Whether he’s 12 or 14, Danny Almonte of the Dominican Republic by way of the Bronx managed to do something very special this month. He captured the national spotlight with an uplifting story.

Before the allegations about his age surfaced, young Almonte was nothing short of a national phenom – he was on the front page of all three major New York dailies and one of the lead stories on ESPN. His next scheduled appearance after his perfect game was touted a full week in advance by numerous media organizations. In the Summer of Gary Condit and Barry Bonds, the story of the Rolando Paulino All-Stars and their “Little Unit” Almonte was a welcome relief from all of the character bashing and tabloid mentality strewn about the modern media.

It was impossible not to root for these kids. Here they were on national television, a bunch of poor kids from the Bronx, tearing through a bunch of spoiled surfer kids from coastal California. It didn’t seem unfair that the kids from Oceanside, Calif. didn’t get on base; it felt like a movie, except only better because it was real.

Most of the kids on the Baby Bombers are first-generation Americans or immigrants themselves like Almonte, who came to America three years ago. Most of them don’t speak very much English. All of them are from one of the toughest neighborhoods in the country. But none of that mattered on the baseball diamond, the great democratizer, where it doesn’t matter what your parents do, only how you play the game of baseball.

Not to get carried away, but the Rolando Paulino All-Stars symbolized much of what is right with America in the year 2001. Their manager, Alberto Gonzalez, works as a waiter in a local restaurant and gives his free time to provide a role model for kids who far too often do not have positive male influences. The really honorable thing is that he doesn’t coach so his son can play the position he wants – he doesn’t even have a son on the team. So much of the controversy over the intensification of youth sports results from overzealous coaches who push their teams too hard; in this case it was just a local guy from the neighborhood trying to teach some kids a game he loves and a thing or two about baseball.

Before Merrill Lynch stepped in about a year ago with a generous donation, most of these kids didn’t have the necessary equipment to play the game properly. The team still plays pre-game pepper with beans as both a skill-builder and a reminder of their old ways of practicing, so that they don’t forget where they came from. Almonte himself grew up in the Dominican Republic playing with homemade baseball gloves and balls fashioned from rags. Sort of gives new meaning to the phrase “from rags to riches.”

But now this whole wonderful story has a gigantic stain. It appears that Almonte may in fact be 14, two years older than he is listed and two years older than Little League baseball players are allowed to be. There is no good resolution to this situation if it in fact turns out to be true.

What is most likely is that there was an honest mistake. The Dominican Republic is notorious for having shoddy record-keeping practices, resulting in the Adrian Beltre and Rafael Furcal infractions from several years back. The same shoddy practices constantly fuel speculation that the Yankees’ Orlando Hernandez and the Mets’ Edgardo Alfonzo are actually several years older than previously thought, causing the downturn in their level of play this year.

The result of this is that there appears to be two rival birth certificates for Almonte: one that says he’s 12, to which his parents attest, and one that says he’s 14, which has turned up in the Dominican Republic. Either in translation or during the immigration process, somehow Danny’s real age became cloudy at best. The best piece of evidence, coming from his mother, is that if Danny were 14, she would have had to have given birth to his older brother when she was 12, something that would have stuck in her mind.

However, if he is 14, it doesn’t look like some conspiracy to defraud the American public, but more of an honest mistake. So what’s the just way to rectify the situation? Punish the team themselves? They didn’t do anything wrong. Punish Gonzalez, the manager? He certainly had nothing to do with it. Would revoking the team’s third-place title justly correct the original, unwitting wrong?

But if Little League doesn’t do something, is that fair to Oceanside, Calif., and the other teams Almonte manhandled? Suffice it to say that however this ends up, someone is going to get the wrong short end of the stick.

As for me, I’m not that interested in how it turns out. I’m just going to remember that one perfect week when the Baby Bombers, the kids with all odds against them, commanded the national stage and made us believe in the magic of baseball again.

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