FOR DANNY AMONTE, THE DREAM LIVES ON. IT'S THE GROWN-UPS WHO SHARE THE GUILT
BY DAN LE BATARD
So much got lost in the translation. Danny Almonte was untouched by the stench, like a rose growing implausibly in a sewer. American shame and outrage swirled noisily around him after his baseball triumph had been exposed as fraud, but Danny didn't understand the commotion, and still doesn't. He is a painfully shy kid, staring at the floor a lot, but when asked about his recent experiences with Little League Baseball Incorporated, he lifts his head, smiles and says in Spanish, "It was so much fun and happiness." All of it? "All of it," he says. Omega All of it? How could all of it possibly have been fun and happiness when Danny's father was being threatened with arrest and Danny's coach was considering suicide? Well, somehow, the disgrace didn't translate. Maybe Danny is hiding safely behind all his naivete, and the fact that he doesn't speak a word of English. Maybe, after 14 years of bouncing around too many homes of relatives, he is more perceptive and calculated than he ever shows, and figures that pretending to be the happy 12-year-old ballplayer is a good way to keep his baseball-addicted father loving. But you aren't going to get anything like that out of him, not when he goes sheepish whenever asked about himself and then stares silently at the ground.
Asked what the best part of the past few months has been, his response is, "I forget." That's as deep as he'll go, or will allow you to go. He has let himself be protected, miraculously, by the language barrier in a way that leaves him looking like an unscathed infant cooing in the car seat after a wreck that killed everyone else. When the reporters trailed Danny to school in early September, asking in English, "Why did you cheat?" and "Are you embarrassed?" it sounded like good noise to him, not unlike applause. And when the talking heads called him a liar and bully and cheat, as Bill Maher did on Politically Incorrect, all the accompanying footage revealed to Danny was that-look at me!-his strikeouts were on TV again. All he saw was that his arm-an arm that had struck out 46 batters in three games, a one-hitter, a two-hitter and a perfecto-had put him on the back pages of the tabloids and pushed Roger Clemens inside. Never mind that his team had lost in the semis, or that, when his real age was finally revealed, it had to forfeit all of its wins. Danny was famous, not infamous, in his world, and all the attention, good and bad, was the same to him because the cameras staking out his apartment became indistinguishable from the boys asking for his autograph and the girls blowing him kisses. There is a certain exquisite symmetry in that-the boy's experience with Little League Baseball Inc. somehow remaining clean to him despite the adults who tried to soil it. All Danny lived was the New York parade, not the litter afterward, which makes his oxymoronic view of this mess much like the game he pitched to produce it-flawed, certainly, but technically perfect. "He still doesn't know there is anything bad about this," his father, Felipe, says in Spanish. It's a warm November Monday, and he's whispering so Danny, in the other room of this tiny Bronx apartment they're sharing with Danny's coach, can't hear him. Danny, meanwhile, is eating McDonald's fries while flipping between Ludacris, Stone Cold Steve Austin and Britney Spears on TV, and listening to a friend talk about how rapper Fat Joe grew up across the street and sometimes returns by limo. This is what Danny knows of America, or cares to know, and, as Fat Joe might say, it's all good. "Danny has no wounds, no scars, no nothing," Felipe says. "When the controversy would come on Spanish TV, someone would change the channel or turn it off. We'd ... " Danny walks into the nearby kitchen. His father stops talking, waiting for him to leave. "If he knew how bad the press was, he'd be wrecked," Felipe whispers. "He'd need a team of psychologists. But he never felt any suffering." A family friend, seated on the couch, says, "None of the crap ever touched Danny. God doesn't let the crap touch the children." Amen, brother. The adults, though, are another matter entirely.
Cheating is cheating, in any language, but you should know Danny's story isn't quite as black-and-white as either of his birth certificates-just as you should know the sacred symbol of Americana he assaulted, Little League Baseball Inc., is as much about green as it is about red, white and blue. Yes, Danny was nearly four months past his 14th birthday at the start of an international 12-and-under championship, but lost amid the shouts of "Cheat! Fraud! Ringer!" was that Danny's father wasn't forging records with the intent of winning a children's tournament. Felipe was doing what a lot of poor baseball fathers do in the Dominican Republic-being creative with age to make his son more attractive to pro scouts. This is simple math: A 16-year-old with an 18-year-old's fastball is going to be worth more. Felipe did the same thing with his older son, the one you've never heard of. Felipe was trying to win himself and his kid an American future, not an American trophy. Baseball is more than a game in their Dominican; it is an escape. The impoverished island's chief exports are sugar, cocoa and ballplayers, so age discrepancies are as prevalent as hunger. Desperation is such that veteran scouts tell of older brothers using the identities of little brothers or of dead people. UNICEF estimates nearly 25% of Dominican children over 5 lack proper birth certificates. "I thought that number would be even higher," says Al Avila, VP of scouting for the Florida Marlins. "It goes the other way, too. Parents have children and can't afford to feed them, so they add age to make them 16 [the legal signing age] and get them a better life. It isn't easy to tell if a prospect is 17 or 24 when he's malnourished." Danny, for his part, still thinks he is 12, at least until April, his next birthday. Either that, or he is a very good liar. He says he is 12, and everyone close to him says he genuinely believes it. "A lot of kids over there don't know their age," says Avila, and that's why there was confusion even when it came to, say, Braves shortstop Rafael Furcal, who said he was 19 even as HBO revealed documents that said he was 22. Danny has never celebrated a birthday. That's not abnormal among the poor in his country. Would you have known how old you were at 6 if your parents or the cake's candles didn't tell you? And if not at 6, would you at 12 or 14 or 16, if keeping track wasn't important where you come from? Wouldn't you say you were 16 or 18 if you thought it might get a rich American team to feed you? In the Dominican, you are often as old as your parents say you are. Danny's father told Danny he was 12. Felipe hasn't gotten around to telling him otherwise. Because friends and parents softened questions they translated from English to protect him, Danny never did understand why so many people were asking about his age. Hadn't he told them a thousand times he was 12? Danny's shyness and monosyllabic answers allowed for no give-and-take in interviews, so the assumption was that Danny must have known how old he was and was therefore lying. "How could a 14-year-old possibly not know how old he is?" was the thought, and it didn't allow for just how much could get lost in that translation. "Danny and I are both very timid," Felipe says. "The interviews never came out the way I meant. I don't know anything about this country. Where I'm from, we do things in pencil, not computers." Dominican kids are sometimes registered many years after birth, if at all, and Felipe says he registered Danny at 7, give or take. In March 2000, Felipe had Danny's birth certificate altered so Danny could more or less be born again. You can look at this deception two ways. Felipe was being an overbearing Little League dad, living vicariously through his son, trying to win at any cost, even if it meant cheating. Or he was a poor father trying to help his kid. Either way, we ought to acknowledge there is an either way. "I live to find an opportunity for my child," Felipe says. "We live very humbly in my country, and there are more opportunities for youth in this country. If I could, I'd bring my whole family here, but I can't yet." So Felipe accompanied Danny to the States in June, and Danny lived with his Little League coach, one of Felipe's best friends since childhood, after Felipe returned home, because there was a big, televised tournament here that might get Danny noticed. Danny didn't immediately register in school, which is not that uncommon for Latin kids new to this country who don't speak English and are here without their parents. But the notion that later developed was that Danny was shipped in as a mercenary specifically to win the World Series against younger kids. Felipe adamantly says this isn't so. He says he wanted his kid in America because it is the best place for a kid, and points out Danny would be back in the Dominican now, far away from this mess, if winning the World Series had been all that brought him here. For all the shame that ravaged Felipe afterward, there was only one time he wept throughout this ordeal. It wasn't when he saw himself called a lying, terrible father by the tabloids and television. And it wasn't when he heard a Dominican official threaten Felipe with a prison term for falsifying government documents. (Felipe says now, "If I'm arrested, I will go tranquilly. My heart will not beat one beat faster because I know I was trying to create opportunities for my son.") No, the one and only time Felipe cried was back in the Dominican on Aug. 18, as he watched his boy on television throw that perfect game against Apopka, Fla. "I softened," he said. "Such a grand feeling. Big. I felt something big." But, Felipe, wasn't your pride diluted by knowing your son was striking out younger kids-16 of 18 he faced? Felipe looks at you as if you'd asked if he arrived here by flying saucer. "No," he says. He had, spectacularly, gotten his son noticed. And anyway, he figured there was no shortage of overage kids in that tournament whose parents had tried to do the same thing, though not nearly as well.
The coach is obsessed. Rolando Paulino's apartment is filled with so many trophies, plaques, commendations and team pictures that there is no space for anything else. He has lineup cards tucked away, some of them more than two decades old, and he can tell you from memory every player on his team in 1983. Paulino, 37, has a stepson but likes to say he has 450 kids, roughly the number in the Bronx league that bears his name. "He can go to a room in the back of this apartment and tell you I was 3-for-5 with two runs scored on the second Saturday of May, 22 years ago," says Felipe, a teammate of Paulino's as a kid. "You think I'm kidding? I'm not." Paulino has done a lot of good work, helping countless kids in a rugged neighborhood, and that's why so many local parents and politicians have supported him despite his recent travails. They have seen him go door-to-door for donations. They have watched him pay umpires out of his own meager salary as a sportswriter for a Spanish- language newspaper, and borrow money from his mother to buy catching equipment. They know that, in a league where a mother coaches against her son because there are so many kids who want to play and so few adults to coach them, Paulino is coaching six of the 36 teams. But Paulino has been banned by Little League Baseball Inc. for life now, as has Felipe, a stain that has left him close to ruin. He lost almost 30 pounds in the weeks after the Almonte allegations surfaced. His wife, Carmen, would wake and find him sitting in the dark. In one breath, he says, "I don't need or care about Williamsport. Williamsport has never bought me one bat or ball." In the next moment, though, he shows the five letters he's sent to Williamsport, trying to get his name cleared. As he sits in his living room now, surrounded by his trophies, he keeps looking over his shoulder to make sure Carmen, cooking dinner, won't hear what he's about to say. "I was so depressed I thought about taking my life, but I wouldn't give them the pleasure," he whispers. On the TV there is news of American Flight 587, which crashed this morning going from New York to the Dominican. All around Paulino in this panicked neighborhood, televisions flicker with flames and plane pieces, and phone calls are made to make sure that friends weren't-or were-on that flight. But Paulino isn't much in the mood for perspective. "I'd rather die in a plane crash, quick, than suffer what I did," he says. Paulino says, ad nauseum, that he didn't know Danny was overage, that he relies on parents to be honest. This has caused some tension between Paulino and Felipe. "If there is anybody who has a right to be mad at Danny and his father, it is me," Paulino says. "Look at what has happened to me because of them." Still, Paulino is letting Danny live with him indefinitely, since Felipe returned to the Dominican shortly after these interviews (where he was not jailed). Paulino loves kids too much to hold a grudge against even the one who tarnished him. And he loves winning with them, too, perhaps too much. Paulino organized his first tournament in the Dominican when he was 15, selling sacks of rice to raise money, getting visas so his players could travel and teams from elsewhere could play there, and persuading a church to pay for hotel costs. Before 2001, the only other time he'd been to the Little League World Series was in 1987, when he took a Latin American team also rumored to have overage players. (A year later, a Paulino team was banned from a Puerto Rican tournament for lacking the proper documents for some players.) To cover the expenses for that 1987 World Series team, Paulino used the entire inheritance left him by his father. Paulino was 23. "Money never mattered like baseball did," he says. Adds Felipe, who runs his own league in the Dominican, "What we have is a sickness without cure. I feel bad, nauseous, when I don't go to the field. I get so uncomfortable when games are rained out that I go out there and get wet anyway, just to be near the field. If drugs are this addictive, I understand drug addicts." Few teams of Dominican players before the one that represented the Bronx this summer had been checked so thoroughly because few Dominican teams before this one had such success. "It's just because he has kicked everybody's ass that people complained," says Red Sox superstar and Dominican native Pedro Martinez. "He comes from the mountains, goes to New York, gets the opportunity to play and then he gets all the crap America has to offer just because he does good." Here was a team of dark-skinned kids from a poor neighborhood, blowing through suburban teams from air-conditioned America, and Paulino wonders aloud why nobody looked at how old the white kids were. Little League officials admit there have been Anglo players bigger and better than Danny whose credentials have never been questioned. Paulino heard rumors that one of the kids in this year's tournament had a child, and points out, correctly, that the tournament is set up so foreigners beat each other up for the right to play an American team guaranteed a spot in the finals. (League officials say, since 96% of all Little Leaguers play here, the format is designed to ensure that a non-U.S. team reaches the finals.) "Florida was the team from the United States, not us," Paulino says. "We didn't have the blond hair, the blue eyes and the perfect English. This never happens if we have those things." He says he encountered prejudice in Williamsport, fans from other teams wondering why so many Bronx parents were waving that "communist" Dominican flag. He could hear it when his team's parents were blowing whistles, beating drums and waving flags, so he went out and bought a big American flag and draped it from his team's dugout. "Did you hear what Turk Wendell said?" Paulino asks, and now he is going to that back room, searching for the words. What Wendell said was, "I thought it was kind of funny. Here's a kid playing in the Little League World Series for an American team, holding an American flag, and he can't speak English? No way." But Paulino is looking for the exact quote, and brings a garbage bag full of newspapers back and dumps it on the living room floor, headlines spilling out in a jumble. "Danny's Dad Faces Arrest." "Danny's 14! Coach a Big-Time Cheat." Paulino pushes past all this and stumbles on a photo of a Japanese player towering over his teammates. "Look at this giant," Paulino says. "Are they going to Japan to find out his age? They aren't going to Japan, and Japan isn't letting them in if they do go. But in the Dominican, everyone can be bought. Americans get what they want on a platter." He continues to rummage and read, rummage and read, rummage and read for a half-hour, looking for that Wendell quote. He is trying very hard to find a paragraph of prejudice amid this mountainous mess of his own making that sits right at his feet. He never does find it.
How dare they? That was the tone, wasn't it, inflated with indignation? "How dare they make winning that important?" we asked ... after these kids played in games attended by 42,000 fans, including the president ... and were broadcast on international television ... and, despite a third-place finish, were launched into a whirlwind that included a parade ... and ringing the bell on Wall Street ... and getting the key to the city from Rudy Giuliani ... and receiving calls from Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson ... and meeting the Yankees ... and receiving an all-expenses-paid trip to Disney World (revoked after the forfeit). "How dare they make winning that important?" we asked ... after we had made winning that important. Or hadn't you noticed? The way a ball bounces reverberates pretty enormously here, and that's how it came to be that the headlines coming out of New York just a few days before the Twin Towers crumbled were somehow about the birth certificate of a kid on a Little League team. Danny suddenly became a symbol for something, the way Latrell Sprewell and John Rocker and Rodney King and Elian Gonzalez had. We needed a face to put on this sports-run-amok issue, needed a face to go with overbearing parents who break the ump's jaw and fight in the stands, and Danny's would do just fine. Didn't much matter that the face of Danny's father or coach would have been more appropriate, didn't much matter that the face of the kid that kept appearing over the TV anchor's shoulder might have been innocent in more ways than one. These Dominicans had spray-painted the Norman Rockwell painting, see? But Little League is Big Business. Its annual budget is nearly $15 million. The World Series brings in $13 million to the Williamsport economy every year. The games have been televised since 1963. The kids give press conferences. Little League has a dozen corporate sponsors, and more than 100 licensing agreements that allow companies to use Little League's name on its products for a fee, after Little League has tested the products in its own lab. There is the illusion of quaint, old-time America in Williamsport, with the $1.25 hot dogs and 50-cent sodas, the volunteer umps and tickets given away and never sold (though sometimes scalped). But this is hardly the first time parents have ruined it for the kids. Crowds used to boo the Taiwanese team that won 15 championships in 22 years, a team that practiced during school hours, had its education paid for by Taiwan's first lady and had a stamp issued to commemorate it. As far back as 1972, a fight so large broke out among fans that police had to be brought in by helicopter to calm people swinging four-foot sticks and throwing rocks. Innocence lost? Doesn't something have to be innocent first before its innocence can be lost? Danny? He's sponsored now too. A Bronx dentist has become his "adviser," setting him up with Fred Cambria, a $40-an-hour pitching coach who used to work in the Padres organization. The arrangement is promising enough that Danny's father turned down Hall of Famer Juan Marichal's offer to pay for Danny's expenses and baseball grooming back in the Dominican. Says Felipe: "In the end, despite everything, the vocational mission of the coach is working. His player is advancing. The mission of the father is working. The son is advancing." Cambria has Danny doing a total of 500 different reps of special exercises a day and never allows him to throw curveballs. It is impossible to project potential for someone this young, but one major league scout says, "Teams will be following his progress. What he did was extraordinary for his age, whatever his age was. He would be less extraordinary if he pitched against kids his own age, but still pretty extraordinary. He has a very good arm." Says Cambria: "His mechanics were terrible, and he has nothing in the way of muscle, but he's throwing in the mid-70s from a big-league distance, which is terrific for his age. You don't see this kind of loose, fluid arm with this kind of terrific movement on the ball very often." Danny is attending English classes from 8 to 9 a.m. and then again from 3 to 6 p.m. after school, but Cambria still can't speak to him. He has a catcher translate, uses a lot of hand gestures and adds, "I try to have a big smile on my face so he knows when he's doing very well." Ah, yes, a big smile. It translates. After everything else, the big smile is all he sees.