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Almonte Starts Fresh in Florida

Four years after Little League World Series fiasco, the 18-year-old pitcher begins new chapter in his career.

June 05, 2005|From Associated Press

MIAMI — Danny Almonte strolls into the batter's box, taps the plate and waves the bat above his head under the searing South Florida sun. He lines pitch after pitch into the outfield with a relaxed, easy cut.

He then takes the mound, firing fastballs to his new catcher, under the eye of his new coach and his new teammates.

Four years after his name was etched in baseball infamy with an age-limit scandal during the Little League World Series, Almonte, now 18, is still taking swings at his past.

Almonte says he has made friends pretty quickly in Miami, and no one has asked him about the World Series fiasco.

"I don't want to talk about that anymore," Almonte said during an interview Thursday between final exams. "I've shown I can perform since then."

Almonte moved to Miami from New York in February, eager to abandon his reputation and the punch lines. He's still the kid known for a stunning perfect game in the 2001 Little League World Series that was erased because he was 14 -- two years older than the tournament's age limit.

"It's something that he's never going to outlive. It's something he had no control over," said Eddie Diaz, Almonte's mentor and advisor in Miami. "I try not to even bring it up. I think we talked about it once, but now it's a moot point."

Today will mark his first pitching appearance since he led James Monroe High School to the New York City Championship last June. He's playing for the Florida Bombers, an 18-and-under Connie Mack League team known for sending players to college and the major league draft. Scouts looking to analyze Almonte's talent likely will be there, and it could be the best-attended summer league game in these parts in a long while.

"He's going to have to live up to some high expectations," said Bomber Coach Emilio Fernandez.

The game is a rebirth of sorts for Almonte, a native of the Dominican Republic who moved to New York shortly before the World Series mess. Representing the Rolando Paulino All-Stars, he was stripped of the first perfect game in the 44-year history of the World Series after it was learned that he was too old, and his team's third-place finish was taken away.

Almonte's father, Felipe de Jesus, was banned for life from Little League activities and was accused of falsifying Danny's birth certificate.

Almonte later dominated New York high school baseball, going 8-0 with 77 strikeouts and an ERA below 1.40 in 2004, and also hitting near .500 with five home runs. He missed the 2005 season after his late arrival in Miami.

Almonte now lives with his father and brother in the suburb of Opa-locka, but his baseball activities are being monitored by Diaz, a student advisor and former coach at American High School.

The teen is far from the streets of the Bronx, where everyone recognized him. In Miami, he is not known as a cheater. In the nondescript halls of American High, he's just another face.

"The kids have kind of accepted him for the nice, humble kid that he is. It's not like they throw rose petals at his feet or roll out the red carpet," Diaz said.

Diaz says that Almonte is no villain, that adults were behind the age-limit dispute. But Diaz also pauses in thought when asked if Almonte bears any responsibility for the scandal.

"It's a situation where he was told, 'You're 12,' " Diaz said. "It's coming from an adult that you think is a reasonable individual. What can [Almonte] say?"

Diaz also points out that Almonte remains a story because his eye-catching talent as a baseball player makes him more than just a historical footnote.

"You look on TV and they'll talk about him being in the top 10 scandals in sports," Diaz says. "You go on the Internet and you type up players from Santo Domingo and you get Sammy, Pedro and Danny Almonte."

Off the field, the slim, curly haired Almonte is a typical kid. He plays video games, hangs out by the pool with his friends and listens to reggaeton. He is serious in conversation, but he smiles widely when asked about high school girls and often jokes with Diaz, who has earned his trust.

Almonte says he misses his mother, who separated from his father years ago.

"I've always said the most important thing in my life is family, your parents. I'm closer to my mother, but I also care for my father because he's raising me," Almonte said, in a rare moment when he let his guard down.

Almonte says his favorite player is Ken Griffey Jr., and his batting stance resembles that of the Cincinnati Reds' slugger. He says Griffey called him during the World Series with advice.

"He asked me how I was doing. He told me to keep moving forward," Almonte said.

Almonte is trying to again prove himself on the field. At 5-foot-11, 150-plus pounds, the lefty is working to gain muscle and improve his arm strength while targeting next year's draft. His fastball approached 82 mph at a recent practice, but Fernandez and Diaz said that would improve with more mound work.

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