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One for the Ages

Birth records in his native land suggest that Danny Almonte, star of the Little League World Series, may have been a ringer

Posted: Monday August 27, 2001 10:32 PM

  According to this official copy of his birth record obtained by SI in Moca, his Dominican hometown, Danny was born on April 7, 1987, which would make him too old for Little League eligibility by two years. Victor Baldizon

By Ian Thomsen and Luis Fernando Llosa

Sports Illustrated The Little League World series final at Howard J. Lamade Stadium in Williamsport, Pa., on Sunday had a thrilling finish that in other years would have served as the tournament's most unforgettable image. For the second time in three years the series was won by a team from Japan, as Tokyo Kitasuna scored both runs in its 2-1 victory over Apopka, Fla., on a bottom-of-the-sixth single by Nobuhisa Baba, a 5'1" third baseman. The Japanese had come from behind on their last at bat to win the international championship game as well as the series final and celebrated each time by sprinting madly out to the centerfield wall, where they threw themselves down in cartoonish genuflection before the bust of Lamade, who had donated the land for the ballpark.

But Sunday's events seemed almost anticlimactic after the show put on earlier in the series by Danny Almonte, a remarkably poised lefthander from the Rolando Paulino All-Stars of the Bronx. As his team advanced to last Saturday's U.S. championship game, in which it lost 8-2 to Apopka, Danny, a native of Moca in the Dominican Republic, seemed like a man among boys, using his lanky leg kick and effortless release to blind his overmatched foes with 70-mph-plus two- and four-seam fastballs -- the equivalent, given that Little League pitchers throw from a mound just 46 feet from home plate, of 92-mph major league heat -- and bamboozle them with sharp curves and changeups. Beginning with the no-hitter he threw in the Eastern Regional final on Aug. 14 in Bristol, Conn., Danny won all four games he pitched, including a perfect game, the World Series' first in 44 years, against Apopka in round-robin play on Aug. 18. In those appearances he gave up only one run (unearned) and three hits and struck out 62 of the 72 batters he faced. He was ineligible to pitch against Apopka in the U.S. championship game because he had thrown a 1-0 one-hitter against Oceanside, Calif., in the U.S. semifinal, and Little League rules prohibit a pitcher from taking the mound if he has thrown an inning or more in his team's previous game.

Such was Danny's celebrity that during the tournament he received a good-luck call from his idol, Cincinnati Reds centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr., and as a child version of the Arizona Diamondbacks' towering lefty Randy (the Big Unit) Johnson, the 5'8" Danny earned the nickname the Little Unit. Even before the tournament his physical and mound maturity had caused some to wonder if he was, as the Paulino All-Stars claimed, 12 years old -- the maximum age for Little League eligibility. Last Friday the Newark Star-Ledger reported that a group of adults associated with a Little League team on Staten Island had paid $10,000 this summer for a private investigation into the Paulino players' ages. The detectives had found no evidence that the boys were too old.

Apparently, they did not inquire at the oficialía civil -- the civil records building -- in either Moca or Santo Domingo, where they could have found further reason to question Danny's age. According to birth ledgers in Moca examined by SI, Danny's birth date was registered with the Dominican government in December 1994 by his father, Felipe, as April 7, 1987. (In the Dominican Republic it is not uncommon for parents to wait years before officially declaring the birth of a child.) That means that when Danny Almonte was blowing away batters in Williamsport last week, he was officially 14 years old.

"When he was a little boy, he always walked around with a little stick, hitting things, batting," Danny's mother, Sonia Margarita Rojas Bretón, 28, said last Saturday in Moca, an agricultural town of 70,000 about 90 miles north of Santo Domingo, as she waited for the U.S. championship game to begin on television. Danny's love of baseball came from his 36-year-old father, who in 1992 started a youth league in Moca that still bears his name -- Liga Felipe de Jesús Almonte. Three years later Felipe Almonte, long since divorced from Danny's mother, immigrated to the Bronx.

In the spring of 2000 Danny joined his father in the Bronx, where Felipe was working at a bodega in a Dominican section of the borough. Danny began pitching and playing centerfield in the Bronx league named after its founder, Rolando Paulino, a sportswriter for Noticias del Mundo, a Spanish-language newspaper based in New York City. Paulino, also a Dominican immigrant, serves as a coach of the All-Stars as well as league president. His success with the team has brought in a $50,000 sponsorship from Merrill Lynch and made him a popular man in New York's Dominican community.

Danny was one of the mainstays on last year's All-Stars, who lost in the Eastern Regional final. This season Danny became the star. Last Thursday the Paulino team manager, Alberto Gonzalez, said that Danny was accused of being overage because he is so smart on the mound. "He's just a little more mature than other kids right now," Gonzalez said hours before Danny's gem against Oceanside. "The biggest plus is his mental approach. His mind is very focused. You tell him something once, and he will never forget."

Danny's dominant performances in Williamsport led to intensified media interest in accusations that Paulino was using players older than 12. Before hearing of the birth records located by SI, officials at Little League headquarters said they were tired of listening to questions about the eligibility of the Bronx team. "We don't have a shred of evidence that these kids are overage," said Lance Van Auken, Little League director of media relations, last Thursday. Van Auken said that the team had followed proper procedures concerning age verification, submitting birth certificates and/or passports to a district administrator, who presented the team with an affidavit certifying the players' eligibility. Because of the suspicions surrounding the team, officials at Little League headquarters had taken the unusual step of examining each of the players' documents.

Van Auken was especially nettled by the persistent questioning of Danny's age. Almonte's talent, impressive as it is, didn't support such scrutiny, according to Van Auken, who said, "There have been better pitchers here. The difference is, most of them have been white. In some of the e-mails I get, the racism is thinly veiled; in others it's overt." He said he had received close to 50 such e-mails regarding the Bronx team, most of which complained that its members should be playing for the Dominican Republic, where three of the 12 Paulino All-Stars were born.

Still, the questions kept coming. On Friday, Paulino was surrounded by reporters asking to see copies of Danny's birth certificate. Paulino retreated to the team's dormitory on a hill overlooking the Little League complex and came back carrying a forest-green portfolio. "This is the last time I'm doing this," he declared, and from a pile of documents he pulled out what he said was Danny's birth certificate. The typewritten birth date had been highlighted in yellow ink -- 7 DE ABRIL 1989. April 7, 1989. On the backside were red and green stamps of authenticity. The certificate, referring to the system of ledgers used to record births in the Dominican Republic, was indexed: "4 libro, 54 folio." Book 4, folio 54.

All birth records in the Dominican Republic are kept in hardbound 9-by-11-inch books. Each birth is recorded in two books -- one kept in the central office in Santo Domingo and the other in the local oficialía civil.

An SI reporter checked with the Santo Domingo office and found Danny's birth record indexed as book 267, folio 144. The reporter then traveled to the regional oficialía in Moca, which is housed in a large one-story building with a single room. Within minutes a clerk located the entry for Danny in the book of original birth records. The reporter looked at the book and confirmed that the entry listed Danny as having been born on April 7, 1987, to Sonia Margarita Rojas Bretón and Felipe de Jesús Almonte. The entry listed personal identification numbers -- the rough Dominican equivalent of U.S. Social Security numbers -- for both Sonia and Felipe.

At a cost of 30 pesos (just under $2), a copy, or acta, was prepared for SI listing the date and birth information. In appearance, the acta was similar to the document exhibited by Paulino in Williamsport. The reason for that soon became clear: Paulino's document had apparently been created from a second Dominican birth record for Danny -- an official but highly suspect entry.

SI found this birth record right where Paulino's document said it would be: book 4, folio 54. The record, which was in the central office in Santo Domingo, stated that on March 21, 2000 -- just weeks before Danny moved to the U.S. and launched his spectacular career in the Rolando Paulino Little League -- Felipe registered the boy's birth again. This time, according to the birth record, Felipe claimed that Danny had been born on April 7, 1989, thus shaving two years off his son's previously registered age.

To eliminate the possibility that two sets of parents with identical names had had sons named Danny de Jesús Almonte -- one of them born on April 7, 1987, and the other two years later to the day -- SI compared the personal identification numbers given for Felipe and Sonia on the 1994 and 2000 birth records. The numbers matched.

When Paulino was told on Sunday of the 1994 Dominican birth record that SI had found, showing that Danny was 14, he said, "The document we have here is official and legal. It's possible the [SI] reporter got someone with the same name. There must be a mistake." He expressed exasperation and retired to the team's dormitory. Reversing the vow he made earlier, he returned with the conflicting birth certificate as well as Danny's passport, which similarly gave the youth's birth date as 1989.

"Every time a Hispanic team, even though the majority of [the players] were born here, triumphs, people will look for whatever way to take away what they've done," Paulino said. "Most of those people are bad losers, poor sports. No other team, not even those from abroad, has been scrutinized like us. Do you know what envidia [envy] means? Celos [jealousy]? With all the money people have spent investigating us, they could have started a new league or helped the kids."

Paulino said that both the birth certificate and the passport he was relying on had been supplied by Felipe. He noted that the passport indicated that Danny had made a trip to Puerto Rico. "The truth is that Danny has never been to Puerto Rico," Paulino said. "Sometimes the government makes mistakes."

Felipe Almonte could not recall when he registered Danny's birth. He said that the Dominican government must have made a mistake. Paulino pointed out that if Danny were 14, then he and his older brother, Juan, would be only six months apart. "So it cannot be true," Paulino said. (SI did not locate a birth certificate for Juan.)

When informed on Monday of Danny Almonte's conflicting birth certificates, Van Auken described the news as "disheartening." He said he could not recall a case of age tampering by a contending team in the 54-year history of the World Series. (In 1992 a team from the Philippines forfeited its World Series championship, but that was because it had used players from outside local league boundaries.) On Monday afternoon the Little League announced that it would investigate the birth-certificate discrepancy. Said the organization's president, Stephen D. Keener, "Anyone who would knowingly undermine the trust in Little League is guilty of doing serious harm to children."

How, in the future, might Little League tighten its procedures for checking birth dates? Van Auken shook his head as he went over the numbers: Little League oversees nearly 35,000 teams in 10 tournament age divisions and 105 countries. "We have one employee for about every 25,000 players in our program," he said. "There is no way we can go and check the birth date of every player. All we can do is continue to depend on the honesty of our volunteers and the parents who are signing their kids up."

Issue date: September 3, 2001

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