Pitch hits home


LEWISTON – Cleo Miller folded her hands, smiled and peered up at the ceiling, as if waiting for a fly ball to land.

“I love everything about softball,” the bespectacled 11-year-old mused after a long silence. “It’s just so, so much fun.”

And it makes her feel like everyone else.

It’s a sentiment – written in a one-page essay – that has earned $5,000 for her ball field and her league.

Standing at home plate, butterflies fluttering in her stomach, she finds she can shrug off the food allergies that so often set her apart from her friends.

“When I step up to the plate to bat, I feel power, and I feel it’s up to me,” she wrote. “And then when I hit that ball, I feel like weight has been lifted from my shoulders and I run as fast as I can.”

The words were part of the essay Cleo penned to the Briggs & Stratton company’s “Diamonds in the Rough” contest. Last week, a spokeswoman for the company announced that the Pettingill Elementary School fourth-grader had won its regional prize.

Within the next week or two, the company plans to send a $5,000 check to the South Lewiston Little League.

The money will pay for a recent fix to the softball infield. It will also buy a new roof over the dugouts and lend a hand to the money-squeezed volunteer organization.

“I think sometimes the softball field has been ignored,” said Erik Tiner, president of the South Lewiston Little League. “The money will help us make some deserved improvements.”

For the girl who earned the money – writing her essay last month in just 20 minutes – the size of the check is hard to fathom.

It might have been even bigger had she and the field been closer to Boston.

The company only gives its $20,000 checks to Little Leagues near big, populous cities, spokeswoman Leslie Stachowiak said Monday. After all, that’s where such prizes earn the most publicity for the company, known for its lawn-mower engines.

Not that Cleo minds. She didn’t expect to win.

“I never win anything,” she said, flashing an ear-to-ear smile. “I can’t say that anymore.”

And she’s likely to win more.

The company plans to hold a Lewiston dedication in June, complete with an oversized check and a prize package for Cleo.

“We’re not sure yet what will be inside,” Stachowiak said. “But part of it will probably be Red Sox tickets.”

Cleo has never been to Boston’s Fenway Park.

Nor has she ever attracted so much attention. Her Little League posted her photo and the full text of her essay on its Web site.

Cleo’s mom, April Clark, said she believes the essay, Maine’s only winner, drew attention because it was about more than a rutted infield and incomplete dugouts.

“She wrote her essay from the heart,” Clark said. “I think that came out.”

The attention has one other bonus for Cleo: It bugs her brother.

Wyatt, who is 7, also wrote an essay.

“I think he did a really good job,” said his big sister. “But he doesn’t like hearing about this anymore.”

Then, she smiled again.

“He covers his ears with his hands and sings really loud,” she said.