The morning before Danny Almonte, the most famous 17-year-old baseball player in the country, took the mound in the New York City public school championship game last Friday, he sought advice from his guardian and coach, Rolando Paulino. "I told him to play for yourself, for your team that trusts you and for your mother who is thinking of you in the Dominican Republic," says Paulino. That evening at Shea Stadium, Almonte—pitching with the pressure of 5,213 sets of eyes on him and the burden of knowing that his mother, Sonia Rojas, was 1,550 miles away, where she cannot afford treatment for an inoperable tumor in her kidney—turned in a masterly performance. The sophomore southpaw struck out 11 and allowed just one hit as James Monroe Campus High beat George Washington High 4-0. "He turned a lot of heads today," said Monroe coach Mike Turo. "Now people will believe in him instead of knocking him."
Almonte has been knocked since the summer of 2001, when he posed as a 12-year-old and led the Rolando Paulino All-Stars to a third-place finish in the Little League World Series. When SI discovered that he was, in fact, 14, the team was disqualified and Almonte became the poster child for all that is wrong with kids' sports. Three years later Almonte, who moved from the Dominican Republic in 2000 (after working in a bodega for a year he entered eighth grade in 2001), resides with Paulino in a Bronx housing project. Like most teens he loves video games and hanging out at the mall on weekends. His best subject is history, and next year he's taking public speaking to improve his English. But baseball remains the center of his life. At a slight 5'11", 150 pounds, he has an 87-mph fastball and a sneaky curve. This year he had a 1.38 ERA and struck out 95 in 60? innings, while batting .449 with 58 RBIs in 44 games. "He is one of the best sophomores in the country," said one National League scout at Friday's game. "He just needs to grow and get stronger."
Almonte is already looking forward to a pro career, in part so he can provide for his mom. Two days after winning the title Almonte went public with a plea for funds to bring her to the U.S. to receive the dialysis she needs. "I only hope that my mother can wait until [I am drafted]," he said. "That is when I'll be able to begin earning money to help her."