ST. PETERSBURG — Laughter drifted across the dusty baseball diamond as Zachary Patterson tossed the ball back and forth with a coach. Joy lit up his face, even in the bright afternoon sun.
Baseball has not only provided Zachary with fun times that will one day become fond childhood memories, but life lessons that make him wise beyond his 12 years.
Now his wisdom has translated to much-needed financial help for the cash-strapped Azalea Little League.
Zachary placed first in the Tampa Bay region in the Briggs and Stratton Diamonds in the Rough competition, winning $5,000 and lawn equipment for his league.
The victory earned him the opportunity to compete against 19 other regional winners for another $5,000 prize and a trip for four to watch the Yankees play in their final season at Yankee Stadium.
Online voting will determine the final winner.
Baseball players ranging from 7 to 14 wrote essays explaining how baseball helped them find the "power within" to overcome challenges on or off the field. Entrants came from within 30 miles of 20 select cities, including Tampa.
Zachary wrote about how kids at the military school he attends used to make fun of him, calling him a nerd and a dork. He said playing baseball gave him the confidence to deal with the taunting.
"Our coach, Joel, always says, 'We have to have confidence in ourselves before we have confidence on the field.' Wow, was he right. After playing baseball for a few years I have come to realize that kids made fun of me because I wasn't confident in myself. I ignored what others said but continued to be respectful to them," he wrote.
The seventh-grader at Admiral Farragut Academy said kids teased him because he's smart, but the confidence he gained on the baseball field taught him to be proud of all of his accomplishments, and that confidence changed his relationship with his classmates.
"Instead of people making fun of me, they are friends with me now. Everything has changed," he said.
Natasha Patterson said she has seen the transformation in her son.
"Now he is willing to try things that he wanted to do but wouldn't because he was picked on," she said. "He's really come out of his shell. Now he's proud of himself academically and strives to do better."
Zachary gets to help decide how the league will use the $5,000 prize money. He said it needs a new tractor for field maintenance, clay to fill in holes in the diamonds, and chalk for lining the playing area.
If he wins the grand prize, he wants the league to install a handicapped-accessible water fountain.
"That way not just regular players can get a drink, but Challenger players, too," he said.
Azalea is one of only two Little League organizations in Pinellas County to feature a Challenger division. More than 100 special-needs children participate in the program, and one of Azalea's fields consists of a special rubber surface that allows kids to play baseball from wheelchairs.
Dana Hess, the league's treasurer, said the prize money couldn't have come at a better time.
Azalea's fields were built in 1969, and all of the structures and fences are original.
"We really need the money. We maintain what we can as good as we can, but everything is so old," Hess said.
But for those involved with the league, the excitement is not just about money.
"To have someone so young to write something from the heart really means a lot," Carol Vallee, a league volunteer and past president, said. "This is a well-deserved honor for him."
Zachary's mother said she hopes area residents will go online and vote for him, not only for his benefit but because of the good the prize money will do for the league.
"Voting for Zach not only helps children here and now; it will help children in the future," she said.
Voting began March 26 and continues through April 20.
Michael Maharrey can be reached at (727) 893-8779 or firstname.lastname@example.org.