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Field of Schemes
Richard Hoffer
January 18, 1993
In August a team from a remote corner of the Philippines won the Little League World Series—then the victory dissolved in deceit
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January 18, 1993

Field Of Schemes

In August a team from a remote corner of the Philippines won the Little League World Series—then the victory dissolved in deceit

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In its series the Daily Inquirer claimed that the six boys who came from Zamboanga likewise had too many names. It alleged that the team captain, Allan Bitun, was actually 14-year-old Junifer Pinero; that Jemar Alfaro was his 16-year-old cousin Alvin Alfaro; that Marlon Pantaleon was his 14-year-old brother, Melvin; that Ignacio Ramacho was 13-year-old Ernesto Vinarao; that Expedito Alvarez Jr. was 15-year-old Gilbert Alvarez; that Ricardo Marcos Jr. was 14-year-old Rodel Marcos.

The paper charged that even some of the parents assumed names to accommodate the alleged fraud. This has been heatedly denied by some of the parents and neighbors and town officials. Allan Bitun's mother, Teresita, said at a town meeting, "He's really my son. Who else owns him? I did not pick him up from a garbage dump." At the same meeting Jaime Alfaro said, "I slept with my wife, and my wife delivered the baby. How can Jemar not be my son?" Teachers and school officials have all stepped forward to confirm the boys' identities.

But Nocum stands by his reporting. "This has been going on in Zamboanga for 10 years," he says. "Everybody knows about it but doesn't talk about it. It's taboo." Nocum, a native of Zamboanga and a former seminarian, decided to pursue the Little League story after Mendoza floated his charges. "I meant to come to the defense of our boys," Nocum says. "I wanted to prove they weren't overage. You must understand, Zamboanga has become notorious for the bombing of churches, the killing of priests [as part of an ongoing conflict between local Christians and Muslims]. I saw this victory, as everyone did, as the kind of good news that would erase all the bad publicity."

Nocum's hope vaporized when he visited the children's schools. According to Nocum, looking for Allan Bitun produced much confusion among Allan's classmates. When Nocum identified Allan as a 13-year-old player from the championship team, a younger student said, "Are you looking for Junifer Pinero?" More mature students quickly shushed the youngster; the cover-up, if that's what it was, extended to teachers as well. As a result, Nocum's journalism has become something like cold fusion: The results were exciting but so far impossible to duplicate.

Nocum was outraged by what he found. "There is a joke in this country," he says. "We have 11 Commandments instead of 10. The 11th is Thou Shall Not Get Caught. But it is not funny if we are going to teach kids to lie. The corruption in this country stinks. It's everywhere. But for god's sake, can we not spare the children?"

The Filipinos have cheated at baseball before. In the late '80s Philippine teams were barred from Pony Baseball international tournament play for three years after Pony officials discovered the use of overage players. In 1984 Philippine Little League officials, during a national series, cracked down on the illegal practice of substituting overage boys; according to one newspaper report, "Stringent screening of players and ocular inspection of all competing teams" disqualified as many as 30 players before the tournament began.

In the U.S. there has long been suspicion over the eligibility of players on foreign teams, particularly those juggernauts from the Far East. Deborah Burroughs, the Long Beach coach's wife, said in an interview after the announcement of the reversal, "We feel from looking back that this has happened many times in the past, and it had just never been investigated. The Dominican kids were obviously men. Our coaches said you could tell in the showers. At least the Philippine kids were smart enough to use Nair."

Actually, according to Oscar Ituralde, a former baseball coach in Zamboanga who is now a local councilman, "the main tool of the coach here is a 'puller' [tweezer]." Ituralde told Nocum that overage boys usually suffer from having their pubic hair pulled a day before the competition. "You will feel sorry for the boys," he said. "They have difficulty walking."

Baseball in the Philippines is by no means the preoccupation of youngsters that it is in other parts of Asia or in the Caribbean. Basketball, another American hand-me-down, is the Filipinos' sport of choice. There is a pro basketball league that has its games telecast on two channels seemingly every night, one channel broadcasting in the national language, Tagalog, and another in English. While traveling about the country, one is far more likely to see a backboard and hoop than a baseball field.

However, there are pockets of intense baseball activity, and Zamboanga is one of them. Nobody knows why, for sure. Some of the older folks remember first seeing the game played by American soldiers who were stationed nearby after World War II. "There was a Marine base not that far from Culianan, where the boys go to school," says Silvestre Rivera, a lawyer who is active in the Zamboanga Little League. "The Marines would give us gloves and bats. One taught me how to catch."

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