In the top half of the seventh, the Essex Otters, a motley squad of high school kids, had mounted a furious comeback against the veteran Green Mountain Bombers. With runners on first and second, a rocket into the centerfield triangle was enough to bring across the tying and go-ahead runs, stunning the home team and sending the Otters on their way to a championship.
It was the deciding game of the Summer Classic, a 12-team Wiffle Ball tournament held at Little Fenway in Jericho, Vt., and organized by SLAMDiabetes, an organization led by Jeff Kolok, whose goal is to help the lives of kids with Type 1 diabetes, and the families that support them. Kolok himself has children with Type 1 diabetes, and started the group as a way to raise awareness and funds to fight the disease and improve the lives of the families affected. He also swings a mean bat for the Bombers.
I volunteered at the Vermont event, and later, I got to play with my own team in the New Bedford, Mass., tournament, held to fight Type 1 diabetes and benefit the Bay Sox Foundation. From my tented seat, I worked as the official scorer for some of the games, and in my downtime, helped set up chairs, hang signs and run lineups.
It is inherently silly, watching grown men and women don uniforms, swing bright yellow bats and scamper around a miniature diamond. And it was an amazing flashback to little league, in that I couldn’t get on base to save my life. But, for two weekends, I was a small part of an organization that is trying to help, trying to make a difference. And it all takes place in an amazing setting.
Little Fenway is owner Pat O’Conner’s backyard love letter to baseball, a detailed model of Boston’s Fenway Park built to scale. Finished in 2001, it has all the defining features of the park at that time, complete with the Citco sign behind the left-field wall and the ladder affixed to the front. In the home run derby here, I managed to line one off the top of the scoreboard, easily the most power I’m capable of with a plastic bat. As always, I have a lot more Mike Greenwell in me than David Ortiz.
On the other side of his yard sits Little Wrigley, with ivy crawling up its faux-brick walls and flags honoring Ron Santo, Ernie Banks and company flying off its foul poles. It’s here that I scored a day and a half of Wiffle Ball games, scribbling away as home runs, line drives and bloops flicked off of that yellow bat, one after the other.
Watching and scoring for this tournament was a wonder. Through that tournament, 12 teams all had a blast, whether they went 0-3, made the playoffs or won the tournament. And with the ever-visible “SLAMDiabetes” logo and the presence of kids living with the disease, the message of why all these kids and adults were playing in this tournament on these amazing little fields was not lost.
It also helped me ramp up my own excitement for the New Bedford tournament. We had three weeks left to practice, get our uniforms together and, of course, to raise money.
The Walloping Wordsmiths walked onto Paul Walsh Field in New Bedford with the best of intentions. With a furious fundraising run in the last week, we managed to raise nearly $1,000 before the tournament (we topped out somewhere in the 900s), we had held a few practices and our uniforms were set; white t-shirts with a navy blue ringer, numbers, navy blue shorts and high navy blue socks. I’ll be damned before any team I’m a member of steps on a field without their socks near their knees.
Here, the SLAMDiabetes folks have rigged up two portable fields, one mimicking Fenway Park, the other, Nailor Field, a more traditional, symmetrical field. But the look is amazing, from the foul poles to the scoreboards to the fans painted on the backdrop above the fence. It’s shrunk down and played with plastic, but it all feels like baseball.
Our first game against the Bay Sox, now owned by O’Connor, went as well as could be expected. Their team was mostly former players on the team, a member of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, clearly playing a class above us, a mostly-in-their-30s collection of talent. We lost 1-0, held together by our ace, Jim DeArruda, and smooth-fielding second baseman Jon Darling.
The second game wasn’t as successful. A series of errors — including a dropped fly ball in right field by yours truly — gave way to a 9-0 loss to The Crew, not to mention losing two players to injury. Even in Wiffle Ball, a foul ball to the face at close range or a popped calf muscle can hurt.
We weren’t awarded one of the wild cards into the four-team playoff for the trophy, so our day was done around 4 p.m. But that was fine. We took plenty of batting practice in between our game, we took part in the home run derby and, most importantly, we got to be part of an amazing day.
I’ve had some time to process it all since. I’ve put away the socks, gone through pictures, created faux-80s baseball cards and had a few laughs with coworkers and friends about the whole experience.
But the thing I keep coming back to is that this happened in New Bedford. This is a city with a checkered recent history, one marked by violence, apathy and horrific public school marks. What holds it together are the people who care about the city and believe in its potential. There’s an arts scene that has been thriving for the better part of the decade. The downtown area has become one of the more pleasant and scenic in New England. Sections of the city are undergoing a rebirth, while the various powers are fighting urban blight and absentee landlords who are happy to board up the windows and enjoy their lives in the suburbs.
This tournament took place in this city, raised money for a worthy cause and sent hundreds of people home happy. Events like this don’t take place often in New Bedford; at least, they don’t seem to take place. It’s unfathomable that this could have happened under the Bay Sox’ previous stewardship, just as it wouldn’t have happened without the focus of Kolok and his group.
Between those two, all the volunteers, the Bay Sox, the Wiffle Ball teams and all the supporters, it took everyone to make an event like this happen. That it happened in my hometown made it that much more significant.
SLAMDiabetes will be holding their next tournament, the Rhode Island Classic, in North Providence, R.I., on Aug. 11. If you can, please help them out by making a donation, and check out some of the action for yourself.