Perhaps you have seen a picture of their on-field party in Williamsport, of the Zamboanga players rushing together on the field in their boyish glee. This unsung team had first upset the powerful squad from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic 5-1 and then trounced Long Beach 15-4. The Filipinos' jubilant victory dance should have been an enduring moment, an implosion of kids celebrating that most American of ideals: Anything is possible. These were players who learned to pitch by throwing rocks at a pile of coconuts, who learned to field using rice sacks for gloves, whose first bats were logs. When they left Zamboanga to train in Manila for the world series, they boarded the same ferry that delivered the oxen, and they sailed away to the modern world, third class.
But that happy picture of victory was quickly marred by suspicion, and within weeks it had been effaced. It was too good to have been true. What had seemed to be innocence rewarded was instead denounced as international trickery, calculated cheating that transfigured the boys' preadolescent triumph into teenage treachery. The Zamboanga players were not all from Zamboanga (Little League rules require that a team participating in tournament play, up to and including the world series, be composed of all-stars from the same local league), they were reportedly too old (eligibility for Little League play requires that a player not turn 13 before Aug. 1), and it appeared that they were not even who they said they were. Those little kids? Even their childhoods appeared to be fraudulent.
The Filipinos were not undone by Americans, not even by those Americans who are suspicious of anything from another culture that proves superior to something in their own. "I'm not saying the U.S. has the best of everything," said Jeff Burroughs, the Long Beach coach and a parent, in the wake of the loss to the Filipinos, "but when our teams get annihilated, it makes you wonder." Of course, the Americans wonder nearly every year in Williamsport: A Far East team has been better at America's pastime than America has in 21 of the last 26 Little League World Series, so the Filipinos' victory didn't cause much more than a shrug in Williamsport.
Rather, the Filipinos were undone by their countrymen. A newspaper column headed MOTHERS HOW OLD ARE YOUR CHILDREN? appeared in a Manila newspaper the day the apparent victors arrived home to a small parade in the city's financial district. At that point the players had enjoyed their championship for four days.
They would hold it only 15 days more. Upon admission by the Philippine Little League administrator that eight of the players and their manager and coach were not from Zamboanga, Little League headquarters in Williamsport voided their championship. On Sept. 18 Burroughs rounded up as many players as he could for a quiet celebration at a park in Long Beach. It was not easy assembling them. "Some were playing soccer, some were doing homework," he said. "They've gotten back into the swing of things." The players seemed not the least embittered by the whole affair. Then again, they were only 12.
Months later in the Philippines, confusion still prevails. After the title was stripped, there were additional reports of chicanery, that even the six players who really were from Zamboanga were not who they seemed, that some players used aliases and false birth dates to qualify for tournament play. Filipinos have been left to wonder how long their children have played on a field of schemes. And they wonder if their corruption is so complete that it is taught at the preteen level. They wonder about loyalties, their country right or wrong. They are buffeted by alternating shame and pride. It's so confusing. And Filipinos don't even like baseball that much.
Al Mendoza's nerves are pretty much shot. Over dinner in Manila he gestures wildly, as if to discharge the shooting sparks of his panic. It has been nearly three months since his columns in the Philippine Daily Inquirer raised suspicions over the Zamboangan team and ultimately hurled his country into disgrace. And he still feels he must travel with a bodyguard, when he dares leave his house at all. The angry public reaction against him has been so weirdly oversized. It was just a sports story.
A rival newspaper, The Manila Chronicle, wrote in an editorial: "As to Mr. Al Mendoza, let us be reminded that rats have gone down in history with ignominious epitaphs, most of them well deserved. Al Capone had a way of disposing of rats. He bashed their heads with a baseball bat."
Just the other day Mendoza was hailed by a passing motorist as he entered his newspaper's building. The man called out, "Traitor!" It has been three months! It's as if he, a sportswriter, has somehow come to personify the country's moral dilemma. Does a nation admit its mistakes and move forward, or does it practice an ancient loyalty and cover up? Mendoza thought he knew what to do. But ever since he did it, he has been on the run.
The Philippines' long and sorry tradition of crookedness has sustained a lively press. There are 33 daily newspapers in Manila, and they spare no space when it comes to covering scandal. Whether it's rigged elections or the ownership of jeepneys—small buses that are painted and operated in the manner of World War II fighter planes and are presumed to be operated for the illegal benefit of certain traffic cops—it all gets great play. But when it came time to investigate the Zamboanga Little League team, Mendoza and his paper stood alone.