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A Breath of Fresh Air from Golf

By John M. Ross,
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When I was cutting my teeth as a sportswriter on the Brooklyn Eagle in the long ago, I was a bit puzzled when I picked up some mixed signals about the job I had chosen for myself. I discovered that some of the fellows on the City Desk and in the News Department didn't hold the Sports Department in high regard. They called it the paper's "toy department," and suggested that the only qualification needed for the job was the ability to keep score.

It was good-natured needling, and I noted that it didn't stop any one of them from knocking on the Sports Department's door for passes to the ball game or the fights at Madison Square Garden. It didn't bother me, but I will admit I was happy to hear one of our old-timers, Jim Murphy, sound off one evening.

"Those fellows on the City Side think they're the only journalists in the house," he told me. "They're all expecting to win the Pulitzer Prize for writing about the lady on Atlantic Avenue who got beat up by her old man, or for telling us about the politico who got his hand caught in the cash box. Human interest stories. Well, this isn't just fun and games on our pages. We get a bit of everything - all the emotions, the struggles, the heartache. Winners and losers of every stripe."

Jim is long gone, but I thought of his pep talk in recent weeks when the Little League World Series scandal rocked the sports world.

Without question, the attempt to dominate the kids' annual classic by falsifying the age of the virtually unbeatable pitcher of the so-called Bronx Baby Bombers ranks as one of the most shameful acts ever in all sport. And the fact that it was hatched by the boy's father, while his coach and his League's benefactor looked on without complaint, makes it even more incredible and despicable.

At the center of this scenario was Danny Almonte who had emigrated to New York from Santo Domingo with his father and family to pitch his team into the World Series. That he was two years over the limit for Little League play didn't matter. The father falsified the birth certificate and suddenly Danny was only 12.

Of course, he didn't pitch like a 12-year-old. And there aren't many 14-year-olds around who could pitch as well either. He was substantially bigger than the other kids, and his fast ball and exceptional control put him in total command every time he pitched. The little kids couldn't even get their bats around before the ball was in the catcher's glove. Danny didn't give up a single run during the regular season.

When he got into the World Series playoffs as a member of the All-Star team, he dazzled millions of TV viewers with his spectacular ability. The radar gun revealed that after an adjustment for the shorter distance of the kids' mound to the plate, Danny's fast ball came close to matching Roger Clemens. But there was a negative buzz, too. Opponents and TV fans by the thousands wondered, "Is he only 12?"

I wondered, too, as did my friends who watched Danny on the big screen at the club.

"He looks like he's old enough to vote," one chipped in with exaggeration.

"I think he could help save the season for the New York Mets right now," another added.

From the very first glimpse of him, I suspected he had to be more than 12. He was too big, too strong, too well coordinated in his body movements. I ran a Babe Ruth League program some years ago, and to my thinking Danny threw more like one of our better older boys, around 14 or so. But the media thought he was the best ever. And when he pitched a perfect game - the first in League playoffs in over half a century - Danny made headlines everywhere.

The Bronx team didn't win the World Series title, mostly because League rules prohibited Danny from pitching every day. And without him on the mound, the Baby Bombers lost out to Florida in the semi-final. Almost immediately, the Doubting Thomases pushed forward with their questions about Danny's age, with almost instantaneous results.

Records in Santa Domingo showed that Danny was 14, and even worse, school records in the Bronx indicated that Danny had never attended school since his arrival 18 months earlier. He was, indeed, an out-and-out Little League ringer!

There was embarrassment everywhere. The Little Bombers had to forfeit all the games they had won with Danny on the roster. Danny's dazzling records were wiped off Little League record books, and even Mayor Rudy Giuliani was red-faced. Responding to the way his New Yorkers had taken the Bronx team to their hearts, the Mayor gave them a big New York parade as well as the keys to the city.

Can anyone imagine a father plotting such a corrupt deed with his son? And inflicting such a destructive experience on his boy's teammates, an innocent bunch of kids who just wanted to put on those nice uniforms and play the game they love by the rules.

Danny's father is likely to wind up in jail if he returns to Santo Domingo. In the meantime, he and his associates in the Little League have been banned for life.

I wonder if any of them ever told the boys they were sorry?

It literally took me days to get over the impact of this incident, and I'm sure I had many others sharing this distress with me. But then I turned on the tube to watch the LPGA ladies play in their Williams Championship in Tulsa. And it was perfect timing.

Donna Andrews of Pinehurst seemed on the verge of becoming the second woman in history to shoot a 59. In second round play, she racked up six birdies on the front nine for an 8-under 29. And when she birdied Nos. 10, 12 and 15 coming home, she appeared to be a good bet to match the incredible record. But then she stumbled and ran out of birdies.

On the final hole, feeling the tension of the wild afternoon, she double-hit her final putt for par. She turned immediately and told her playing partner that she was taking a penalty stroke for the double-hit. She finished with a course-record 62 and a massive four-shot lead heading into the final round. But it wouldn't be enough.

Donna cooled off to an even par-70, and now it was Gloria Park who caught fire. Five strokes behind Andrews early in the final round, she came rushing home with a dazzling 64 and a total of 291, 9-under-par, and one shot ahead of Donna.

The difference at the pay window was a bit better. Park picked up a $150,000 check for her first LPGA victory, while Andrews received $93,093.

Some might find this difficult to comprehend. Donna's double-hit was but a hiccup. It had no appreciable effect on the course of the putt into the cup, but she knew it was a violation, and she called it on herself immediately. And the one-shot penalty was precisely the difference between first and second place. But that's golf, perhaps the last bastion of sport as it was intended to be played and enjoyed.

To be sure, Donna came up possibly $56,907 short, but it was a golden deed in many other ways. And for many it was like a mass of fresh air that blew away the foul smell of Danny Almonte and his father and their contemptible Little League scam.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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