For pitcher, it's all over but the shaving

Not since Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn strolled into their own funeral have we seen the likes of pitcher and not-so-Little Leaguer Danny Almonte.

Danny is the Baby Bronx Bomber who pitched his team out of the inner city into the Little League World Series and the hearts of sports fans from President Bush to every 12-year-old who believed if Danny could do it, maybe he could, too.

When the dust settled, records revealed that Danny was 14, not 12, - thus too old for Little League - and apparently he had skipped most of the eighth grade. What a lark!

The saga of Danny's Bronx Little League team, the Rolando Paulino All-Stars, was the feel-good story of the summer for New Yorkers gagging on daily updates of President Clinton's move into Harlem and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's extramarital antics.

For months, the media charted Danny's arc of triumph as he and his young teammates moved up through the intensely competitive Little League elimination tournament, finally making it to the World Series.

On Aug. 18, Danny pitched the series' first perfect game in 44 years. Even though they eventually lost, the Baby Bronx Bombers were the toast of New York.

Danny, a native of the Dominican Republic who speaks no English, made a perfect summer hero, shy, awkward and immensely talented. But even as he pitched his way to the top, the clouds were gathering.

Sports Illustrated, suspicious that the "lanky youth" was older than 12, hired private investigators who turned up birth certificates from the hospital where Danny was born in the Dominican Republic that proved his birth date was 1987, not 1989.

Once the truth was revealed, the Baby Bombers lost all their victories and Danny's perfect game was wiped off the record books.

Danny Almonte went from the diamond to the doghouse in a New York minute.

Was the scam wrong? Yes. Did it teach formative young minds about sportsmanship and honest behavior? No. Did the end justify the means? No.

But when you're 12 or 14, who cares?

You pitched a perfect game, you've achieved rock star status, your picture has appeared in every major newspaper and sports publication, girls are giving you their cell phone numbers. David Letterman and Jay Leno are incorporating your story in their opening monologues and you skipped school for most of the year. His family said Danny spent most of the year "eating and playing baseball."

That's a life that any kid from Carson City to Kazakhstan would envy.

If he is 14, that makes Danny two years closer to signing a Major League contract, a career move I imagine any number of people are lining up to arrange.

Officials of Danny's team swear they had a birth certificate, passport and visa to support their claim Danny was 12 - although all, apparently, were based on a phony second birth document. This isn't the first time Danny's coach Rolando Paulino or his father have been in trouble for playing overage kids. Apparently Danny's older brother was a ringer, too.

But to boys in the Dominican Republic and their families, Paulino is a hero. In their eyes, the ticket he offers to the United States is worth the risk.

Since he has been ratted out, Danny enrolled in a Bronx middle school and his father faces charges in the Dominican Republic for falsifying documents. The adults have been banned from Little League for life.

Before the bubble burst, the Baby Bronx Bombers were honored with a parade and each boy received a key to New York City. Presumably, the keys will have to be returned to Mayor Giuliani who at times was locked out of Gracie Mansion himself by his ex-wife when he tried to install his girlfriend in a spare bedroom.

This tale, the hand-wringers say, points to the sorry state of youth sports. It has a happier ending than some stories, though, so far, nobody has been killed or disfigured. The New York Post quoted a child psychologist who suggested Danny and his young teammates will need lots of expensive therapy to get heal the hurt. I think a book deal and a TV Movie of the Week will help put the past behind them. If only Mark Twain were available ....

When it's all over but the shouting, the facts remain: Danny Almonte pitched a perfect game. Even if it was wiped from the record books, no one can take that way from him.

Nor can they erase the summer that an entire country was bamboozled by a Bronx Baby Bomber.

Sheila Gardner is night desk editor for the Nevada Appeal


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