Danny Almonte’s ex-manager Rolando Paulino still coaching in the Bronx, but Little League scandal tough to shake

·15 min read

NEW YORK — It has been more than two decades since Rolando Paulino became both the hero and pariah of youth baseball, in short order.

Now 59 years old, he has lost much of the weight and color in his face from that brief and tumultuous dalliance in the media spotlight. He is also driving a taxicab, which Paulino squeezes into a Jackson Ave., spot on a recent afternoon.

The glory of receiving a key to New York City was long ago replaced by obscurity and a lifetime ban from Little League International, but less has changed than one might expect.

Paulino still coaches youth baseball and still lives in the South Bronx. His league of 24 teams, bearing his name, Liga Paulino, operates this season with roughly 400 players, he says, and receives support from the Yankees. It is the reason for his appearance at St. Mary’s Park in the Bronx, where Paulino unloads a metal cart of baseball equipment from his trunk and pulls it across the grass.

“Baseball is my love,” he says, before hitting ground balls and soft-tossing pitches to his young players.

It is an admirable passion and an asset to an underserved community. But Paulino’s history will forever leave him a polarizing figure, both outside and inside the youth baseball community. Pitcher Danny Almonte’s falsified birth certificate, the biggest scandal in Little League history, remains a source of animosity and justification for stereotypes, with depressing repercussions still felt by Hispanic youth teams traveling outside New York.

Paulino, along with Almonte’s father, Felix, came to represent all adults who used children to satisfy desires for victory and attention. Then the fallout exposed Paulino further as a cheat, leading to a reputation that has been difficult to shake.

“I’m not saying what he did was right, but my God, every time you speak to somebody [in youth baseball], it’s, ‘Rolando, yeah, he’s a cheater,’” says Chris Navarro, the President of Kingsbridge Little League in the North Bronx. “Let it go already.”

But some won’t ever forget that episode, holding it against Paulino and many innocents. Among the many long-term ripple effects, as the New York Daily News discovered, was that the Babe Ruth League essentially removed all teams from the Bronx a few years ago after allegations of cheating.

“When we go to some tournament, it’s tough to say you’re coming from the Bronx,” says Gabriel Balcacer, the president of the International Little League and a sports TV host at Canal America. “Because people remember Paulino.”

The scandal

Paulino still denies it. All of it.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of widespread cheating, despite the accounts from Little League and news outlets and the people involved, Paulino insists he is only guilty of trusting Almonte’s father.

“I had a visa and a passport handed to me,” Paulino says through an interpreter. “I was going by the documentation the father provided.”

The famous birth certificate declared Almonte was 12 years old in 2001, the legal age for the Little League World Series. Paulino says he can still produce the papers to prove their existence.

There were, in fact, two birth certificates for Almonte from two different cities in the Dominican Republic. Both included stamps of authenticity and were created years apart. The second document, which Paulino references, chiseled two years off Almonte’s real age and was allegedly created just weeks before the pitcher flew to the United States. The true birth certificate confirmed Almonte as 14 years old.

But that was only a part of the scheme.

Although Paulino denies this, according to a person with direct knowledge of the situation, Paulino was aware of Almonte’s real age before the Little League World Series. Almonte was brought to the Bronx as part of a youth team from the Dominican Republic, and he remained in the United States with a couple of teammates.

Almonte lived in Paulino’s Bronx apartment, along with Almonte’s father, and soon they captured America’s undivided attention. Almonte, noticeably taller than his opponents, was a wrecking ball on the mound with an untouchable 75-mph fastball — which, given the shorter distance to home plate, was the equivalent of a 103-mph pitch in the majors. He tossed the first perfect game in the Little League World Series since 1979. The Paulino All-Stars became affectionately known as the Baby Bombers, with a backstory of impoverishment-to-stardom that played like a real-life Disney movie.

With the financial backing of Merrill Lynch and Giants co-owner Bob Tisch, the Paulino All-Stars were granted a $3 million renovated home field in the South Bronx. Merrill Lynch donated another $50,000 for new uniforms, equipment and transportation.

Meanwhile, accusations of cheating were growing louder. Bob Laterza, the manager of a Staten Island team that lost to the Bronx in the regional tournament, says he preemptively sent letters to Little League threatening to sue if one of his players was hurt by an Almonte pitch.

Parents and supporters of South Shore also paid $10,000 for a private investigator to find evidence proving the team was lying about the players’ ages. That investigation failed, but Sports Illustrated and others picked up the case.

“No 12-year-old physically can throw 75 mph,” Laterza says. “We had Jason Marquis [the former MLB All-Star pitcher] in our Little League when he was 12 years old, and his top speed was 65 mph, maybe 67. So what Almonte was doing was physically impossible. But nobody wanted to hear that. Everybody wanted the superhero. The city fell in love with the whole thing, that’s why they let it go.”

The lies were crumbling, but Paulino’s team returned from Williamsport as heroes after a third-place finish in the World Series. They were presented keys to New York City, with a proclamation from Mayor Rudy Giuliani that Aug. 28, 2001 was now “Rolando Paulino All-Stars Day.”

“Above all else, the team conducted themselves as good sportsmen which, for athletes, is about the highest praise that they could ever receive,” Giuliani said, ironically, in his congratulatory speech.

Within three days of Giuliani’s speech, Almonte’s real birth certificate was uncovered and Paulino was suspended from Little League for life. The organization also claimed Paulino was previously stripped of a title with a Dominican team in 1988 because he had six over-age players.

“The bad thing is, my coach Paulino and my dad, they knew what they were going to get into,” Almonte said in a 2014 ESPN documentary. “I wish this never happened. But it happened to me and God knows what he does to me.”

Almonte’s brother, Juan, was also found to have an illegal birth certificate and was over age when he played for Paulino in 2000, according to Dominican officials. The team’s catcher, Francisco Peña, should have been ineligible because he was plucked from the Dominican Republic just before the start of the World Series, according to the New York Times. Peña, who signed with the Mets in 2007, is the son of former MLB All-Star and Yankees coach Tony Peña.

“My parents didn’t know how it worked. … It was a messed-up decision our family got into,” Francisco Peña told MLB.com “It was a crazy moment in our lives.”

Paulino still denies Peña was ineligible.

Momentum was building against Paulino behind an all-out media blitz, while the city’s Administration for Child Services opened an investigation into why Almonte and another player hadn’t attended school. Every day, it seemed, brought another revelation about Paulino’s deceit. Even President Bush chimed in to express his disappointment that “adults would fudge the boy’s age.”

Then something bigger happened in New York City, and America.

“You know what stopped that story?” Paulino says. “9/11.”

Little League, big mess

For the uninitiated, youth baseball is a tangled web of independent leagues with little oversight.

That is why Paulino can be banned from Williamsport, yet still obtain New York City permits while bringing all-star teams to the Caribbean and across the U.S. It is why Paulino can boast of more recent championships in the PONY League and Babe Ruth League.

Still, the trail of youth baseball glory ultimately must travel through Williamsport, where TV exposure has turned a non-profit children’s tournament into a multimillion-dollar industry that employs high-paid administrators (Stephen Keener, the president and CEO of Little League baseball, earns nearly $500,000 in salary, according to a recent tax filing).

Paulino says he wrote letters to Williamsport requesting reinstatement, but never heard back. The News received a definitive response.

“Little League International has not received any recent requests from Mr. Paulino asking to be reinstated as an eligible coach in the Little League program,” the statement read. “We remain committed to the decision made in 2001 by the Little League International Tournament Committee that removed him from serving as League President and bans him for life from volunteering in our program. As the matter was closed in 2001, we have no further comment on the situation.”

Alex Perez, the vice president of Inwood Little League in north Manhattan, agrees that Paulino shouldn’t be reinstated or forgiven. Perez, who says his teams of largely Hispanic players are still stigmatized, insists he’ll never again play against Paulino.

“When you cheat for so many years and so blatantly, what do you think is going to happen?” says Perez, who has worked with Inwood Little League since 1997. “Nobody wants to play him. You’re going to force people to play him in your tournaments, and everybody is going to say, ‘There’s an issue here.’ ”

In the immediate years following the scandal, most of Paulino’s players resurfaced in Babe Ruth and PONY Leagues by participating under a newly-chartered team name, FHNA, and under a different program director, Rosy Perdomo. Many inside New York youth baseball assumed that team was a front, and that Paulino was pulling the strings.

Then in 2005, Perdomo married Almonte when she was 30 and he was a senior at James Monroe High School, amid unsubstantiated rumors their union was mostly about assisting Almonte’s pursuit of U.S. citizenship. The couple was separated by 2010, according to a report. Almonte is now 35 and playing in an amateur softball league in Paterson, N.J.

Paulino kept coaching, and his teams included Pedro Alvarez, the former National League home run leader for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Andrew Velazquez, an ex-Yankee infielder currently on the Anaheim Angels.

In 2017, CC Sabathia helped donate $440,000 to renovate Paulino’s home field at Claremont Park, and opening days at Liga Paulino have been visited by Gary Sanchez, Miguel Andujar and Luis Cessa.

The New York Yankees Foundation, which donates to many local youth programs, contributed at least $10,000 annually to Rolando Paulino Baseball since 2010, according to tax filings.

“The Yankees are one of our pillars,” Paulino explains.

Even after the Williamsport ban, Paulino enjoyed success in youth baseball’s second-most recognizable league, Babe Ruth League, which also hosts an annual international World Series. Liga Paulino captured Mid-Atlantic Regional titles in 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2015.

But then Babe Ruth pulled the plug on all teams from the Bronx, with the league’s state commissioner, Bob McColgan, telling The News that allegations of cheating became much too common.

“We have boundaries, we have borders for our leagues. And down in the Bronx, they just took kids from all over,” McColgan says. “That was the problem when it comes to all-stars. You got kids from Staten Island, you got kids from the Bronx. You got kids from all over on that team. That’s not a legal team.”

McColgan says teams from outside New York City were complaining, and “we have to be fair to everybody.” He says there were no investigations specific to Paulino, but adds about the accusations against the Bronx teams: “You can go all the way back to Danny Almonte because that’s the league he came out of.”

“We got to check ages and stuff like that,” McColgan says. “We ask for birth certificates, we ask for the regular papers. Well, half these kids were from the Dominican Republic and stuff like that. It was the whole Bronx. The whole Metro New York area. It was a problem. We just had to pack our bags and say, ‘Until you guys work this out, good luck to you.’ That’s the way it ended.”

Removing an entire borough of kids runs contrary to the Babe Ruth League’s mission statement, which reads, “It is our fundamental belief that every child with a desire to play baseball or softball be afforded that opportunity.” In fact, the Babe Ruth organization dissolved its entire Metro New York district in 2016. Emails to league commissioner Bob Faherty went unanswered.

Such policies reinforce accusations of racial profiling, outlined by multiple coaches and administrators of Hispanic teams. Balcacer says he once heard taunts of “Danny Almonte’s family” during a Babe Ruth tournament game in Indiana.

“It’s embarrassing, bro,” Balcacer says. “Right in my face.”

Peggy Guzman, who runs the Bronx Raiders, says a team in Staten Island forfeited a PONY League game against her squad because one of the parents on the Bronx side was wearing a “Liga Paulino” T-shirt.

“By him having that T-shirt, they automatically thought we were cheating and my kids were over age,” Guzman says. “So they stopped the game, called the commissioner. They told the umpires that they don’t want to play, and so they forfeited the game.”

Even for teams outside of the Bronx, such as Inwood Little League next to Washington Heights, the issue persists.

“Any time you take a team out of New York that’s good, and you go into the suburbs and, you know, play a bunch of white kids, right away, it’s, ‘Is this kid legal?’ ” Perez says.

Paulino’s legacy

As a youth baseball administrator since 1967, Frank LoPiccolo has seen his share of cheating. He recalls, for instance, a team in Brooklyn that doctored birth certificates through a parent who worked in the Board of Health.

“Sure enough,” LoPiccolo says, “we found out what was going on.”

But there have been no issues involving Rolando Paulino during LoPiccolo’s 15 years as PONY League’s North Region Director.

“We watched him closely in the beginning [because of the reputation],” LoPiccolo says. “But that hasn’t been the case for a while. He has followed the rules.”

Of course, the rules have been blurred over the years by the rise of travel baseball, which isn’t beholden to district boundaries and calendar guidelines. The travel teams don’t compete in Little League tournaments, but their players are still eligible for local charters and have the advantage of playing year-round against top players from different areas.

“I see it personally,” says Chris Navarro, the president of Kingsbridge Little League. “Supposedly, many of these Little League all-star teams have become travel teams, where they play all year together.”

Travel baseball is also expensive (the New York Gothams advertise a $2,500 fee for a summer season), rendering it prohibitive for most kids in the neighborhoods where Navarro and Paulino organize games. The pay-to-play model ensured long ago that baseball would lose its appeal in the inner city, which is evident in the MLB’s player demographics.

Yet Paulino continues to push baseball in the South Bronx, surviving scandals, baseball apathy and every other obstacle thrown in the way of an immigrant taxi driver.

“You know the Bronx, it’s really hectic,” says Peggy Guzman, who has worked with Paulino for about 20 years. “There’s a lot of drugs out there, there’s a lot of crime out there, and I find what he does is important to keep the kids out of the streets.

“And if he’s so bad and is criticized for supposedly cheating, why do parents still come back? There are parents still in the community that come and look for him and ask if he still has teams. And the answer is yes, he absolutely does.”

That is the endearing and significant part of Paulino’s complicated legacy. On one hand, his team cheated in multiple ways on the biggest stage of the sport, forever sullying this corner of youth baseball. He also continues to deny his role in that cheating scandal, which comes across as unbelievable given the evidence. The alternative is Paulino was the target of a wide-ranging, international smear campaign.

On the other hand, he’s working 70 hours a week preparing baseball fields, coaching and operating his league in an underserved community. He’s known for pulling money out of his pocket to help single mothers who can’t afford Liga Paulino’s $140 registration fee. He is traveling with players for tournaments across the Caribbean, even taking a team to Havana, Cuba, in 2017.

The hectic schedule, he says, has disrupted Paulino’s diet, causing him to drop more weight than he’d prefer. There’s also the taxi job that Paulino says can eat up as much as 80 hours per week, depending on the demand.

“I continue,” Paulino says, “for the kids in the community.”

Time may be running out on this long chapter, however. Paulino says he is eyeing retirement from youth baseball in 2027, which coincides with his 50th year as a coach and organizer. Amazingly, Paulino began this passion at just 14 years old in the Dominican Republic, selling sacks of rice to fund tournaments. When he tried to take a team on its first international trip to Puerto Rico, the consulate denied him a permit because he was too young.

Years later, Paulino’s lefty ace, Almonte, was too old.

“Paulino made a few big foul balls,” says Gabriel Balcacer, who played in Liga Paulino during its first year in the Bronx in 1991. “But on the field, I respect Paulino. He’s a legend.”