Monday, August 23, 2010

Florida teen with CP gains a following with his radio commentary about Tampa Bay Rays

From The Tampa Tribune:

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Everyone at Tropicana Field had just been invited to stand and stretch and sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," and Matt Walker (pictured), seated in the back of the press box in his wheelchair Tuesday night, grabbed his microphone with the Tampa Bay Rays logo, pushed himself a little taller in his chair and started singing into his recorder.

"Take me out to the ball game … "

Earlier, Matt had called WKID in Clearwater with an update of the Rays-Texas Rangers game.

Later that night, he would do a post-game wrap with WDAE's Whitney Johnson that was edited and played on The Sports Animal the following afternoon.

You may have heard it or one of the other updates Matt has done during the summer for WDAE.

He calls himself Matt "The Sports Magnet" Walker.

"It's perfect," Johnson said, "because we're all attracted to him."

Matt is 15 years old. He has cerebral palsy. He was born two months early and weighed 3 pounds, 4 ounces.

He lives in St. Petersburg with his dad. He has an older sister, Katie. His mom passed away seven years ago from breast cancer. He attends Meadowlawn Middle School.

The wheelchair is Matt's only concession to his condition.

"He doesn't consider himself as disabled," Matt's father Steve said. "He's one of the guys. He wants to try everything."

Matt builds and paints birdhouses for his business, Bird, Bath & Beyond.

He can fly jet planes on his computer.

He wants to become the Rays TV announcer when he gets older.

Today, Steve will drive his son to Tropicana Field so Matt can record the names of all the players on the Rays and the Toronto Blue Jays rosters. They will be played Aug. 31 during the third inning of the Rays-Jays game when each batter comes to the plate.

The Rays let a boy or girl announce the batters live during the third inning of Sunday games. Matt's turn behind the public address system is being recorded because he talks with a halting speech that becomes more halting as he gets excited.

And Matt's excited about this.

"Now batting for the Tampa Bay Rays, third baseman Evan Longoria," he yelled into his microphone the other night.

Rick Vaughn, the Rays vice president of communications, met Matt several years ago when Vaughn started volunteering his Saturday mornings at the Miracle League in St. Petersburg. He was taken by this kid in the wheelchair with the million-dollar smile who announces the starting lineup and sings the national anthem before each game.

"He has so much energy," Vaughn said.

This season, Vaughn has provided press passes for Matt and his dad for a number of Rays games. Matt even made the press box announcements during one game.

The Rays, Steve pointed out, have yet to lose when his boy is in the house.

Johnson also met Matt while volunteering at the Miracle League. One week he heard Matt sing the national anthem and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." The next week Johnson brought his recorder.

"His is the most inspiring rendition of the national anthem I've ever heard," Johnson said. "It brings tears to my eyes."

Johnson invited Matt to the WDAE studio one afternoon this summer and let Matt tape a sports update that was edited and played on the air.

"To see him smile and laugh when he heard his voice on the radio was the greatest moment of my radio career," Johnson said. "People come up to me all the time and say, 'We love this guy.' It's pretty neat. Super, super rewarding."

Whitney's brother, Ray, taught physical education for 32 years. He taught Matt at Shore Acres Elementary School in St. Petersburg.

"The reason I got into teaching was to meet guys like Matt," Ray Johnson said. "He's an inspiration. You had a kid in a wheelchair in a regular school being just a regular guy. Anything we presented to him, he gave it a shot. He's a trip. Mr. Happy. I've taught thousands of kids and can't remember them all. But Matt is a kid you don't forget. On bad days of teaching he helped me remember why I became a teacher."

Longoria, who donated $500,000 to the Miracle League, is Matt's favorite player.

Before Longoria, it was Trever Miller and Jorge Cantu. Both lent their time to the Miracle League. Cantu often calls Matt on his birthday and Christmas.

The two former Rays once held a clinic for the Miracle League players at the Trop. All Matt wanted was for his dad to push his wheelchair to the middle of the outfield.

Once there, Matt asked his dad to let him lay on the field so he could look up at the ceiling.

Then Matt started singing.

"Take me out to the ball game …"