My sister met Bill, an optometrist in Conway, at church.
“Bill is a really neat guy,” she said. “I thought you would enjoy hearing how the Conway Braves program got started.”
On a picture perfect catch-playing day — overcast skies and a nice cool breeze — I went early to the Conway Braves field at Curtis Walker Park to stretch and see what I could learn from observation. The field is composed of a similar turf to the Miracle League field by my house and it’s 125 feet from home plate to left, center, and right field.
This field is the same field Henry played ball on last summer. Thanks to one of the local colleges broadcasting the game on the radio, I heard one of his at-bats during dinner. Side note: it is perfectly fine to chase after the ball in t-ball and place it back on the tee after hitting.
Directly behind home is a sign marking the location of “Ben’s Bleachers.”
Just as I finished stretching, Bill arrived at the field and asked to borrow a glove, “I looked, but just couldn’t find mine.” He noted it had been a couple of years since he last played catch, “probably when I was helping work with the Braves.”
The Conway Braves started in Bill’s backyard because of his son Ben. Ben was diagnosed with Neurodegeneration with Brain Iron Accumulation (see https://www.nbiadisorders.org/) at the age of 8.
“In many ways, it’s similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease,” Bill said. “Kids like Ben are constantly going to doctors, all the different therapists and appointments, but on the ball field, they can really be a kid. The Braves started so Ben could play ball just like his brother.”
Bill grew up a Cardinals fan in northeast Arkansas and mentioned favorite players ranging from Stan Musial and Bob Gibson to Ozzie Smith and Yadier Molina. We tossed the ball on the grass next to the field, attempting knuckleballs and curveballs alike, and he told me the story of going to a game in St. Louis when the Phillies were in town. Bill wound up with Steve Carlton’s autograph.
“I kind of got my fifteen minutes of fame because of that,” he laughed.
When the Braves program started, Bill said that they were pretty much flying by the seat of their pants, learning along the way, and trying to make the best decisions possible. It sounded exactly like Catch 365. I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I’m meeting incredible people through this great game along the way.
With tremendous community support and donations, the field opened in 2014, seven years after Ben passed away. Ben’s name is also in the Angels in the Outfield section beyond right field, the section for “those Braves who have left us.”
“No kid pays to play here and everybody hits a homerun when they hit,” Bill said. I loved both of those concepts.
I asked Bill why he agreed to play catch. “It’s a good human-interest story and I really enjoy sharing the story of this program and everyone who helped make it a reality.”
Tip of the hat to everyone who made this Field of Dreams possible.
Side Note #2: Andy from The Log Cabin Democrat served as a witness to today’s catch with Bill. He’ll be writing a Catch 365 story soon!