Grass-roots baseball reseeds in the Big Apple

Even when no one is playing, people come here to look. The baseball diamond, in the heart of the South Bronx, is enclosed by a sparkling metal fence. The grass is a lush green. The base paths have fine brown dirt.

The sun sets just over the left-field wall.

"There aren't too many places like this around here," says Frankie Ocasio, a Puerto Rican immigrant who is leaning against a car, drinking a soda, and gazing at the field. "It's so peaceful."

But this is not Yankee Stadium, where the world champs play. It's a brand-new Little League field in the middle of a rough-and-tumble neighborhood, where litter lines the streets and vacant lots are overgrown with crab grass.

This field, at South Bronx High School, is just one sign that baseball is enjoying a resurgence in New York City, particularly here in the Bronx, where, not too long ago, the fields were too shabby to interest kids.

Not only are there new fields here, but there are new heroes to play on them, including the Rolando Paulino All-Stars, who last week made it to the semifinals of the Little League World Series. The Bronx Baby Bombers, as they were dubbed, eventually lost to the team from Apopka, Fla., which lost to the championship team from Japan. But a third-place finish was good enough to make them local heroes.

The star was 12-year-old Danny Almonte, who was born in a Dominican town called Moca. Danny used a wicked 75-m.p.h. fastball to pitch the first perfect game in a Little League World Series in 44 years, striking out 16 of 18 batters.

But all of Danny's heroics may be coming unwound.

This week, Sports Illustrated magazine found what appears to be a second birth certificate for the lanky lefthander. The document, from the Dominican Republic, says that Danny Almonte from Moca is 14, which makes him two years past the Little League age limit. Dominican officials were expected to announce the results of an investigation yesterday.

Regardless of those claims, Danny and the Bombers have so far managed to keep their luster with New Yorkers.

One of the players' fathers recently called the second birth certificate a "big coincidence." Other parents say the persistent accusations that the players were too old - or that they did not even live in the Bronx - were driven by jealousy and racism. All 12 players on the Rolando Paulino All-Stars are of Latino descent.

On Tuesday the Baby Bombers were given keys to the city by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and on Wednesday they were welcomed home to the Bronx with a parade.

"We are very proud of them, and all the people of New York are proud of them," said Mr. Giuliani the day after the second Almonte birth certificate surfaced.

The city's affection for the Rolando Paulino All-Stars, despite their potential flaws, is further indication of just how hooked this city is on baseball. It's the home of the reigning World Champion Yankees, the Mets, and even a new minor league team in Brooklyn, the Cyclones.

In the next three years, a nonprofit charity organization called Take the Field will build 52 new athletic complexes throughout the city. At least 30 new Little League baseball fields will open in the next two years. The new field at South Bronx High School, completed last month, will be the home field of next year's Rolando Paulino All-Stars. The city will cover 75 percent of the $130 million refurbishing program. Private donors, including the owner of the New York Giants, Bob Tisch, will supply the rest.

"It's very hard to play on fields that are dangerous," says Richard Kahan, the president of Take the Field. "It's not conducive to playing baseball. The kids need decent facilities, and they need support. That's what we're trying to give them."

The city's sports facilities - and in particular baseball fields - have been in a gradual decline for some 25 years. Most Little League baseball diamonds were left to fend for themselves. They didn't fare well, and as a result, Little League baseball all but moved to the suburbs.

Since Take the Field began refurbishing and building fields two years ago, however, the growth of the sport at the grass-roots level has been steady, especially in Puerto Rican and Dominican neighborhoods.

There is still more work to be done.

"There are run-down conditions in many of the fields in New York, and we hope to get to them in due time," Mr. Tisch says. Playing baseball under supportive conditions builds the kids' self-esteem, and even helps them with their schoolwork, he says.

The players, in turn, spread a positive feeling over the entire Bronx borough.

"We're proud of these guys," said Demitrio Urena, a Bronx resident who had come to City Hall to see the team receive keys to the city. "I just hope that [the information] about Danny Almonte isn't true."

Then he pointed to a headline in the New York Daily News that he said summed up his feelings: "Say It Ain't So, Danny."

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