Seeking help for diamond, 12-year-old is a real gem

May 18, 2006|By RICK MAESE

He scrawled the words in a single afternoon. It didn't take long. When you write from the heart, the message flows like a busted waterline.

"I didn't even have to think much about it," says 12-year-old Andre Williamson, his braids poking off the side of his head. "I just wrote what I knew."

And what he knew was as simple as it was eloquent, something only a kid could write and only a ballplayer could understand.

"We need bases," Andre wrote. "We can't keep using our gloves as bases because it's messing them up."

"We also need gloves."

The words came from the very tip of his pitching arm and have given immeasurable hope to a community in need. Williamson wrote about the much-needed improvements at Cummings Field, his neighborhood park. Calling it a baseball field requires some eye-squinting and some imagination. The field is in Southwest Baltimore's Westport neighborhood, not far from where Hall of Famer Al Kaline grew up.

His essay was entered in a contest sponsored by Briggs & Stratton. The "Diamonds in the Rough" program seeks out baseball fields in need of repair. The nation's best essay will win $20,000 worth of repairs, plus a clinic featuring Carlton Fisk and Lou Brock.

Andre's essay recently was named a finalist, which already ensures $5,000 worth of improvements to the dilapidated field and pits his against 15 other essays for the big cash prize. The winner will be determined through Internet voting and be announced next week.

"There is not much out there for us to do these days," Andre's essay reads, "and it is too easy to get into trouble, our coaches and baseball see that that doesn't happen."

As exciting as the news has been to Westport, a tight-knit community where the people will take a shot of hope wherever they can find it, no one is surprised that Andre's the one who has everyone running to their computers. He's bright, well-spoken and the type of young mind needed to change Baltimore's struggling neighborhoods.

"Sports and school," says his mother, Katrina Turner. "When it's not one, it's the other."

Turner says Andre has always enjoyed putting pen to paper. He writes poems, fiction and, more recently, has been writing about his father. Writing as therapy, his mother says.

Andre's father was also named Andre Williamson. On March 13, 2004, the 28-year-old Williamson was shot to death. Police at the time said Williamson was sitting in a parked minivan when a gunman approached and opened fire through a closed window.

"It's not always easy," Turner says, "but Andre keeps a good attitude."

Andre doesn't mention his father in his essay. "Baseball's lessons have given me The Power Within for other areas in my life," he wrote, "such as my family [especially with my little sister who looks up to me] and my school life and also with new situations that I find myself in."

Time and time again in this city's history, from the Babe to Kaline to Andre, the baseball diamond has served as a sanctuary. In Westport, Cummings Field is one of the few constants through the years. Andre spends every free moment there, either with a leather glove or a leather football, just like his parents, cousins and uncles did before him.

The games have always been beautiful, the field always disheveled.

Andre gave a tour, pointing at the mud pit that serves as the infield. "Dirty isn't the word," his mother says of Andre's laundry. "We're talking fil-thy."

Because the puddles are big enough to have their own ecosystems, the team's shortstop doesn't usually get to play his true position until the team visits another field.

Andre walks through the outfield, where huge clumps of grass climb over his ankles. In between the clumps is rock-hard dirt.

"And we need a fence," he says, pointing to the outfield. "We need to know what a homer is."

Andre is an honor-roll student at Westport Academy. Cummings Field is just across the street. It's the after-school haven, the weekend haven, the summertime haven. Parks like this one are absolutely essential in neighborhoods like Westport.

It's city-funded but barely maintained. Members of the community here are quick to point out that four years ago, the city closed Westport's rec center.

"There's nothing out here for us to do but play sports," Andre says. "What else we going to do? Walk around?"

Imagining what $20,000 might mean would be a difficult task for someone twice Andre's age. But he sees it all, waving his hand over the horizon and talking about fences and rain tarps and actual bases. And here's what is most impressive: Andre understands that the essay, the money, the field, it's all much bigger than just him.

"I get tired of coming over here every day and looking at a muddy field, holes in the outfield, things like that," he says. "If this could happen, people would come here and see a real field. It'll give us someplace to play and everyone else a place to come watch."

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

HOW TO VOTE

Andre Williamson, 12, is one of 16 finalists for a $20,000 cash prize that would go toward improving Cummings Field. The essay contest is called "Diamonds in the Rough" and is sponsored by Briggs & Stratton. You can read each of the finalists' essays and cast your vote by visiting briggsdiamondsintherough.com. Voting ends Sunday.

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