Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Catch Me If You Can

Every summer, Little League officialdom and countless Williamsport-hungry teams play the roles of Carl Hanratty and Frank Abagnale Jr. in the movie "Catch Me If You Can."

Hanratty was the FBI investigator, played by Tom Hanks, who chased down con artists who passed bad checks and made counterfeit money and documents. Abagnale was the precocious con man, played by Leonardo DeCaprio, who pretended to be a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer -- and, for his effort, raked in millions of dollars through counterfeit checks.

For years, Hanratty chased across the globe, often just missing his prey by minutes and clever slights of hand. However clever Hanratty was, Abagnale was much more clever.

Countless Little League all-star teams play the Abagnale role, slipping around the rules of eligibility in order to pursue the televised glory of playing in the Little League World Series. You know the most famous case of cheating. Danny Almonte, a kid who pitched a perfect game in the Little League World Series for a Bronx Little League team, only to be found a fraud by Sports Illustrated and other publications.

Almonte's fraud was manyfold. Not only was he two years older than Little League's official age limit of 12. (At the time, players had to be 12 on July 31 to be eligible for the Williamsport jamboree. Starting this year, kids have to be 12 on April 30 to be eligible.) He was also not a regular Participant in the paulino Little League that fielded the all-star team -- and he did not even live in the neighborhood where the league was based.

Last summer, the Altagracia Little League won the Venezuela national tournament and the latin America tournament -- and a trip to Williamsport -- before proof of a star player's age fraud. Seems that overage player was using his younger brother's birth records as proof of eligibility. For punishment, Little League Baseball disqualified Altagracia just before the teams gathered in Pennsylvania for the World Series. (For more details, read my Little League, Big Dreams.

But skirting the Little League rules -- or at least, the sprit of the rulkes -- requires a little more clever gambit these days.

The modern technique for bringing ringers to the Little League tournaments is to create an elite team outside Little League, play against the best teams anywhere, and then all sign up for Little League when all the kids are 12. Then you have a powerhouse that is capable of blowing out the leagues that play by the spirit of Little League -- in which any kid can play and leagues assemble all-star teams from their big cast of players.

One of many, many examples: The Maitland Little League's 2005 all-star team -- which made it to the Little League World Series -- was comprised exclusively of players from the Maitland Pride. The Pride was a travel team that Dante Bichette, a retired big-league star, formed a year before. The Pride played top-flight travel teams, going 24-7 to prepare for Little League competition.

Little Leagues and their coaches sometimes have a hard time figuring out what to do. Little League baseball forbids forming teams before June 15. That's so some teams don;t have an advantage playing and practicing together. The Paramus Patriots -- a travel team whose players also competed in the Paramus, N.J., Little League -- wanted to play in a prestigious Sports at the Beach tournament in Rehobeth, Delaware. But Little League officials balked when John Tenhove, the coach for both the Little League and travel teams, asked for the OK to go to Delaware before June 15.

Paramus Little League's all-star teams dropped out of the Little League tournaments so they could go to Delaware. Later they found out that one of their rivals from Newtown, Pennsylvania, competed in both. Since they kept their books separately, the two teams were not legally one and the same.

"The rule is full of loopholes," Little League CEO Steve keener told me. "It's how you beat the system."

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