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A hotbed of talent, but not for Little League

The smiling young boys taking a break from their baseball game live at the bottom of the hillside slum community called La Zurza in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Like most Dominican boys, they harbor dreams of playing professional baseball and, if they are good enough and work hard enough, reaching the Major Leagues in the United States.

Like most boys in La Zurza, their dreams will never be realized.

They most likely will not make it past the third grade, escape their slum city or even own a baseball glove. Their dreams of playing professional baseball are not about glory or fame or freshly mown fields or cheering crowds. Their dreams focus on being signed to a baseball academy contract and making enough money with their bonus to pay the rent on their family's shack or eating four nutritious meals a day. Their dreams are born out of poverty, illiteracy, malnourishment and desperation. Little League baseball and Williamsport are simply not part of the equation.

The 11- and 12-year-olds representing the Rolando Paulino Little League in the Bronx, N.Y. in this year's Little League World Series also have dreams. But the question is: Are these dreams closer to the boys from La Zurza or are they represented by the rhetoric of the ABC/ESPN announcers that focus on "innocence" and "boyhood" and the natural world of a game lost in a rural American landscape?

At Bristol, Conn., site of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Tournament, amid the wildly enthusiastic crowd supporting the team from the Bronx, the Dominican flag was ever present. And the cheers, as well as the instruction from coaches were just as likely to be in Spanish as well as English.

The stunning pitching performance by 12-year-old Danny Almonte in the Mid-Atlantic regional championship game offers a unique opportunity to examine the deep cultural and economic differences between baseball in the United States and the Dominican Republic. Almonte's 16 strikeout no-hitter led the Bronx over State College, Pa., 2-0, but it also signified a breakthrough to Williamsport for a special team that has twice before reached the regionals only to come up short.

Almonte is a member of a team in a league that plays all year, and in January, spends 10 days playing two games a day in the Dominican Republic. Since most of the players on the team from the Bronx, which is home to the largest Dominican community outside the Dominican Republic, either were born in the Dominican Republic or are first generation U.S. citizens, the January trip becomes a homecoming of sorts -- but the land they visit is not a land likely to produce great Little League teams any time soon.

Since the Dominican Republic, with a population of only 8 million, produces more than 25 percent of the professional baseball players in the U.S., it is obvious that there is something special about a culture that essentially expects every male child to play baseball until he demonstrates he cannot advance any further.

But the incredible poverty and the politics of patronage in the Caribbean island nation that produce many professional baseball players also serve as roadblocks to developing a successful Little League experience.

Little League is essentially a middle or working class sport across the world and it is rare that truly poor communities have the resources to run a program. While baseball is played everywhere in the Dominican Republic, it is more commonly played on dirt roads or alleys rather than wide open green fields.

And it is played with broomsticks or tree branches for bats, cardboard boxes for gloves and taped-up rags or rotten fruit for balls. Don't even think about cleats and bases and uniforms.

Any highly skilled 12-year-old with the potential to enter, at 16, a Major League Baseball school such as the ones run by the New York Yankees and Cincinnati Reds sharing the Loma del Sueños (Hill of Dreams) facility built by Jose Rijo, will not be wasting time playing Little League. He will have already been identified by some local scout who will hook him up with a baseball activity center like La Liga Deportiva Betemit in Los Mina, another slum community in Santo Domingo. And it is at the Betemit school where he will hone his baseball skills.

The extraordinary success of the Betemit school in developing players for the MLB academies (16 players were signed just last year, and 19-year-old Wilson Betemit is considered to be one of the top five major league prospects playing in the minor leagues today) is evidence of just how sophisticated extraordinarily poor people can be about evaluating their own potential.

Along with Sport Studies students from Ithaca College, I have visited the Betemit School each of the past two years and have come to know the teachers and the children very well.

The school, if you want to call it that, is an enclosed cement block wall in the heart of an older small factory and residential part of Santo Domingo. It is not a safe place to be after dark.

The playing area is big enough to house two major league size infields that share centerfields. There is virtually no grass and the gravelly dirt is full of rocks and broken glass. Attached to the fields are a small basketball court and an open air gymnasium, and a roofed area for classroom instruction.

While girls are present in the classroom area, the school is, in reality, for boys only. Each day has two sessions that run for at least three hours. One session is for younger boys, ages 5-13; and one session for boys 13-19.

Each weekday, the entire three hours are spent studying baseball. About 150 boys attend each session. The only way a boy is allowed to participate is if he can demonstrate he has been to public school that day. Most schools in the area are open late into the night and children attend classes when they can. Work often gets in the way.

At the academy, the Little League motto of "Character, Courage, Loyalty" is in constant operation. Mix in an extraordinary work ethic and an adherence to discipline, and you have got what the newspapers in the Dominican Republic call un laboratorio de peloteros -- a laboratory of baseball players.

While you see joking and smiling and hear laughing, what you don't see is goofing off. Ever. Fun is not part of the equation. There are families to support and careers to pursue.

The first hour of each session is spent on calisthenics, the second on fielding drills, the third on batting practice. Whistles from the instructors are all that is needed to have 150 kids working together. Any deviation from the routine and the offender will be thinking about it while running laps.

Water breaks are frequent and opportunities for socializing are thus available. Maybe, just maybe, a simulated game will be played. Real games are played on the weekends.

The serious work happens about twice a month, when groups of scouts from the MLB academies come to evaluate players and, perhaps, offer a 16-year-old the big ticket to the academy. That ticket usually comes with a $4-5,000 signing bonus, although recent signings have reached six figures.

This May, I asked several boys what Major League teams they would like to play for if they were good enough and fortunate enough to make it. Their answers were stunning evidence as to their understanding of the economics and politics of Major League Baseball.

The only boy who said he'd like to play for the New York Yankees explained that since most of his extended family now lives in the Washington Heights area, he'd be able to rejoin them and be less homesick.

Most boys cited teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates and Montreal Expos because the teams were bad and it would be easier to make the Grandes Ligas (Major Leagues), where the real money was.

Some boys were even willing to play for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays because Florida is not far from home and the weather is similar. A few thought playing for the Boston Red Sox or the Chicago Cubs might be helpful because Pedro Martinez or Sammy Sosa would be good mentors. Most boys dismissed that idea with the explanation that, particularly with Sosa, the hero's ego would be too large for any other Dominican to overcome.

Others cited Los Angeles or Chicago without mentioning a team, simply because these cities were large television markets. Not one boy ever mentioned he'd like to go to a team that would likely win a pennant or a World Series. Every answer was centered around the stark reality of economics and obligation to family.

Such an extraordinary awareness of the financial benefits of a professional baseball career does pose at least one serious problem that was discussed by Jack Edwards during ESPN2's telecast of the Mid-Atlantic regional championship game -- the problem of forged birth certificates.

In the Dominican Republic, it is quite common for baseball players to claim they are older than they really are so they can get into the baseball academies before they are 16; and it is just as common for 20-year-olds to claim they are 18 to give themselves one last shot. The problem arises because it is also extremely easy to obtain a birth certificate from official sources that list whatever birthdate an individual wants.

The strict age limitations imposed by Little League Baseball (all players must still be 12 as of July 31) make it extremely advantageous to be born in August and just as unfortunate to be a July baby. Little League's most severe problem with over-aged players came in 1992, when the World Series winning team from the Philippines was disqualified (they also had players from outside the geographical boundaries). Still rumors persist, and most often with international teams.

Danny Almonte and the teams from the Rolando Paulino Little League have been suspected for all three years they have made it to the regionals in Bristol. While they are representing the Bronx and New York, they are also representing the Dominican Republic. And, here's the real truth -- they are just too good to be true. So, no matter how well the team from the Bronx does in Williamsport, the buzz in the bleachers will be about overage players, an unfortunate and unfair stigma to place on this special team.

But for players like Almonte, Williamsport is not about the dream of playing in the Little League World Series or the loss of innocence or the hanging on to the last days of summer or boyhood.

Danny Almonte the baseball player is already a man. If he is academically successful and remains injury free, he will most definitely reach baseball excellence through college scholarships.

But if he struggles with school learning, he can always return to his extended family in the Dominican Republic, find a baseball training center like the Betemit school, reach the Major League Academies and, hopefully, the Grandes Ligas that way. Many young Dominican-Yorks already have done it that way.

And Williamsport, for them, is just one more stop on the track to their final destination.

Professor Stephen D. Mosher is chairman of the Sport Studies department at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y.