Age Before Beauty
Not everyone in the Bronx neighborhood of the Rolando Paulino All-Stars rallied around the media darlings during their Little League World Series run. And when the "Baby Bombers" fell short, losing to Apopka, Florida, last weekend in the semifinals in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, there was sadness in the neighborhood for the team's kids, but it was mixed with smugness and hostility for some of the team's adult leaders.
Call it sour grapes if you want, but many in this close-knit baseball community have been grumbling about the Baby Bombers since before the rest of the world anointed pitching ace Danny Almonte and his teammates.
Many people the Voice talked with know that all the attention given to Little League baseball in the Bronx could help everyone's future, like a high tide raising all the boats. That makes people hesitant to speak ill about their now famous icons, especially considering that they didn't win. Still, many said they wouldn't go to the parade honoring the team.
During the Baby Bombers' run, some parents and coaches were outspoken. "I don't like the Paulino team," said Mercedes Dominguez, head of Sisda Little League. She coached two of the kids who played on the team. "Their oldest players are 14 and 15 years old."
As the age questions spread from the Bronx to the national media, Rolando Paulino himself, a sportswriter for Noticias del Mundo, gathered documents to try to prove that Almonte is indeed only 12 years old. He and Little League officials have stoutly denied any improprieties. But on the All-Stars' home turf, there have long been questions not only about the ages of some of the kids but whether they were recruited from the Dominican Republic specifically for the team.
Bad-mouthing the All-Stars has been in vogue all summer among parents and coaches huddling behind backstops in the Bronx. Getting people to talk about alleged underhandedness in the Little League world, however, is not easy. Parks Department employees with knowledge of the programs said they were forbidden to talk to the Voice by the parks commissioner, and many coaches and league heads denied any specific knowledge of alleged illegalities. But off-the-record accusations have been smacked around like line drives, even while Little League officials and All-Star coaches claimed that all the kids' documents were legit.
"They have five illegal players on the team," said a former coach in Paulino's league who asked his name not be used. (Paulino and Little League officials deny those accusations.)
The former Paulino league coach said that the players use fake or borrowed Dominican birth certificates to gain eligibility with the Little League World Series authorities. Paulino's players finally took to carrying their birth certificates around with them in Williamsport to counter accusations.
Competition for money, field space, and kids is stiff in the Bronx, with scores of Little Leagues vying for a limited number of fields, sponsors, and players. The bad feelings swelled quietly until the All-Stars' success propelled them into the spotlight. And there was a well of bad feeling to draw from, in part because the All-Stars had a lock on the potential to play in the Little League World Series. Only one team from the established Little League district can compete in the international tourney.
"They got it blocked off," says Tony Melendez, president of the United Youth Sports Organization. Head of his own league since 1992, he's been fighting to escape the All-Stars' shadow and play in the World Series ever since. "Their league has our area covered. I'm losing a lot of kids out of my organization from that."
Melendez was reluctant to give names of All Star players who he believed are overage, because a handful of the kids he coached are now with that team. He made an exception for Danny Almonte. "They say he's 12, but he's not really 12. I know he's not," he said. "You know how it is down there. The way he plays, they must have worked his paperwork."
Ages aside, some in the Bronx are questioning the residency of some of the kids, though Paulino and Little League officials deny anything improper has taken place. Under Little League rules, at least one parent or guardian must live within the district in which a team plays for at least one half of the season.
Some of the ballpark watchers in the Bronx contend that Danny Almonte's mother and father seem to live and work in the Dominican Republic and that the boy lives with Rolando Paulino in the Bronx when he is in the United States. The Almontes insist that the two boys and their father moved to the Bronx last February.
"He doesn't even live here," Melendez griped about the All-Stars' ace. That view wasn't uncommon among Little League parents outside the Paulino orbit. And they voiced suspicions about what seem like ill-timed vacations taken by the Almonte boys' parents.
Last week, Danny Almonte's father, Felipe, arrived in Williamsport for a tearful reunion in front of reporters and camera crews, having flown in from what was called a "vacation" in the D.R. He claimed he hadn't seen his son in "2 months and 15 days." The situation was similar last year, when the New York Post reported that the Almonte boys' parents were "vacationing" in the Dominican Republic and couldn't make it to those games either. Last year, the parents missed son Juan's perfect game during the Eastern Regionals and son Danny's game-winning home run. This year, the parents missed the first two of Danny's games in Williamsport, including his perfect game against Apopka.
For some other Bronx league parents, left watching the World Series on television, these hometown heroes are anything but.
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