Ten-year-old Matthew Benton says that when he steps into the batter's box, he knows God wants him to be a Major League Baseball player.
But two weeks ago, he wasn't even certain he'd be able to play on his youth traveling team. The baseball-obsessed Hobart, IN, player's world shattered when his coach scammed his team for thousands of dollars, possibly eliminating the season. Then on Sunday, the Deep River Devils played—and won—their first game. It would not be so if not for the generosity of others, like Jim Garner, owner of the in .
"I heard about it, and I knew I had to do something," Garner, 32, of Frankfort, said. "You just feel bad for the kids. They were left with no direction. This guy was really running the show so they didn't have anyone to do things for them."
Jeffrey Halter, the team's 40-year-old former coach from South Elgin, turned himself into police last week, Hobart Police Lt. David Grissom said on May 3. He was charged with 10 counts of theft, he said. Parents have told Hobart Police investigators that the coach collected $675 from each of the players' parents, gathering $7,657 to pay for player uniforms. But he left town without paying the uniform company, they said.
Halter posted a $1,000 cash bond April 28 and was released.
The kids were devastated, said Randy Benton, who has two sons, including Matthew, on the team. He coached them last year and has stepped up with another parent to do so again.
But with no uniforms, no games and no money, he wasn't quite sure where to turn. Nonetheless, he promised to make it happen.
"I said (to Matthew), I guarantee you we will have a season," he said. "I told him, 'Don't you doubt it for a second. We're going to make this happen. I don't know how, but we will.'"
He told him that just like there are "bad" people in the world, there are good ones—like Garner. Baseball was always his favorite sport, he said, and he played it all through high school and college.
"I know what it's like to have that much love for a sport … that feeling of setting foot on the field," said Garner, who grew up in Orland Park. "The parents in this case got bamboozled. It happens. But I just want these kids to get to play."
"Overwhelming" was the first word that came to Benton's mind when asked about Garner's generosity, he said.
"You know how bad the economy is," Benton said. "We're a blue-collar town. A very small town. Generally, I think a lot of people help each other out. But to get someone from completely outside of your realm? I mean, Tinley Park? I guess it's only 45 minutes, but it just seems like a world away."
Garner said he read the story in an area newspaper and contacted the reporter who wrote it. He's since been inundated with offers from major sporting equipment companies wanting to donate materials or share costs. All told, the design and other costs associated with uniform production can run a team between $3,000 and $6,000, Garner said.
Other local organizations, including the , are also looking for ways to help, such as including the Hobart kids in an upcoming tournament.
He'll be heading this week to Hobart to meet those he's helped and fit the Devils for their new uniforms.
"Youth sports are fulfilling. To see the kids walking around, feeling confident in their uniforms," he said. "It sounds like the kids are really exited about this. That's the most important thing."
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