Old enough to know better

Looking for someone to blame in the Danny Almonte Little League scandal? How about Danny?

By Allen Barra

Published September 6, 2001 7:21PM (EDT)

OK, I'm owning up to my part in this Danny Almonte thing. (He's the 14-year-old Bronx Little Leaguer who pitched his team into the Little League World Series and whose father was found to have falsified Danny's age on his birth certificate.) There's no denying it: I shoulder a significant part of the blame. I watched all the opinion polls and read the editorials. I saw ESPN's "Who Is the Biggest Victim?" poll (choices: Danny, his team, the teams they beat, the Little League as a whole, American society as a whole), I read Robert Lipsyte's "BackTalk" column in the Sunday New York Times about kids who "are asked to age too fast." (Lipsyte is fighting back by yanking his kid out of the Little League to get him away from "the influence of the coaches." I'm sure that'll help the situation.) I finally broke down during the editorial on Fox Sports stating that "the Little League can be seen as a microcosm of our society. This ugly incident reflects how overinflated our idea of kid sports has become ... we want too much from them."

Now, my first reaction was to name myself as a victim in that ESPN poll, as I feel like a chump for rooting for Danny and his team in the first place. That made me feel bad enough. You can imagine, perhaps, how much worse I felt when I read Lipsyte and saw Fox and realized that not only didn't I get to be a victim, I was actually one of the oppressors. This was one hell of an emotional swing, I can tell you, and it all happened in one hour on Sunday morning before I even had a chance to leave my chair. I woke up thinking of myself as a champion of the downtrodden, and before I finished my second cup of coffee I was already down on myself for my part in this scandal. In my very act of watching Danny on TV I was helping to create the media attention that brings up the ratings that brings on the sponsors that brings out the money that leads to such scandals. In other words, the best way I could've supported Danny would have been to not watch any of the games on TV in the first place.

Of course, corruption at that point was so widespread that it wouldn't have mattered anyway. The Newark Star-Ledger, which generally contains more sense per column inch than most other publications on matters like this, got into the act by naming more accomplices: big leaguers who shave a couple of years off their age to make a better impression on a team, even single mothers who lie on their résumés; all of them have contributed to this "Cult of Moral Grayness" (I think that was the phrase Ayn Rand used when I read her in high school). So now a desperate minor leaguer or a parent trying to support her family is as guilty as someone who falsifies a birth certificate and ruins a baseball season for hundreds of kids and their parents.

I thought of the scene in "Animal House" where John Belushi and friends are in front of the dean and Tim Matheson stands up to defend them with "Isn't an indictment against this house an indictment against the entire fraternity system? And isn't that an indictment against American society as a whole? Well, I'm not going to stand here and listen to you put down this great country of ours ..." Before this Almonte thing, I really thought that was comedy. Now, it seems like socialist realism.

Well, if I'm going down for this, I want to drag someone with me. If they're going to give me the chair, just make sure that when the man pulls that switch, sir, that little Danny's sittin' right there in my lap.

As far as I'm concerned, they can send Felipe Almonte and his family and all his supporters -- and please, please make an extra effort to get that woman who held up the sign that said "Twelve or fourteen? What's the difference?" on national TV -- to Shark Island. And I hope little Danny gets to go along for a few years; he can gain valuable experience pitching for the prison softball team.

Poor little Danny, didn't know he was 14, apparently didn't even know he wasn't in school in Pennsylvania this past June, Pennsylvania looking so much like the Dominican Republic and all (same music, same food). Little Danny was not only too young to know how old he is, he is too young to read papers or listen to TV or radio, in Spanish or English, so he has no idea of the evil web of lies and greed and deceit spun by his parents, by Society, by me. He is a victim. Savvy enough to understand an endorsement deal in two languages, but too innocent to know his own age. Or where he went to school, or even if.

The Bible was considered something of a guide to this sort of thing for a couple thousand years, and it says the age at which you know right from wrong is 7. Let's assume that whoever wrote that got it wrong; suppose we double it? Does that sound about right?

Why is everyone bending so far backward to save this boy's feelings? When you were 14 do you think you'd have had a better idea what was going on than Danny Almonte does? I don't know. I think I had a better idea than Danny of what was right or wrong when I was my daughter's age, and she's still not old enough for Little League.

I think little Danny is as guilty as sin. I'm not suggesting he cooked up the scheme, but I am saying that he is very, very guilty for his part in it. Acknowledging this, letting Danny know that we do not appreciate what he has done, might be a good place to start cleaning up the Little League and American society and maybe even the fraternity system. With luck, a few 12-year-olds out there might be listening.

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I got a wonderful response on sports "Underrateds and Overrateds," and I'll mention some of them next week. Before I use up all my space this week, though, I'd like to take a swipe at Sports Illustrated's E.M. Swift, who actually thinks Muhammad Ali was the most "Overrated Heavyweight Champion" and that Rocky Marciano is the most underrated. First of all, I don't know any boxing writer or sports historian who underrates Rocky Marciano. Exactly who is it that never accorded him his due? If anything, one could make a clear-cut case that Marciano has been overappreciated. Knockout percentage? Well, he certainly should have KO'd most of his opponents; they were older than him. World War II took most of the younger fighters, leaving Marciano with Jersey Joe Walcott (at least 38 when he fought Rocky) and Archie Moore (41? 43?) as his most memorable opponents. And both of those guys had Marciano on the canvas. And who in the world were Roland LaStarza and Don Cockell (English, apparently) who went 11 and nine rounds, respectively, against Rock in title fights?

Muhammad Ali beat Sonny Liston twice, Joe Frazier two of three times, Floyd Patterson twice, Ken Norton two of three times, George Foreman, Jimmy Ellis, Ernie Terrell and four or five other men good enough to claim a piece of the heavyweight title at one time or another, and he regularly beat several other top contenders like Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena who were as good as the champs. Let me put it this way: Muhammad Ali beat more good fighters after losing to Joe Frazier than Rocky Marciano did in his whole career.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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