The bidding at the live auction went back and forth, rapid serve and volley in small increments.
A young man in a wheelchair was bidding in earnest for his choice of a Major League Baseball All-Star game baseball cap autographed by Benton’s Cliff Lee or an autographed ball. A rival kept upping the bid.
When the older man prevailed, auctioneer Jay Runyon asked his choice. “Whichever he wants,” as the man pointed with a smile to Justin Norman, his bidding rival and a wheelchair-bound player for the Conway Braves, a Miracle League team that was the focus of the fundraiser at The Hole in the Wall/Ole Gin.
And that was the overriding theme of goodwill for the baseball-themed fundraiser for the construction of Braves Field, a handicap-accessible field and playground for special needs athletes at Curtis Walker Park.
The tone began, as in most ballgames, with the singing of the National Anthem by Treva Blomquist-Gordon — who preceded the rendition by James Taylor for the World Series on the big-screen TV — her’s to an impromptu but interesting accompaniment to fresh popcorn popping nearby.
Centennial Bank’s Grill Masters provided hot dogs and hamburgers as the crowd came in their favorite team’s gear, which included Bears, Warriors, Mustangs, Razorbacks, Red Wolves, Yankees, Sooners, Travelers and Wampus Cats. One person had a fusion — a Wampus Cat shirt with a Cubs cap.
UCA baseball coach Allen Gum and his Southland Conference Tournament and regional finalist baseball team were special guests, and they did their part in making sure there were no leftovers for the cats who were wandering about in the parking lot.
But this evening was not about getting deals on such things as two tickets (valued at $1,000 apiece) to Saturday’s Game 3 of the World Series in St. Louis — or two personalized wedges from Bryce Molder or a suite for a Travelers game or a weekend in a Little Rock River Market condo.
It was not about players getting to play in an NCAA regional or even a World Series.
It was about giving a group of special needs individuals, with various disabilities, a chance to play and a chance to do it with similarly challenged individuals in a facility that caters to their abilities. It’s an opportunity for them and their parents to play and enjoy watching a game in a safe, disability-friendly environment. It’s an opportunity to enjoy a game in a way most of us take for granted.
It’s a chance to be kids and have fun like kids.
David Grimes is heading the project to raise $300,000 in private funds — big and small — so that the special needs field and playground can be constructed and opened for play in May of next year. He said the fundraising is on track with the anticipated boost from Thursday night’s event. “Even by Conway’s high standards the amount of support has been amazing,” he said.
Jeff Matthews of B98.5 emceed the event. He helped the efforts to build the widely acclaimed Miracle League Field in Little Rock several years ago. When he moved to Conway, he saw the need and has helped address that with the same passion.
Gum, who is as much about community as he is winning, noted his team’s connection to the program during some Saturday games in the league involving many of his players. They pitch to the competitors, help them run bases, instruct them and become special friends to many.
“It means a lot to them,” Gum said. “Several of them kept a picture of a player they have helped. They still talk about it.”
Silent auction items included an autographed bat by Pete Rose, a football autographed by the revived Hendrix football team, an autographed photo of Razorback coach Bret Bielema, dinners at various Conway restaurants and some special opportunities involving UCA events.
Grimes unveiled a sculpture, entitled “The Catch” and donated by Steve and Claudia Strange, that will be displayed at the new ballpark. It’s of a youngster, glove outstretched, with a baseball on its edge. The magic of the sculpture is it’s left to the imagination whether the player caught the ball.
Organizers set a goal of $10,000 to come out of the event. Grimes said the final total was almost $14,000.
A lot of people caught the spirit, and the project received a home run — a grand slam at that.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or email@example.com)