Tuesday, September 4
Search for truth is the only true winner

By Álvaro Martín
Special to

SANTO DOMINGO, Domincan Republic -- In the depths of the Watergate scandals, many pondered whether that experience represented a low point in American history. Far from it, the peaceful, procedural removal of a sitting, law-breaking President might be considered America's finest hour.

Friday's decision by the Dominican Republic's Central Electoral Board on the validity of double birth certificates for both Rolando Paulino All-Stars pitcher Danny Almonte and older brother Juan underscores the adherence in this Caribbean country to existing rules and procedures.

It is hard to find other winners in this case.

The kid
Danny Almonte lived a dream in the previous two weeks, only to have it end in a nightmare. He is a good kid -- respectful, quiet and very simple. He loves to play baseball and started doing so at the age of 5 in organized leagues in Moca. "I knew he was special when they made him play with older kids the first time he enrolled in a league in our hometown," his father, Felipe, told me in Williamsport. The irony of those statements is fully appreciated now.

Rolando Paulino
Rolando Paulino, founder of the Rolando Paulino All-Stars Little League, is drawing a lot of attention these days.

In Williamsport, I had Danny and his manager, Alberto González, stand next to me for an on-the-field interview right before the start of the semifinal game against Oceanside, Calif. At the last minute, I had to reorient them to face another camera, and I placed my hand in Danny's back, directing him to move his position.

He always looked composed on television, but my hand felt a heartbeat racing at a hundred miles a minute.

On Saturday, before the start of the game, he was awed by the 40,000-plus crowd in attendance and softly asked, "Do they expect more people to show up on Sunday?"

Danny enjoyed those moments and was especially touched by the gifts he received from Randy Johnson and his favorite, Ken Griffey Jr. Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium, he stood on the mound and went through a wind-up as he caught González' eyes. Later he said to his manager: "Some day ..."

Not attending school in the States was a huge missed opportunity for this child. When his father admitted this week that his son has spent his time "eating ... and playing baseball", he reflected the hopes and dreams of many poor fathers from the Dominican Republic. His son was getting proper nutrition, and he was playing the sport he loved and wanted to play professionally.

Most of the All-Stars parents I interviewed in Williamsport want their boys to study and to become professionals -- doctors, lawyers, engineers. Education is culturally valued in the Dominican Republic. But having a son become a professional baseball player would be very special to any Dominican father, given baseball's grip on the country.

His teammates
The rest of the Bronx All-Stars will be remembered for this episode, and that is a shame. No team that participated in this year's tournament in Williamsport sacrificed more and played more baseball than the kids from the Bronx. They would play five to eight games a week during the season. When winter set in, they would play in the gymnasium of C.E.S. 70, a grade school in the Bronx.

Third baseman Héctor Rhadamés Rodríguez' story is typical. His father Héctor, born in the Dominican Republic, lived in Puerto Rico for seven years, working on the docks and living in tough neighborhoods in San Juan. To keep his son out of trouble and into baseball, he would wake Rhadamés in the morning to do calisthenics before work and would practice with him every day as soon as he returned.

A Puerto Rican Little League official asked Héctor Sr. to take over the weakest team in a Little League in Nemesio Canales, a tough San Juan housing project, because they lacked a coach. He reluctantly agreed. "That team had no talent, but at least I would get a chance to coach my son," he told me last Wednesday.

Héctor Sr. put the team through three-hour practices. That team, expected to finish last in its league, lost the championship game. "That is one of my proudest accomplishments. I still display that runner-up trophy at home," Rodriguez Sr. said.

Rhadamés was part of a travelling team that played 24 games in 12 days last January in the Dominican Republic. The travelling All-Stars would play pick-up games with older kids as their bus traveled through the country, averaging 100 miles a day. "My son came back at least eight pounds lighter," confided Rodríguez.

Later, he moved his family to New York, where he became a livery cab driver in the Bronx. Rodríguez would work from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., then would meet Rhadamés to throw him fastballs in a parking lot -- the only space they could secure.

"I want him to learn how to hit fastballs, so I pitched these rubber balls to him hard. He'll figure out breaking balls later. On the week his team would face Almonte's, I would pitch at him extra hard. Rhadamés is the only kid in that league that had three hits against Danny this season," Rodríguez said.

In winter, Rodríguez secured permission from his building's superintendent to throw batting practice to his son in the lobby. "It was too cold to go outside, so I would have him swing a broomstick, and I would pitch corn seeds or chickpeas," Rodríguez said. "Chickpeas are better, however, because they fly straight, and I want him to develop an eye for fastballs. Afterward, it took a while to clean up the bits of chickpeas that were all over the floor."

The league director
For Rolando Paulino, a week that started with parades and great promise ended in ignominy.

He founded his league in the Dominican Republic at the precocious age of 13 and once had a young third baseman named Felipe Almonte play for one of his teams. When Paulino was 16, a travelling team of college players from the U.S. visited the Dominican Republic and asked to speak to the league director. When they met a young Paulino, they asked to speak to his boss. "I am the boss," Paulino responded with a smile.

While we might never know the full truth to his involvement in this episode, there should be no doubt about the number of hours and amount of effort Paulino devoted to his leagues in the Bronx. The Paulino league alone has 400 young Hispanic kids in that borough. Without Paulino, they might not have had a league or a park to play in. Few visit the Bronx, so I will personally attest to the generally poor condition of these fields.

However, controversy has surrounded Paulino's tenure as a league director. In Santo Domingo, Little League officials have told me, Paulino teams were under scrutiny by parents and managers of opposing teams. A local manager told me that they would invariably ask for birth certificates and documentation when facing a Paulino team.

Any birth certificate issued in the last two years, for what should have been 11 or 12 year olds, would draw an immediate red flag. Suspicious teams would send someone to the province to check documents and to ask questions. Moca is a two-hour car ride from Santo Domingo.

"In these small country towns, if you really want to do it, you can get a second original birth certificate for $20 to $35 dollars," the Dominican Little League manager said.

As in any other location, however, there are many more rule-abiding parents and league officials in the Dominican Republic than persons trying to subvert the rules.

In 1988, a Paulino-led team from Moca represented the Dominican Republic in the Latin American Regionals in Puerto Rico, the tournament that decides which team would represent Latin America in Williamsport.

The Paulino team was found to have six players with "incorrect certificates," according to Antonio Vázquez, the Puerto Rico Little League District Administrator. Vázquez said the Dominican team was disqualified and Paulino allegedly was "banned for life" from Latin American regional competition.

When I asked Paulino about this at Yankee Stadium last Wednesday, his demeanor changed. He became subdued and terse. He told me that the team he led in 1988 had been disqualified, but only after he himself had brought up the irregularities to the organizing committee as soon as he knew. He vehemently denied that he had been suspended for life and challenged anyone accusing him of that to prove such a claim.

Indeed, Mr. Vázquez later said that the report was never sent to Williamsport headquarters and that Puerto Rican Little League officials could not find any documentation to support the alleged banishment. Little League officials in Williamsport also told me they could not locate these records as of the end of this week.

Mr. Paulino moved to the United States shortly thereafter and set up the Paulino League in the Bronx in 1990.

The father
Felipe Almonte faces a host of issues and questions. Once Danny's birth certificate irregularities were made public, the press focused on the youngster's legal status in the United States, without finding any evidence of wrongdoing. We have to assume, until otherwise proven, that Felipe has proper documentation for his son Danny.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service will not discuss or comment on individual cases. Until and unless the father displays Danny's visa to the press, we won't know if the youngster has any visa issues with the United States government.

A person who remains in the U.S. with an expired visa is "subject to immediate removal from the country," according to Elaine Komis of the INS.

Under current Little League procedures, a youngster can play in a country even if there illegally. All the team has to prove is that the player is of appropriate age and that the child and his parent or guardian have resided in the area where the league plays during the season.

From a Little League perspective, whether the child is living in a country illegally is a problem for the child and parent. This would apply to an American kid playing in Saudi Arabia as much as to a Dominican in the United States.

Felipe Almonte is under investigation in the Dominican Republic for providing false statements in the second set of certificates for both his sons. If found guilty under Law 659, he and any other accomplices could face 3-5 years in prison.

In the Dominican countryside, parents sometimes file for a birth certificate for their children many years after they were born. Sometimes parents wait to file until a certificate is needed to enroll kids in a certain program or to travel overseas. Danny's original certificate was filed seven years after his birth.

Interestingly enough, Danny's older brother Juan originally was registered in Moca just 25 days after his birth.

Both brothers' second set of certificates were filed on March 21, 2000, and both were entered in the government document office in the town of Jamao, about 20 miles north of Moca, in the same province of Espaillat. Juan's is entry number 53, Danny's is 54.

The head of that office, Cecilia López Silveiro, has been provisionally suspended until the criminal investigation of these irregularities is concluded. Ms. López filed a sworn statement denying she has ever met the Almontes or that she signed the certificates in question.

The organization
Now that Dominican authorities have decided officially on the validity of the certificates, Little League Baseball moved swiftly to assess penalties. Their main concern has been to punish the guilty while limiting the damage to the children involved. That is why the Little League Board of Directors did not revoke the Bronx league's charter. Too many innocent children would be unfairly hurt with broader sanctions.

Little League Baseball will now examine their requirements and perhaps revise them to avoid having to deal with these cases in the future. Perhaps they will require a longer period of residency for the parent or guardian before the season starts. Or maybe they will require the parent or guardian of any player who is not a citizen of the country they live in to present documentation that proves that the child resides in that country with the host government's consent.

In the Danny Almonte episode, the truth triumphed and the rule of law prevailed.

It is hard to find any other winners.

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 ESPN's Alvaro Martin says there are no records of Danny Almonte attending school in the U.S. in the last 18 months.
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