Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium normally sit about 200 miles apart. But on Saturday, the rival structures – each modeled at a quarter-scale – wound up next to one another for a Wiffle Ball tournament in North Providence, Rhode Island.
They were there because of stories like the one Ben Veiga tells about his brother Alex.
“He got diabetes when he was about 13 and he passed away this past November when he was 19. So it was a big part of our life,” said Veiga.
Alex was Ben’s older brother. The 18-year-old East Providence resident remembers when Alex, who also suffered from epilepsy, was first diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
“At first it seemed almost like disbelief at first because it’s such a big thing and it just happened so quickly. I know at first it was really hard,” Veiga said. “I was proud of him, he just grew up into it so quickly. He became like a role model for other kids in the hospital with diabetes.”
Annmarie Ryan lives in Cranston, R.I. Her son, Matthew, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was 10 years old.
Matthew turns 15 this month. He plays baseball and basketball and carries an insulin pump in his pocket.
SLAMDiabetes organized the Wiffle Ball tournament in North Providence. Jeff and Natalie Kolok created the company to try to increase awareness about type 1 diabetes by helping charities raise funds.
“My wife and I have been involved with things related to type 1 diabetes since our daughter’s diagnosis at the age of four and a half in 2005,” Kolok said.
The Koloks live in Jericho, Vermont. A couple of years after their daughter’s diagnosis, their family welcomed a new member.
“The state had a little boy who was in foster care and three months into his foster care was diagnosed with type 1 and they were looking for a family who could provide the care necessary given his disease,” said Kolok. “We adopted him. That’s how we have three children, two with type 1.”
Type 1 diabetes – formerly known as juvenile diabetes – blocks the body’s ability to produce insulin and regulate blood sugar. There is no known way to prevent it. There is no cure, so type 1 diabetics must inject insulin or receive it through a pump and they face increased risks for other health problems.
“Diabetes, type 1 diabetes has filled our lives. It’s kind of taken over in some respects, good and bad, but it comes with the territory,” said Kolok.
Jeff left a career in real estate development and the Koloks started a website for parents of diabetic children. After attending a charity Wiffle Ball tournament at Little Fenway, a replica park in Essex, Vermont in 2010, Jeff Kolok organized the first SLAMDiabetes tournament there last year.
“We raised $24,000 and it was a start, but I came away after that thinking, ‘Great. We’ll grow it next year, but I see what my kids … I see what my kids go through every day,” Kolok said, choking up with emotion. “And I see what all these other kids go through every day. I see what adults with T1D have gone through for years. And I know that for my daughter to make 30 years old, she’s going to have to inject herself, prick herself, lance at herself somewhere between 75,000 to 100,000 times. And the disease doesn’t stop.”
Kolok contacted a company in Upstate New York that builds outfield walls for regular baseball fields and before long SLAMDiabetes had a quarter-scale Fenway Park with mesh walls designed for Wiffle Ball.
Last weekend on a field behind North Providence High School, SLAMDiabetes held its third and final Wiffle Ball tournament of the summer (the first two were in Massachusetts). There was a generic park with walls, foul poles, white lines and bases. It’d be the coolest place you ever played Wiffle Ball, if it wasn’t sitting next to Fenway Park – complete with the Green Monster, manual scoreboard and Citgo Sign – and Yankee Stadium, which was making its debut with retired New York numbers and the famous white frieze.
The beneficiary of the eight-team tournament is Camp Surefire, which is Rhode Island’s only camp for kids with type 1 diabetes. Dr. Greg Fox is the camp’s medical director and the president of the foundation that runs it. Fox says the week-long overnight camp accepts about 85 diabetic children each summer.
“I think there’s a lot of overlap between Wiffle Ball and what we do at diabetes camp,” said Fox, who was sporting knee-high athletic socks – one blue, one orange – the team colors for his squad: Fox Sox. ”We definitely get those kids out and active. But it’s also an opportunity to just kind of let it all hang loose and not think about the diabetes at all.”
Charities like Camp Surefire pay SLAMDiabetes a fee to help organize the tournament, provide souvenir programs, and most importantly – deliver the stars of the show – the ballparks.
Lt. David Drezek helped organize a team for the North Providence Police Department.
“When I approached the field and saw Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. I can’t put it into words,” Drezek said, grinning widely. “I wish the men who didn’t come today when they see the pictures we took, they’re going to sure wish they were here. It’s incredible. It’s incredible.”
The tournament is the closest most of the players will ever get to taking the field at a big league park, but Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd spent 10 season pitching in the majors. As part of the festivities Boyd tossed Wiffle Balls for a home run derby in Little Fenway Park and the former Red Sox starter was impressed.
“The first thing I noticed, I saw the scoreboard. I said, ‘OK, they got a replica of Fenway, but I really didn’t look over until the guy told me … ‘We got a replica of Yankee Stadium.’ Then I looked over and I said, ‘That’s real cool,’ ” the 53-year-old said. “So we got this type of rivalry-type thing going on. That’s part of what makes it so much fun today.”
Teams pay an entry fee and hold their own fundraisers. After expenses, the event raised more than $10,000 for Camp Surefire. Jeff Kolok says next year SLAMDiabetes will host a total of 10 tournaments in several states to help various diabetes charities.
Turns out playing Wiffle Ball for a good cause in two of America’s most iconic ballparks isn’t exactly a tough sell.