On Saturday, August 25, 2001, the tournament team from the Rolando Paulino Little League of the Bronx, N.Y., played in the United States final at the 55th Little League World Series at Lamade Stadium in South Williamsport, Pa. They lost the game to a team from Apopka, Fla. A team from Japan won the tournament title the next day.
;Prior to that afternoon, the team from the Bronx had won nearly all of its games, rolling over the competition in New York and the East Region by scores that often prompted officials to invoke the "mercy rule" that prevents runaway decisions from becoming too overwhelming. Soon, they arrived in Williamsport, one of just 16 teams remaining from over seven thousand that had begun the tournament in early July. In its first game, the club received a perfect-game pitching performance. Danny Almonte retired all 18 batters he faced, becoming the first pitcher to throw a perfect game at the Little League World Series since the 1957 championship game, when a hurler from Monterrey, Mexico, did it.
Long before that contest, though, rumors had surfaced that not everything involving this outstanding team was on the up-and-up. Back in 2000, the Paulino tournament team eliminated the New Jersey state champions from Pequannock at the East Region tournament, held at Bristol, Conn. Even then, the Pequannock coach complained that Almonte, the pitcher, was too old to be playing in Little League. Under the rules, a Little League tournament player cannot turn 13 before August 1 of the tournament year.
Still, nothing happened until a reporter following the story for Sports Illustrated did a little investigation. He tracked down sources in the Dominican Republic, where Almonte was born. Almonte’s parents had presented a birth certificate saying the child was born in April 1989, which would make him eligible for the tournament. However, the reporter said he found a certificate for Almonte that said he was born in April 1987 – meaning that this phenomenal 12-year-old pitcher was really a 14-year-old, taking advantage of younger opponents like a sixth-grade schoolyard bully beating up fourth-graders for their lunch money.
Almonte’s father insisted that the reporter had fabricated his story, that the birth certificate he gave to tournament officials was legitimate and correct. Rolando Paulino, the league’s founder, said he accepted Mr. Almonte’s word at face value. Little League officials responded by asking the Dominican vital statistics bureau to look into the issue. When the people in the vital records office completed their investigation and determined that Almonte was 14, the good folks in Williamsport did the only thing they could do. They wiped the egg off their faces and stripped the Rolando Paulino Little League tournament team of all its victories in the 2001 tournament, including championships at the district, sectional, state, and regional levels – and that perfect game – for use of an ineligible player.
Rolando Paulino was, and is, an interesting character. He founded a local baseball league in the Bronx back in 1989, outfitting the teams with uniforms and equipment and filling a void in the lives of underprivileged neighborhood children. It was hailed as a noble effort, and Paulino won awards for community service.
However, as part of its ruling in the Danny Almonte case, Little League Baseball told the Rolando Paulino Little League that Paulino would no longer be able to serve the league. They wanted to see the league continue and prosper, as they recognized the value of the program, but they found that Paulino was complicit in allowing Almonte to participate in violation of program regulations. Little League offered to bring its own representatives in to help run the local league and ensure that all the rules were followed, but they felt that Paulino himself could not be trusted.
Several months later, Paulino responded. Earlier this year, he announced that the Rolando Paulino Baseball League would no longer be affiliated with Little League Baseball. It would continue to operate, but as an independent program playing in outside tournaments.
Paulino is not the first local league administrator to tell off Little League Baseball. Many have complained over the years that the rules imposed by Little League are too restrictive, and quite a few leagues that were once under the Little League umbrella have left the program, either to join other national programs or to operate independently.
However, I think the ruling, and Paulino’s reaction to it, speak volumes about an issue that has been discussed several times before from the CUC pulpit: the issue of trust.
Like so much else in our lives, Little League Baseball is built on a foundation of trust. At its basest level, parents sign their children up to play ball, and they trust that the manager will care ably for the children while they are in his or her charge. They trust that the manager will give the players not only baseball instruction, but a few lessons in how to deal with success or failure. In return, the manager trusts that the parents will deliver the children on time for practice and games, or advise when the child has a conflicting event and will not be in attendance.
At the same time, league officials empowered with ensuring compliance with program rules have to put a lot of trust in parents as well. My official title with the Rutherford Little League is "player agent". I get asked about that a lot, and I tell people that my job is to register players – 458 of them this year – make sure they’re eligible to play, and assign each player to one of 34 teams on four levels. Then, I negotiate a multi-million-dollar salary for the player and bring it to the local board of directors. Invariably, they knock the contract down to a hot dog and a soda after the game, which means my commission is paid in sulfites and caffeine. (Can’t you tell?)
(Bil Keane, the brilliant cartoonist who draws "The Family Circus", drew a panel a few years ago in which Billy, who’s still seven years old in the panel even though his younger brother is actually drawing most of them for his father now, stands there wearing a baseball glove. He says, "Daddy, if I join Little League, will I get a signing bonus?")
I became the player agent in Rutherford in 1990. In 1992, there was another scandal at the Little League World Series. This time, a team from Zamboanga, Philippines, won the entire tournament, beating Long Beach, Calif., 15-4, in the final game before 35,000 fans at the park (including myself) and millions more watching on television. Three weeks later, Little League had another face full of egg as it ruled the Zamboanga team had to forfeit its victories because a district administrator in the Philippines had authorized eight substitute players on the roster. These eight players did not live within the established boundaries for the local league. As it turned out, the substitutes were members of a national team, and it was strongly suggested that some of those players were as old as 15 and 16.
There is a somewhat happy ending to this story. Long Beach got back to the championship the next year, with a team that contained a few kids who played as 11-year-olds the season before. This time, they won the championship game, 3-2. One of those Long Beach players, Sean Burroughs, is now the starting third baseman for the San Diego Padres. So once in a while, I suppose justice is served.
In any case, my local league imposed a rule in 1993 that every candidate for a position as a player in the league had to present a photocopy of the player’s birth certificate, to be retained in the league’s files. As a league, we could no longer trust the parents’ word that the players were of the proper age. Now they have to prove not only that they’re age 5 through 12, but that they also live in Rutherford.
Ironically, since we started monitoring player eligibility more closely, I’ve had more hassles with players being too young to participate. Back in 1993, our Tee Ball level went only as young as age 6. The rule states that a player must turn 6 by August 1 in order to be eligible. This has created a problem, because the local school board has an eligibility rule that uses October 1 as the cutoff. So, that season, someone came in and filled out the application rather innocently, listing the date of birth that was on the birth certificate: August 16, 1987. I took a look at the form and the certificate, and sadly told the parents that the child was too young to participate. They seemed to understand, and they left. About 20 minutes later, they came back in, sat down at another table, and filled out an application – this time with the date April 16, 1987. They still had the certificate with the August date, and when I got the paperwork, I looked at them incredulously and said, "Didn’t I just tell you the player was ineligible?" They pointed to the registration form and said, "April, April." I pointed to the birth certificate and said, "No, August. August." They never came back. I don’t think that player ever participated in later seasons. Who knows, perhaps he didn’t live in town, either. One time, I was entering the applications I had received, and I reached one for a player who lived on Sixth Street. Immediately, I knew I had a problem: Rutherford doesn’t have any numbered streets. The child apparently attended St. Mary’s School in Rutherford, and the parents wanted the child to play with his classmates. I wrote a letter advising that the child would have to play in the town where they lived, and I returned their application fee.
I could probably do a whole sermon on the pressures parents put on their kids to participate in anything and everything from an early age – as if playing Tee Ball at age 6 is going to help someone get into college. Unless, of course, when it comes to that infamous college application essay, the student is able to borrow on an incident that goes back to his or her Tee Ball days. But I do think our minister, the Rev. Dr. Justin Osterman, handled the subject of childhood stress quite well in his sermon on May 26.
So I’d like to re-focus on trust. Time was when a man’s word was his bond, when deals worth millions of dollars were sealed with a handshake. But it was the movie mogul Sam Goldwyn who wryly observed in the 1940s, "A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on."
Still, so much of our day-to-day activity relies on trust. Take this congregation. (Please.) Many of us show up at 10:25 for a 10:30 service, and we trust that all the pieces will come together to provide an enriching Sunday morning. We trust that the custodians cleaned up after a Saturday night event. We trust that, during the "regular season", Jim Karabin got here to open the place up and set up the sound system. We trust that Justin, or a guest speaker or performer, is prepared. We trust that the ushers are lined up, that we have a chalice lighter and a service leader, that we have appropriate music, that the Orders of Service are printed, and, perhaps most important, that the coffee will be ready after the postlude. This isn’t another Volunteer Sunday speech – excuse me, a Connection Convention speech – but simply a recognition of all the things we put our trust in for something as seemingly simple as a Sunday service. When one of those things falls by the wayside, our trust is betrayed – just as Little League officials felt betrayed by the folks from the local league in the Bronx.
I still remember one of the sermons Justin delivered to us in May 2000, during his week as a candidate for the settled ministry of our congregation. He recognized that we had very little to go on as voting members besides the recommendation of the Search committee, and all we could really do was put our trust in him. That sermon was called "The Temptation to Trust", and it’s true. The human animal is tempted to trust another of our kind. It’s human nature to be trusting, but we have to be oh, so careful.
Once upon a time, people kept their fortunes under the mattress, or figured out other places to hide their money. Eventually, banks were created. These were safe places for you to put your money. The bank stayed in business by lending out your money to people or businesses it deemed credit-worthy, and collecting interest on the loans. Still, part of the bargain was that you could retrieve your own money when you needed it. Many of these banks had the word "trust" in the name: you were trusting the bank to invest your money wisely so that it would still be there for you. Today, we often place our trust in financial advisors or the managers of mutual funds and pension companies. The stakeholder lawsuits in the Enron collapse are the result of the perception that the trustees of Enron’s pension fund betrayed the trust that the company’s employees placed in them. By the same token, shareholders trusted that Enron’s management, and its accountants, had properly represented the company’s financial position. This trust is fundamental to the smooth operation of the stock markets.
Every year, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, we, as the responsible citizens we are, vote for our representatives for national, state, and local office. It’s mind-boggling how much trust we put in our elected officials, who do so solemnly swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the laws of the jurisdiction they serve. We trust, for instance, that our state legislators aren’t selling us a bill of goods when they tell us that they’re going to install E-ZPass toll collection technology on every toll lane on the Parkway, the Turnpike, and the Atlantic City Expressway, and it won’t cost the taxpayers a red cent because they’re going to build the system on the backs of all the toll cheats out there. Hmmm. Collect $25 violations from all the people who go through a toll gate without one of these little doohickeys on the windshield [brandishing E-ZPass transponder], or who don’t drop their 35 cents in the basket. Sounds to me like our legislators didn’t trust us. They didn’t think we were honest enough to pay the vast majority of our tolls. They apparently weren’t smitten by that temptation to trust.
On the federal and international level, it gets even more intriguing. During the Cold War years, we built up quite a nuclear arsenal. We were pointing nearly six thousand nuclear warheads at the Soviet Union, and they were pointing a like number at us. Then, one day, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, and suddenly we didn’t feel threatened by communism (except, perhaps, for Fidel Castro). Still, we had nearly six thousand nuclear warheads pointed at Russia, and the Russians still had a like number pointed at us.
So, late last month, the presidents of our two noble countries got together and decided we really didn’t need so much firepower aimed at each other. At St. Petersburg (that’s Russia, not Florida) over Memorial Day weekend, George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin signed a treaty that called for the elimination of about 70 percent of this arsenal. Bush agreed to decommission about four thousand "nuke-u-lar" weapons. But we didn’t agree to destroy them. We said we would dismantle them, so that the nuclear part was in a different place from the warhead part. That way, we could re-enable the systems if the need ever arose. Meanwhile, when this dismantling is complete, we’ll still have about 1800 weapons pointed at Russia. Who do we trust, indeed?
Much of the discussion has centered around "conventional" weapons vs. nuclear weapons. But on a Tuesday morning last September, over three thousand lives were lost in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia through the use of unconventional, though non-nuclear, weapons. For days, weeks, months, as we grieved over our losses, assessed the damage to our structures and our collective psyche, mere trivia like the Danny Almonte scandal was pushed off the radar screen. But just as Little League has come out with a new, improved tournament eligibility affidavit in a desperate effort to close the barn door after the horse ran out, we have started questioning our public officials. What did the President know and when did he know it? Was the intelligence gathered by agencies like the CIA and the FBI sufficient to have enabled us to thwart the deadly attacks? Did the very people we trust with our national security and the illusion of a relatively care-free existence betray that trust through their inaction?
And then there’s the festering scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. I was raised Catholic, and I abandoned the church 20 years ago for reasons that had nothing to do with sex abuse or reports thereof. (Someday, I’ll do a This I Believe segment and explain it all.) But from a very early age, I was taught that there are certain people whom one should instinctively trust. Your parents. Your teacher. A policeman. And yes, a member of the clergy. If the catechism, or at least the popular perception, is to be believed, a man who has taken holy orders is that much closer to God. Why shouldn’t we trust him? Now we know why, and it’s something I suppose we as Unitarian Universalists readily recognize. A priest, or a person of the cloth in any faith tradition, including ours, has something very important in common with you, with me, and with Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed. We’re all human, subject to human passions and human frailties. Justin was right in that sermon two years ago: We’re tempted to trust, but in the end, trust isn’t automatic. It must be earned, and once earned, it’s a lifetime commitment to retain that trust.
I urge each of you to examine your own lives and assess the levels of trust we place in those around us. And take a look, too, at the trust others place in you. Be honest with yourself in recognizing your own limitations at the same time you emphasize your strengths. By being honest with yourself and others, you help establish a mutual trust. And trust is going to go a long way in healing the wounds that are open in our lives, in our nation, and in our world.
Who can we trust? Let’s begin with each other. May it ever be so.