barriers; all it would be is baseball.”
Matthews and his wife, Tiffany, have three children: Mary Grace, 9; Ellie, 7; and Beckett, 5.
Matthews was on the founding board of Miracle League of Arkansas and helped build a field in Little Rock, purely for the love of the game and to give special-needs kids the opportunity to play.
Mary Grace was a Miracle League buddy, Matthews said, who helped a special-needs child during games.
A fourth-grade student at Woodrow Cummins Elementary School in Conway, Mary Grace was a buddy for a legally blind girl.
“I would sometimes tell her when to swing, and I would tell her to move,” said Mary Grace, a softball player.
“I liked it because you’re helping other people, and you just really have fun out there, and it’s not as competitive as softball.
“I think it’s a good thing for them because I don’t think they should be left out just because they’re in wheelchairs and just because they have special needs.”
That’s the same attitude her dad has.
“That’s what I wanted — for my kids and everybody else’s to have baseball to kind of be the conduit between these two kids,” Matthews said. “It evens the playing field.”
The radio personality and his family moved to Conway in January 2009.
“We (he and Grimes) knew one another. I kind of put a bug in Mayor [Tab] Townsell’s ear, David’s ear, anybody who would listen — ‘Hey, if it happens here, I want to be involved,’” Matthews said. “I didn’t know about David’s personal connection.”
“A Miracle League field has been on the city’s master plan for a while,” said Grimes, a member of the Conway City Council.
A father of three, Grimes and his wife, Laura, have an 11-year-old son, John David, who has tuberous sclerosis complex, a genetic disorder that causes benign tumors. Most of his tumors are in his brain and cause seizures and learning disabilities.
Still, he’s an active boy.
John David played Miracle League baseball in the spring in Little Rock.
“I saw that the program is even better than people think it is,” Grimes said. “I wanted to do it [in Conway] sooner, rather than later.”
Grimes said he talked to Steve Ibbotson, director of the Conway Parks and Recreation Department.
“I said, ‘Let’s try to get it going by raising private funds,’” Grimes said. “Our goal is to raise 100 percent of the money privately.”
The field would be built at Curtis Walker Park in Conway and be maintained by the city parks department and operated by the city.
A Miracle League baseball field has a special rubberized surface so that children on walkers and in wheelchairs can move around easily, Grimes said, but it’s softer than asphalt, so if they fall, it minimizes the chance of injury.
“It’s purely recreation,” Grimes said of the games. “All kids bat. There are no outs, no score kept — just for fun.”
Grimes said a competitive Miracle League exists for children who are more physically advanced, and there is an adult league.
“Curtis Walker Park being right next door to the Conway Human Development Center, residents of CHDC would be able to utilize [the field] to the extent they would like,” he said.
The Miracle League of Arkansas is involved with the Conway project, too, Grimes said.
Grimes said he hopes the field will be ready for play in spring 2014.
A Miracle League field is needed in Conway, based on the success of the Conway Braves, Grimes said.
Dr. Kim Patterson founded the Conway Braves, a T-ball team for special-needs kids, in her backyard about 11 years ago.
She started the team because of her and Dr. Bill Patterson’s son, Ben, who had a rare neurological disease and died in August 2007.
Kim Patterson said the team grew from 10 kids to 50-plus in three leagues this year, including adults.
Although the team uses college fields, they aren’t the proper fields for special-needs players.
Patterson said she’s glad the Miracle League field is coming together because it’s something she has wanted for years but was told the city couldn’t afford.
Grimes said that’s why private donations are being sought, adding that former Conway Braves players will play in the Miracle League.
A sports-themed Miracle League fundraiser is scheduled for 6 p.m. Oct. 24 at the Old Gin in Conway with University of Central Arkansas Bears baseball coach Allen Gum and the team. Participants are encouraged to wear jerseys or shirts representing their favorite teams.
Tickets, at $25 each, are on sale at Randy’s Athletics, 2585 N. Donaghey Ave., and at The Fieldhouse, 3605 London Road, and are available by calling Grimes at (501) 269-0412.
Miracle League Conway also has a Facebook page.
The Conway Kiwanis Club voted in July to sponsor the Miracle League, pledging $20,000 over five years.
“It’s been well-received; we’ve had great support so far,” Grimes said.
“We’re trying to raise funds and awareness by what we’re doing.”
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or email@example.com.