‘Little Fenway’ draws baseball fans and dreamers

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(Host) The American League Championship Series between the Yankees and Red Sox moves to Boston this weekend. But as VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb reports, one Vermonter who can’t make the trip has taken matters into his own hands by bringing Fenway Park to his own backyard.

(Wertlieb) 2003 may mark the 100th anniversary of the World Series but it also happens to be the 50th anniversary of the backyard version of hardball- whiffle ball. And in Essex, Vermont, Pat O’Connor’s backyard has been transformed into the ultimate whiffle ball venue – a painstakingly detailed replica of Fenway Park.

(O’Connor) "We’re walking down the first base line, just along the track. As batting practice is going on to our right, we’re staring out at the Green Monster in left field, with a Coke bottle above it and the Citgo sign in the distance."
(Wertlieb) "How tall is this wall?"
(O’Connor) "It’s one-third the size of the real Green Monster so it’s 12 and a half feet high with a six foot net on top of it."

(Wertlieb) That might be enough for most people, but Pat O’Connor didn’t stop there. Six months after starting the project in January of 2001, with the help of some engineer colleagues at the IBM plant where he works, "Little Fenway" as he calls it, was complete. Really complete:

(O’Connor) "The dirt is very close actually to what’s at real Fenway. I actually coerced a groundskeeper at Fenway to give me a vial of dirt so I could match up the dirt to get the real thing. On the scoreboard we have the Morse code for Yawkey’s initials. We have the tomato plants in the bullpen in memory of John Cumberland’s efforts to put plants in the bullpen. And we’ve done things like mark the longest ball that’s ever been hit here. There’s a home run over the trees in right field that measures about 152 feet, equivalent to about 600 feet in baseball distance. The biggest challenge was drilling down deep to put the poles in for the Green Monster because we hit ledge the first weekend, and so I had to get a jackhammer to jackhammer out the ledge."

(Wertlieb) Spare Pat O’Connor the "Field of Dreams" jokes. He’s heard them all. He didn’t build Little Fenway to reconcile emotional issues with his father, he just wanted to bring his favorite ballpark to Vermont. But his own son Kevin did wonder just what was going on:

(Kevin O’Connor) "I thought he was crazy and I didn’t think he’d ever get it done, but I was still excited."
(Wertlieb) "Did you help build it?"
(O’Connor) "Yeah, he made me help a lot, but it was fun."

(Wertlieb) Little Fenway has been host to numerous pick up games, as well as charitable events. Last August, Pat O’Connor hosted a tournament that helped raise more than $7,000 for the Travis Roy Foundation for Spinal Cord Injury Research.

On this day, a rivalry only slightly less intense than Red Sox-Yankees is being renewed, as a group of 40 to 50-something guys who make up the teams "Old Geezers" and "Mostly Die-Hards" prepare to do battle. It’s more than a little comical to see large grown men take huge swings at a small fluttering ball, with plastic yellow bats. Until you pick one up yourself. And with a 12-foot high Green Monster so tantalizingly close in left field, you find yourself really wanting to smack one up and over the wall.

The great thing about a whiffle ball is that anyone can be Pedro Martinez when he throws one. And when you’re pitching in an exact carbon copy of Fenway Park, the transformative power of the experience is amazing. In the third inning, Pat lets me take the mound. I get two strikes on one of the Die-Hards, and suddenly, he’s no longer a middle aged guy from IBM. He’s Derek Jeter of the Yankees. And me? Me lamo Pedro.

(Sound of O’Connor at bat, crowd laughter and clapping.)

(Wertlieb) Whiffle ball at Little Fenway is played as long as weather in Vermont permits. They’ve even had some games in the snow in November. And yes, Pat O’Connor is already planning to add Monster seats above the big wall in left. And for the record, the Geezers defeated the Die Hards 9-6, despite the three run homer I gave up later that same inning.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Mitch Wertlieb.

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