ESSEX, Vt. — Konnor Fleming makes a spectacular game-ending catch in the 12th Travis Roy Wiffle Ball Tournament, catapulting headfirst into the right-field bullpen at Little Fenway Park, and vanishing from sight.
When he finally surfaces, Travis Roy breathes a sigh of relief.
“It did cross my mind that I hope he didn’t just break his neck,” says Roy, who was watching from his wheelchair.
It has been nearly 18 years since Roy, 38, crashed headfirst into the boards at Walter Brown Arena, just 11 seconds into his first shift as a Boston University hockey player, and became a quadriplegic. Today, Roy remains paralyzed from the neck down, with just enough movement in his right arm to operate the joystick of his motorized wheelchair.
But the Travis Roy Foundation spreads joy to 100-130 people a year who have suffered paralysis, with grants to buy a new wheelchair, a bed, or ramps.
“Just a little something to make their life a little easier, just to remove one more barrier,” says Roy. “I’m really proud of that, and really grateful for the support.”
The three-day Wiffle Ball tournament held at the quarter-scale Little Fenway has raised nearly $2.5 million in 12 years. The foundation also supports research for a cure that Roy believes will come in the next decade.
“It’s magic,” says Roy, gazing out past the “Pesky Pole” and “Citgo sign” toward the Green Mountains. “There’s a lot of love here.”
The tournament started in 2002 with seven teams and raised $4,000. This year, 24 teams raised a record $502,150.
“Travis is our inspiration,” says Pat O’Connor, 58, who built Little Fenway and then Little Wrigley on his 11-acre home down a long dirt road. “He’s the guy that really gave me the energy to build these fields and keep working on them.”
O’Connor, a former Coast Guard officer with a Peter Pan attitude, decided to build Little Fenway after going on a 9,000-mile tour of major league parks and judging Fenway the best.
“I’m just a baseball junkie,” says O’Connor, who owns the New Bedford Bay Sox of the New England Collegiate Baseball League. “I did it for fun.”
He drew up the original plans for Little Fenway on a napkin, and got six friends to help dig the foundation for the wall in October 2000. When they immediately hit a rock ledge digging the first hole, there was stone-cold silence.
“I could see it in their faces that they thought I was crazy,” he says.
Instead, he got a jackhammer and persevered. The ballpark cost him $10,000 to build, with the help of friends and neighbors. When the Red Sox refused to give him the paint formula for the Green Monster, a friend chipped some paint from old Fenway and they matched it at Home Depot.
Before the field was even finished, former Red Sox outfielder Bernie Carbo came here to play. He had trouble hitting the Wiffle Ball, says O’Connor, but he signed the outfield wall close to where his famous 1975 World Series pinch-hit home run landed.
O’Connor offered to let the South Burlington Little League play a game at the park, but canceled the event in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But the Little Leaguers persuaded O’Connor to play a fund-raiser for the victims of 9/11. They raised $1,400 on Sept. 15, 2001; the kids had a ball, and O’Connor had a revelation.
“A light bulb went off in my head,” he says.
O’Connor had big plans for Little Fenway.
Fun, games, and growth
O’Connor, who has three children who played hockey, read Travis Roy’s book, “11 Seconds,’’ and was inspired to call the Travis Roy Foundation and volunteer his venue.
The rest is history. Roy and O’Connor stay in close contact all year long. They complement each other like Lennon and McCartney.
When too many teams were left on a waiting list, Roy asked O’Connor to just spread some bases out on another field. O’Connor instead built “Little Wrigley” in 2007. He even lugged some bricks back from Wrigley Field.
“I was pushing for raising more money,” says O’Connor. “But Travis wanted to make sure it was fun and family-oriented.”
Every year, O’Connor adds something. He went to Fenway Park and got some dirt from a groundskeeper. He painted on the names of Tom and Jean Yawkey in Morse code on the scoreboard. He grew tomatoes in the bullpen, as former Red Sox bullpen coach John Cumberland used to do. And he put a red seat up in the bleachers to honor the longest Fenway home run, hit by Ted Williams.
A few years ago, he climbed a ladder by himself to fix the Citgo sign that was hanging cock-eyed on a tree. Nobody else was around.
“A branch broke and, boom, I went down,” he says. “I landed on a rock about 12 feet down and I thought I was going to be paralyzed.’’
Just the opposite — he’s perpetually in motion.
Next year he hopes to add a “Field of Dreams,” complete with a cornfield in the outfield.
Yankees fans feel disrespected, though. They lobbied hard for a “Little Yankee Stadium.” Instead, tournament organizers slapped a “Little Yankee Stadium” sign on the biggest outhouse in the driveway.
Roy, a big Red Sox fan, gritted his teeth and posed with a Robinson Cano jersey presented to him by the Staten Island Yankees of the New York-Penn League. It’s worth it when he sees the smiles he brings year-round.
“You get to see the best part of humanity,” he says. “I get to play Santa Claus four times a year when we give out our grants.”
“The event is so much fun,” says Libby Smith, a University of Vermont basketball and golf star who played in the celebrity game and hit one over the Green Monster. “I think the numbers keep going up, because people love seeing Travis and the inspiration he brings to other people.”
Medical issues persist
Roy, tanned and relaxed, clearly is having a ball.
“It’s the best weekend of the year for every reason,” he says.
Roy is upbeat, but he still is dealing with medical issues. His muscles have atrophied, and health complications landed him in the hospital for a week last winter. He also feels pain in his lower back and hip.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I don’t know if I’m going to walk again,” he says. “There’s got to be a price to pay for 17 years sitting in a wheelchair.’’
He has 24-hour medical care. Sometimes he still feels like he’s being baby-sat.
“Before my injury, I thought I had a good appreciation of life, but never once did I think how lucky I am to roll out of bed, take a shower, and go to school,” he says. “That’s five minutes, but for me, it’s an hour and a half with somebody else doing it.
“Boy, how great it would be to just swing my legs over the bed.”
He’s not complaining, because he knows there are some quadriplegics his age languishing in nursing homes because they didn’t have the NCAA catastrophic insurance he did.
“It’s hard, it’s tiring, and people don’t want to see that side of it,” he says. “They want to see the good side and that’s what I try to show.”
“He’s a shiny penny,” says Beth O’Connor, Pat’s wife. “He makes everyone feel better after talking to him.”
Roy autographs books by signing with a pen in his mouth. His penmanship is perfect. He also paints delicate watercolors of flowers.
But he still misses the feeling of gliding on the ice.
“My dreams are screwed up,” he says. “I had a dream the other night I was at the NHL draft and I was about to be drafted. That was fun. That was really cool.”
But the draft in the dream ended abruptly in the second round without explanation. “So I never got drafted,” says Roy. “I was in the waiting room.”
Other dreams are more like nightmares.
“There’s always the excitement, the buildup, like, ‘Oh my God, I get to play hockey again, this is awesome,’ ” he says. “But then I can’t find my stick. I can’t tie my skates tight enough. Coach Parker’s waiting for me and I keep screwing up.
“It’s the same frustration. They’re ready to play and I’m not ready. I never get my shift.’’
But in real life, he inspires others, giving motivational talks.
“I fly all over this country,” he says. “I do a lot of things just as efficiently as an able-bodied person.’’
At the beginning of his talk, there is the video clip of the accident. Sometimes Roy watches it, sometimes he doesn’t.
“There’s sadness,” he says, “but the ‘why me?’ doesn’t get you anywhere. I’m just a more ‘what’s next?’ type of guy.’’
He says he feels pressure to do the right thing.
“I know what it’s like to have an entire city support you, raise a lot of money, and make your life easier,” he says. “I always feel like everybody’s got my back and I will always, always be grateful and never forget it. I’m always ready to get out of bed, because I’m not going to let those people down.”
Roy, who lives in Boston, heard one of the explosions from the Boston Marathon bombings from his apartment. He knows the trauma the survivors are going through. When he was in the hospital after his accident, a peer counselor with quadriplegia visited and told him everything was going to be fine.
“I said, ‘Get the [expletive] out of my room,’ ” says Roy. “I just wasn’t ready to hear it. You’ve got to deal with losses and feel the pain. But life has gotten a hell of a lot better than I thought it would.”
To help survivors, he penned an article for WBUR.
“My advice to those who are injured is to cling to those things that still put a smile on your face, and build from there,” he wrote.
His best friend growing up in Maine, Tony McNaboe, says Roy was always compassionate and has not changed since second grade. On a recent Saturday afternoon, when the supporters assemble on the infield to give the fund-raising total, there isn’t a dry eye in the house, including Roy’s. It’s one big beautiful family, more Woodstock love than Wiffle Ball competition.
“I get choked up every year,” says McNaboe, who fancied himself as hockey tough guy Marty McSorley while Roy was Wayne Gretzky when they were growing up playing street and ice hockey.
“I look at Travis out on the mound and really think to myself, ‘Look at him now.’ We would have never dreamed of this, that life would go this way.”
He takes a deep breath of mountain air, exhales, and continues.
“It makes my heart very full to see that if you’re given a negative, turn it into a positive,” says McNaboe. “He’s the epitome of that.’’
When Roy broke his neck, his father was summoned to the ice.
“Dad, I’m in big trouble” he said. “But Dad, I made it.”
He had reached his goal to play Division 1 hockey.
Looking at him out on the field, surrounded by love, those words couldn’t ring truer.Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.