Monday, August 15, 2011

Little Unit and the Baby Bombers Go Down in Infamy

Danny Almonte

Fourteen-Year-Old Superstar Was, uh, Too Old For Little League
by Robert A. Waters

For the next two weeks, the Little League World Series will dominate ESPN’s wall-to-wall 24/7 coverage. As a former Little Leaguer, I watch as many of the games as possible. After hearing that the Ugandan team was disqualified from the 2011 games because the birth certificates of most of their players had been altered, I thought about Danny Almonte. His story is often listed as one of the top ten sports cheating scandals of all time.

He stood a head above the rest of the players. Long, thin, mound-savvy, the left-hander would rock back, lift his right leg almost to his chin, kick forward, and burn his speedball past a stunned opponent. Batter after batter, some half his size, would freeze as the ball cometed by. Danny Almonte’s fastball was clocked at 75 miles per hour, the equivalent of a 98 mile per hour pitch in the Major Leagues.

In fact, in three games he pitched in the 2001 Little League World Series, Almonte gave up only three hits. He struck out 62 of the 72 batters he faced. His was the most dominating performance in the history of Little League baseball.

While many American television viewers questioned his size and age, league administrators vouched for the kid. His Bronx, New York team seemed to be average at best, but their star pitcher made up for it. When he pitched a perfect game against the Apopka, Florida club that would go on to become runner-up to the champion Japanese team, Almonte’s legend grew. He was nick-named the “Little Unit” after tall, rangy Major League fast-baller Randy “Big Unit” Johnson. His Bronx team became the “Baby Bombers” after the legendary Yankees from New York.

Once the 2001 Little League World Series was over, Danny Almonte was wined and dined all over NYC. He met mayor Rudy Giuliani and even shook hands with President George Bush.

Sportscasters speculated on a future career in the big leagues. He’s a natural, they said. A sure thing. In a few years, he would dominate the big show like he dominated the little show. He’ll make millions, they said. Danny Almonte had the world at his finger-tips.

But others continued to speculate on how a twelve-year-old could be so much taller than others his age. It was startling to see that this twelve-year-old was even bigger than his coach. Was it the natural course of things? After all, kids seem to be getting larger these days. Was it a genetic fluke? Or was it something else?

Soon after the 2001 series ended, reporters discovered that Danny and his father were in the country illegally and that Danny hadn’t gone to school all year. In fact, he’d never even registered.

The whole situation just had that bad smell, so much so that Sports Illustrated decided to send a reporter to Almonte’s birthplace, the Dominican Republic, to investigate. When they checked his birth records, they found that the kid was actually fourteen. His birth certificate had been doctored and names of officials forged, presumably by his father.

Little League officials, basking in the positive PR from the series, were livid that the good times were gone. They angrily stripped the Baby Bombers of their victories and the Little Unit became a pariah in the baseball world. He would play high school and college baseball but would never have a chance to make it to the bigs. He played independent ball for a while, then moved back to the Bronx.

His father was banned for life from anything having to do with Little League baseball, including being a coach. He was deported to the Dominican Republic where he faced charges in the case. In fact, many still blame the father, not the son.

Today, Danny Almonte is said to be an unpaid coach for his former high school team, the James Monroe High School Eagles. It’s likely that sometimes when he stands on the baseball diamond, Almonte glances past the current players and remembers those glory days when he hurled his speedball by awe-struck twelve-year-olds. He might remember opponents sobbing in frustration after yet another humiliating strikeout. He might wonder how a young Dominican who spoke little English could hob-knob for a few brief moments with the rich and famous of America. And he might wonder, how could it all have gone so wrong?

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