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 Ocean-side, 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 oficial�a 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 Br�ton, 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 Jes�s 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.