NEW YORK — Danny Almonte recalls a moment on the mound in his first preseason game for James Monroe High School that still brings a smile to his face.
A boy eager to show his gratitude to the infamous young pitcher ran out and hugged him.
“I’m so happy you’ve come to Monroe,” the boy said, according to Almonte.
Almonte hugged him back, a clear demonstration that he was welcome despite his troubled past.
“I like that story,” said Almonte, who enjoyed a remarkable freshman season for the Monroe Eagles.
It’s a very different story from 2001, when Almonte was the focus of scandal in the Little League World Series after the Dominican Republic native was found to be two years older than the age limit of 12.
He was banished from the World Series after throwing a no-hitter in the regional final and a perfect game in the World Series. His team, the Rolando Paulino All-Stars, was stripped of its third-place finish. Almonte’s perfect game, the first in the 44-year history of the World Series, was erased from the records.
Almonte’s father, Felipe de Jesus, was banned for life from Little League activities and was charged with falsifying Danny’s birth certificate. He was sent back to the Dominican Republic.
Paulino, who still acts as a surrogate parent for Almonte in the Bronx, also was barred from Little League. Almonte was invited to participate in the following World Series, but in the senior division.
“He was a 14-year-old kid doing what his father told him,” said Lance Van Auken, spokesman for the Little League organization. “No question, it was the fault of the adults involved.
“We certainly don’t hold grudges against the kids and we wish him success,” Van Auken said. “The embarrassment Danny went through is punishment enough.”
The Little League organization now requires that a player’s birth certificate must be registered within one year of birth. If a player does not have his birth certificate, then he must present four other documents, such as school records or a passport, that prove his age.
It also requires teams to carry with them at all times proof of each player’s age and residency and a map showing the league’s boundaries. Players who live outside the boundary must have an appropriate eligibility waiver. Previously, teams had to provide such documentation at the start of the international tournament, then again if they reached the regional tournament.
Although he remains a celebrity, Almonte doesn’t talk about the events that brought him into the national spotlight. He’s more comfortable discussing his vast talent on the mound.
Almonte’s age is now listed as 16 on the Monroe High School roster, his birthdate registered as April 7, 1987.
He finished this season 10-2 as Monroe’s No.2 starter, striking out batters with the same pace that made headlines in South Williamsport, Pa. In his most impressive start, he threw a no-hitter, striking out 10 against Stevenson in late April. He was an out away from a perfect game, but gave up a walk.
“I’m always confident when I’m pitching,” Almonte said through an interpreter. “I don’t feel any pressure with baseball, because when I’m playing, I just need to do my best.”
At a scrawny 5-10, 140 pounds, Almonte packs an 84mph fastball and a deceiving curve. The left-hander still must grow into his big hands and feet, but scouts and experts have never stopped plotting his progress.
“He is one of the best I’ve seen for his age,” said Walter Mazza, an umpire for 33 years who has seen Almonte play four times. “No doubt he’s a prospect. His control is unbelievable.”
Mike Turo, Monroe’s coach for 26 years, believes Almonte’s fastball could reach the mid-90s by his senior year.
“He’s young, but he definitely has pro potential,” said Turo, one of the most successful scholastic coaches in New York City.
Monroe is a tradition-rich school whose graduates include Hank Greenberg and Ed Kranepool. It has won two out of the last four New York City championships and finished second in this year’s PSAL Class A tournament.
Almonte pitched well in the playoffs, getting two of the team’s five wins, but faltered in the final game on June 14. He blew a 6-2 lead after appearing in relief in the fifth inning of Monroe’s 8-7 loss to Tottenville.
His poor performance was the one glitch in an otherwise impressive year.
With Almonte on the mound, Monroe (39-6-1), No.8 in the USA Today East Region, clinched its fifth consecutive Bronx division title over DeWitt Clinton on May 22. In the final inning of that 13-0 victory, he loaded the bases with nobody out, then struck out the next two batters before a game-ending groundout. Almonte, never very expressive, celebrated with nothing more than a calm smile.
“I have never seen so much poise on a kid so young,” Turo said. “He’s never rattled and that’s probably because of everything he’s been through. Everything he did in the Little League World Series is coming back.”
As confident as Almonte is on the mound, he is painfully shy around strangers, particularly the media. When a TV camera focused on him in the dugout in the game against Clinton, Almonte turned his back and didn’t rejoin his huddled teammates on the bench until the camera crew left.
On the field, he is far more comfortable. His hitting has improved immensely, batting .380 in the regular season against PSAL competition. He worked his way to the top of Monroe’s lineup.
“I’ve been weightlifting and working on my batting whenever I can,” Almonte said. “It’s not just about pitching.”
Almonte hasn’t returned to the Dominican Republic in two years. He speaks with his parents by phone every week while staying with Paulino in the Bronx. According to Turo, Paulino has kept Almonte disciplined and focused with early curfews and daily training sessions.
He’s definitely a 16-year-old now, no argument about it. Off the field, Almonte enjoys tangling with the joysticks on his PlayStation2. His games of choice are basketball and baseball.
“He’s in the spotlight,” Turo said. “He doesn’t like it, but he’s handled it well. Nothing seems to rattle him.”