It rained all day until the minute I turned off the main road onto the dirt one, and then wound my way up the hill, following the signs, until I finally found the driveway and turned onto the lawn to park. Then the sun came out. Of course.
I was at Little Fenway in Jericho, Vermont, last month for the annual Travis Roy Foundation Wiffle Ball tournament, and if you haven’t heard about it by now, after Konner Fleming’s diving catch into the bullpen went viral, you must be off the grid. But there is more to the tourney than one catch. Seeing Little Fenway for the first time is not much different than seeing the real thing—you’ll never forget it. Same beautiful sun-lit grass, same Green Monster, same scoreboard, even a Citgo sign, only all of it one-quarter size. With the Green Mountains towering in the background, it’s as if the real Fenway Park has somehow run away to summer camp.
And, of course, Travis was there. It was almost 18 years ago that during his first shift for the Boston University hockey team, 11 seconds into his college hockey career, that he slid into the boards and has been confined to a wheelchair ever since, a quadriplegic.
Well, confined isn‘t quite the right word, because while Travis might be in a wheelchair, he doesn’t seem very confined by anything. He spends his time raising money and giving motivational talks and he’s rolling all over the place at the Wiffle Ball tourney, greeting players, families, fans, giving out fist bumps and smiling and talking to everyone. His foundation, now in its 12th year, gives out research grants and helps others with spinal cord injuries pay for things like vans and other adaptive equipment, making the little miracles possible that can make a big difference in a life, and can turn confinement into something else.
Travis’s dad, Lee, is there, and so is Pat O’Connor, who hasn’t just built Little Fenway, but Little Wrigley as well, and there’s a Little Field of Dreams in in the works, complete with corn field. None of this was planned, really, it just happened. Back in 2001, following a blueprint he drew on a napkin, O’Connor just started building his model park, and ever since then what has happened with this tournament, with the Foundation, and with Little Fenway is pretty special. Almost every weekend people come from all over to play Wiffle Ball and raise money for all sorts of good causes.
That’s the real miracle I guess, that after raising all of $2500 the first year they held a Wiffle Ball tournament here for the Travis Roy Foundation, this year they raised more than $500,000. In Vermont. For Wiffle Ball.
The reason is Travis… and Fenway Park. I’ve always believed that there are actually more fans of Fenway than the Red Sox, and it sure seemed that way at Little Fenway. Everyone – and I mean everyone, from little kids to the volunteers to the media, just kind of wandered around the whole weekend in a daze, smiling so hard that at the end of the day they need a medical tent to treat sore jaw muscles.
Let me say this: I’ve been to hundreds of ballgames and I’ve played in hundreds of ballgames but I’ve never had as much fun as I did playing in the tournament’s inaugural game this year, playing for the Celebrities versus the Sponsors. I’m not a celebrity, but this is Vermont and not Hollywood, after all, so I somehow found myself on the same team with real Vermont celebs, like UVM basketball and European league star Taylor Coppenrath, the LPGA’s Libby Smith, Alexander Woolf of Sports Illustrated, Middlebury basketball coach Jeff Brown, local broadcasters and others far better known here than me.
I was on the mound to start the game, the first I’ve played any kind of baseball in about ten years, and it showed. I’ll spare you most of the details, but if there is ever a professional Wiffle Ball League, trust me, make Libby Smith your first round pick. I had a couple of cheap hits and gave up one run in two innings, but I’ll never forget it, because now I know how every other pitcher who has ever taken the mound at Fenway Park feels – the Green Monster is too damn close. One of my pitches so sailed far over the net it might even have bounced off the Citgo sign. I know this because they livestreamed the game and now it lives out there somewhere on YouTube, me throwing, someone swinging, the ball disappearing over the wall and then me putting my hands to my head… and smiling, while everyone on both teams cheers.
Just wait til next year – then I’m going deep. But believe me, giving up a bomb has never felt so good, and I’ll never make a more meaningful pitch. Hope to see you there.
For more information on the tournament and the Travis Roy Foundation, visit http://www.travisroyfoundation.org . And remember, you don’t need to wait ‘til next year to make a contribution. Glenn Stout is Series Editor for The Best American Sports Writing, available in October.
[Note: In the print edition, the author misspelled the names of both Pat O'Connor and Taylor Coppenrath. They have been corrected in this online version - apologies to both]