Almonte still not in his age group

Bronx Baby Bomber now playing against much older competition

Posted: Sunday, August 18, 2002

NEW YORK -- Danny Almonte just can't act his age.

Last year, he cost his Bronx team its third-place finish at the Little League World Series when it was revealed he was too old to play. And this year, pitching in a league loaded with much older teens, he's been too good to hit.

''Danny's pitching his best in a 19-and-under league,'' says his coach, Rolando Paulino. The numbers back him up: Almonte is 2-0 with 21 strikeouts in 12 1-3 innings against the older guys.

How much older? That remains a question with Almonte, whose Dominican Republic birth certificate -- uncovered during last year's Little League World Series -- would make him 15 now, 14 last August. The age limit at the World Series is 12.

Almonte, who admitted in recent interviews to being 15, no longer wants to discuss his April 7 birth date.

''I want people to think of just Danny Almonte, not Danny Almonte the Little League player,'' the somewhat shy player said Friday in Spanish, with Paulino translating.

On a brutally hot August morning, Almonte was one of two dozen kids practicing on a Bronx field that had nothing but its four bases in common with the manicured diamonds of South Williamsport, Pa.

Almonte, in a sweat-soaked gray shirt and Chicago Cubs cap, swung the bat and chased fly balls.

On the concrete stands behind first base, plastic blue caps from crack vials sat alongside a crumpled cigarette pack and broken glass. Only a pair of spectators watched: Ira Warheit, a Bronx dentist who serves as an adviser to Almonte, and a representative from the Dominican consulate. (Danny's parents reside in the Dominican Republic, and the teen lives with Paulino).

Almonte stood in center field, wearing a glove that was a gift from Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Odalis Perez.

''Danny just wants to play baseball, go to school and play with his friends,'' Warheit says.

Almonte did all three in the past year: enrolling in I.S. 52 while playing in four summer leagues with his local buddies.

Almonte burst onto the national stage last summer when his Bronx ''Baby Bombers'' team reached the Little League World Series, mostly on his whip of a left arm. He was a mini-Randy Johnson, firing a 16-strikeout perfect game -- the first in 44 years at the series.

He fanned 46 batters in three starts, surrendering just three hits. Several major leaguers -- including the Arizona Diamondbacks' Johnson -- called to wish Almonte well as his team finished third.

But then Sports Illustrated found a birth certificate contradicting Almonte's claim that he was just 12 years old. All of Almonte's victories -- and all his team's victories -- were expunged.

Paulino, founder of his eponymous Bronx Little League, was banned for life from any association with Little League. It was a disastrous ending to their feel-good story.

Almonte, however, earned a bit of celebrity. Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal, an executive with a Dominican team, offered to bring Almonte home to develop his pitching skills.

Major leaguers such as the Houston Astros' Octavio Dotel and the Milwaukee Brewers' Nelson Figueroa said hello when they spotted Almonte at Shea Stadium. Fans approached him for autographs.

Despite all the attention and controversy, Almonte said he still enjoys playing baseball.

''There's no pressure,'' he said. ''It's fun for me.''

The latest stir surrounding the prodigy is where he'll attend high school. Three schools are in the mix in this recruiting war.

Before picking a school, Almonte plans to attend the Little League World Series in South Williamsport on Tuesday and root for the Harlem team that reached this year's event.

As for the future, he hopes his story can yet have a happy ending.

In a decade, Almonte says with a smile, ''I hope to be playing in major league baseball. I want to be a professional baseball player.''



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