By Albert Samaha
By Steve Weinstein
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Last year all the South Bronx watched the borough's own Rolando Paulino All-Stars make it to the Little League World Series. Some watched in excitement, some with envy. After the team's star pitcher, Danny Almonte, was revealed to be overage and an imported ringer, the city shook its collective head, and budding baseball impresario Rolando Paulino was barred for life from involvement with the Little League.
You'd think that once the bad apple had been removed from the South Bronx Little League scene there'd be plenty of other existing baseball organizations lined up to take the place of the Paulino group. After all, bad feelings about the All-Stars didn't start with the Almonte fraud; they began with Paulino's organization taking the only available slot in the official Bronx branch of Little League and hogging the chance to go to the World Series. (The resentment brewing within the Bronx toward Paulino and Almonte was first reported by the Voice last fall just before Almonte was officially unmasked as being a ringer.) However, it looks as if there will be no official Little League organization in the South Bronx this season, and the way it's going there may never be.
The reason for this is not a lack of interest, established leagues, or able players. What seems to be lacking is common sense. The Bronx leagues that for years complained of being shut out of official Little League still seem to be fixated on Paulino while balking at following some of the same rules Little League officials say he violated.
Some of the confusion can be attributed to Little League officials who, despite the ban against Paulino himself, acknowledge to the Voice that, even after the scandal, they were willing to "restructure" Paulino's disgraced league and renew its charter. The attempt aroused suspicions in other neighborhood leagues, whose officials had griped for years about Paulino and who coveted Paulino's ability to produce good teams.
"He's legal to participate, but not use his name," Tony Melendez, president of United Youth Sports Organization, a rival baseball organization in the Bronx, said at one point during the post-Almonte period when it appeared that Paulino's group was going to remain affiliated with Little League. "Paulino will still be involved, but without his name. We're never going to get our chance."
It appears Melendez and others were right. According to Little League officials, the "restructured league" made a former Paulino spokeswoman its new president and retained the same vice president and the bulk of its board of directors. The Paulino league even protested to Little League officials about the year-long suspensions of coaches Alberto Rodriguez and Rolando Torres.
"They didn't take it as serious as it was," says Bob Gerbasi, in charge of Little League District 22, covering 90 percent of the Bronx and about 5000 prepubescent players. "They didn't feel like they did anything wrong as long as Paulino's name was taken off."
Little League officials in Williams-port, Pennsylvania, dreamed of an overhaul beyond the cosmetic, including a new board of directors and fresh officials. They tried to insist that the changes be done under their observation. Instead of accommodating the Little League, the Rolando Paulino All-Stars declared independence and split from Williamsport to start their own organization one week after their proposal was rejected by officials in Williamsport, leaving Gerbasi to read about it in the newspaper. "Just for the record, Little League didn't push Paulino out," Gerbasi says. "He left."
It turns out that Almonte was not only overage, he also violated a residency requirement that players must play half the season within league boundaries in order to be eligible for the World Series. Almonte was living with his parents in the Dominican Republic during most of the 2001 season, obviously falling short, league officials in Williamsport confirm. Paulino's organization denies all charges, but media accounts of the Almonte family's movements and the damning hospital records retrieved from the Dominican Republic by Sports Illustrated support the contentions of Little League officials.
As a result of the Almonte scandal, Little League now demands a map showing the residences of all players in the nation, shown within the approved league boundaries, and the number of games played. Proof-of-age requirements are also stricter. No one thinks the tightening has made the system cheat-proof. "We still depend on honesty and integrity at the local level," concedes Lance Van Auken, director of communications at Little League world headquarters. "That hasn't changed."
Since there were many people in the Bronx eyeing the Paulino All-Stars' rise to the World Series with envy, it could be assumed that one of these leagues would become official Little Leaguers. But that doesn't seem to be happening. Ironically, the stricter eligibility require-ments established by Williamsport in the wake of the Almonte scandal have turned off some Bronx organizers.
"I thought, 'Wow, this will open things up,' " says Melendez. "But it's worse now. Getting the paperwork is stricter, and a lot of people are bailing out. They made it tough."
United Sports, says Melendez, has given up on the official Little League and will join the Cal Ripken/Babe Ruth League instead. United Sports officials say it was Gerbasi's acknowledgment of the attempt by Little League officials to restructure the Paulino organization that soured them, as did Gerbasi's refusal to agree that other kids on the All-Stars were overage. (Little League officials contend that no other players violated age or residency rules. This is not widely believed in the other South Bronx leagues.) It's safe to say that it appears to be a mutual falling out.
Gerbasi says United Youth Sports couldn't provide valid boundaries for their players. Like the Paulino All-Stars, United draws kids from all over the Bronx, making Little League-required insurance invalid, Gerbasi says, if an injury occurs outside the league boundaries. The lack of boundaries also violates the regional structure of the Little League, and promotes the recruitment, poaching, and preferential treatment of talented players, say Little League officials.
"All they did was knock Rolando Paulino," says Gerbasi. "Now it turns out they were doing the same thing. . . . You notice that they only steal the good players. The bad players are left out, and that's not what Little League is about."
People call Gerbasi to ask how to become an official league, but established leagues, he says, don't want to conform to Little League rules on boundaries and proof of age. Some callers are ambitious parents looking to raise their kids' profiles to Almonte proportions. Others chafe at the eligibility requirements, thinking they unfairly apply only to the Bronx, Gerbasi says, even though they are national (and international) regulations. And Gerbasi, the Bronx's only Little League representative, sounds fed up with all of it.
"They call up [to hear the rules] and they shake it off," he says. "They say, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' but they don't understand we can't deal with this nonsense anymore. This is volunteer work. There's nothing holding me to this position. . . . You see all this shit that goes on today. Parents are so hard on their kids, there's so much pressure. These fathers have the eyes of Yankee Stadium on their kids."
With the king gone and the pretenders to the throne apparently unable to take up his mantle, the Bronx kids will just have to go without the Little League. "A lot of times it takes one person, a real go-getter, a leadership type of person to come and put it all together," says Van Auken. "It may be that person is out there, waiting for the opportunity."
For now, the talented kids are recruited to play in private local leagues, leaving the Bronx baseball scene a balkanized mess.
"It's a no-win situation," Gerbasi says. "No one's ever going to be happy."