For eight years I coached the world-famous Nuts in the Catholic Youth Baseball League (team cheer: Go-o-o-o-o-o Nuts!) on a field that would have to be improved to resemble a nuclear missile test site.
It featured buckled earth, weeds for infield grass, a mud hole for a pitcher's mound, a gap in the backstop the Ohio State band could have marched through, no home run fence and outfield grass so high we lost Eric in it once for three innings.
But then I heard about the Briggs & Stratton Diamonds in the Rough contest, in which kids ages 7 through 12 were asked to write a 150-word essay on why his or her ball field was the crappiest in America and send pictures to prove it. The winner would get $20,000 to fix it up. After reading many of the essays and seeing the pictures, I can tell you that the fields these kids play on made ours look like Dodger Stadium.
Our dads have to wet-vac the field to try and make it playable. One time a coach found a crawfish where first base was supposed to be.
--SCOTT SEMLER, 7, ATLANTA
There are thousands of ants on the field. When I sit down to do stretching exercises, they crawl up my pants.
--BLAKE RICHARDS, 9, HOUSTON
There is no place for fans to sit. I invite my grandmother to watch me. The last time I played, she left to buy a folding chair and missed my home run.
--BERTRAM MARKS II, 12, DETROIT
My dad said if you fix our fields, the grounders won't bounce up and hit me in the face.
--MICHAEL HUDEC, 10, NORTH ROYALTON, OHIO
In our outfield ... there are a lot of holes where critters live. Sometimes we get distracted by a critter poppin' out to root for the home team. Maybe if we had bleachers, the critters would cheer us on with our parents.
--AUSTIN REBECK, 11, NORTON, OHIO
Our ballpark needs gates because the crazy neighborhood dogs come and take the balls away and we have to stop the game.
--RACHEL ZAMORA, 8, GRAFORD, TEXAS
The best of the worst came from Duncan Schaper, 10, of Ohio Township, Pa. (outside Pittsburgh), who asked for the money because the mound, fence, parking lot and Port-A-Potty at his field were swept away last year by a flood caused by Hurricane Ivan. Duncan didn't even want the field fixed for himself. "I just felt bad that the kids younger than me weren't going to get to play on a nice field," he says.
They will now. Duncan won the $20,000 renovation--plus a clinic with Hall of Famers Lou Brock and Carlton Fisk and a visit to the White House on June 30 for his whole team. Fourteen other finalists each won $5,000 to be spent on their fields. Who says writing doesn't pay?
"It's awesome," Duncan says. "I didn't think I'd win. I just thought it was a chance in a million."
But the most amazing essay didn't win a thing.
My dream is to be in the major leagues, even though I've had 10 heart surgeries. I would love to have a real pitcher's mound and for the holes to be filled in so my weak left leg from my stroke doesn't get caught and make me trip. I can throw the ball 43 mph, on good days. Standing on a solid pitcher's mound when pretending would bring me closer to my dream.
--ZAKKI STRUNK, 11, PHILADELPHIA
After I read that, I called Zakki's mom, Stephanie. She says from the moment Zakki wakes up to the second he's asleep, he watches, reads, talks, eats and thinks baseball. Though he's only four feet tall--Zakki hasn't grown in three years--and the steroids he has to take have blown him up to 100 pounds, he's determined to make it to the majors. Zakki even asked his doctor, quite seriously, if he'd be off the steroids by the time he gets to the bigs "in 10 years." Zakki wants to be a clean superstar.
You can't keep this kid down. He took his Make-A-Wish trip to Disney World six years ago, and he's still fighting. Zakki's ravaged by complex congenital heart disease, yet he's bent on pitching for the Phillies someday, no pretending about it. The stroke he had before he was a month old ruined half his brain and seriously impaired the left side of his body. But on the rare days when he can make it down to that field, he throws the ball so hard it hurts his older brother Hanz's hand.
Right now Zakki is sidelined because he tore a tendon and the hamstring in his right leg; he's also got a cyst in his brain, and his parents know the 11th heart surgery is coming. "The doctors don't know why he keeps surviving," Stephanie says, "but he does."
All Zakki wants is that field to be ready when he makes his big comeback. Wouldn't it be sweet if somebody in Philly fixed it for him?
After all, sometimes that chance-in-a-million comes in.
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"My dad said if you fix our fields, the grounders won't bounce up and hit me in the face," wrote one boy in his essay.
PETER READ MILLER