Spontaneity left on the sandlot

September 10, 2001|By Richard O'Mara

DANNY ALMONTE, the adolescent pitching phenomenon lately of the Little League, was a ringer, "one who enters competition under false representations," as the Merriam Webster would have it.

But for some reason the outrage expressed at his unmasking reminds me of Claude Raines' line in the movie Casablanca as he orders Humphrey Bogart's cafe closed. "I'm shocked! Shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!" he exclaims, just as a cafe functionary hands him his own winnings. Who can truly believe there have been no Danny Almontes before in the Little League?

This is not to suggest that corruption and hypocrisy rage through Little League Baseball. Not at all. But it may be that when adults involve themselves in, and become the principal organizers of, children's sport, the opportunities for sharp practice are not diminished. We already know that adult involvement occasionally inspires uncivil, even thuggish, behavior on the field of play.

Adult management brings to the game many benefits, things like league play, uniforms, groomed stadiums, fine equipment, trophies - even television coverage. These amenities put a professional gloss on what is supposed to be an amateur activity. Though well intended, it is not at all certain that is healthy. It raises the stakes, often to the point where the game becomes too important, the rewards for winning worth cheating for.

But adult management does something else unfortunate. It steals away the very spirit of child's play.

The sandlot ("A vacant lot used esp. by children for unorganized sports" - Webster II) was baseball's true venue. There the game was essentially informal, and the joys and the agonies attendant to its outcomes wonderfully ephemeral. It hurt to lose; it felt good to win. You forgot both pretty fast.

The pickup game was baseball's purest expression. Today the pickup game is as lost in time as kick-the-can, as boys and girls are convoyed out to the diamond twice a week in obedience to their schedules, whether they want to play or not. The spirit of child's play lives and thrives in spontaneity. Schedules kill that.

The word "professional" these days is very much a compliment, a synonym for excellence. Why? Professionals are people who do something for money, and not always well. Amateurs, their opposite, do what they do for the love of doing it, and sometimes very well. Prostitutes are the world's oldest professionals. Ringers are professionals, too, and have probably been around almost as long. Goliath was a ringer.

I knew my first ringer when I was 13. He was a classmate in Saint Agatha's Grammar School in Philadelphia. His name was Joe; he was on our football team, which played against other parochial schools in the diocese.

Joe was a twin; he was big for his age and, for that reason, a star of our team when he was in the seventh grade. His brother, Tom, was just as big but didn't play football. Tom had a heart murmur. He was also the brighter of the two and graduated a year ahead of Joe, who had been left back.

The year Tom entered the Catholic high school that Saint Ag's sent most of its graduates to, Joe remained in the eighth grade. But he didn't play football that year for Saint Ag's. He played for the high school: He was a ringer, brought in under the cloak of some bright priest to play at least that one year under his brother's name.

It was a good season for the twins: Tom enjoyed some undeserved adulation in the bustling hallways between classes for his brother's prowess on the field. Joe was a hero in the neighborhood, for everybody there knew of the deception. Joe was pretty good, but as an offensive lineman, hardly the pivotal player pitcher Danny Almonte was. (Nothing unmasks a ringer so quickly as his talent: If it is too large, it generates immediate suspicion.)

Looking back, I don't recall anybody in our neighborhood suggesting there might be something wrong with this arrangement. It was just too exquisite not to be admired. Was it ethical, moral? Considerations of such matters was beyond our capabilities. Was it a sin? How could it be. The whole scheme was concocted by priests.

Richard O'Mara is a former foreign editor of The Sun. He lives in Baltimore.

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