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Jewish World Review Sept. 6, 2001/ 17 Elul 5761

Suzanne Fields

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There goes the Little League neighborhood -- LITTLE LEAGUE scouts went to the Dominican Republic to recruit a talented baseball player to move into their Bronx neighborhood to play for the Rolando Paulino Little League All Stars.

They found Danny Almonte and brought him home with them.

Just as Danny moved into his new neighborhood to play for the ``Bronx Baby Bombers,'' Fred Rogers was making plans to move out of his neighborhood, where he had worked for 33 years, entertaining children on his television show, ``Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.''

Their moves are not unrelated. They tell us a lot about the changing nature of childhood in America, 2001. Mister Rogers aired his last original show last week, just a day before it was discovered that Danny Almonte is 14, not 12, and two years too old to play in the Little League. There will be reruns for Mr. Rogers, but not for Danny Almonte.

Brent Musberger, the play-by-play announcer for the telecast of the Little League World Series championship game, told fans that there's nothing illegal ``if you can get a player to move into your neighborhood'' -- not even if you go to the Dominican Republic to find him.

But it was illegal to lie about his age. It was illegal to allow him play hooky from school for a year. Danny, who pitched his Little League team into the World Series and national fame with a perfect game -- no hits, no walks, no runs, no errors -- has been badly used by adults. All the games he played in have been erased from the books, put down as forfeits by the Baby Bombers.

Danny would have been better served growing up in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. That show began in 1968 and even then it harked back to an earlier sensibility. It was about childhood grounded in innocence. It was about drawing distinctions between reality and fantasy. It was about focusing on a child for what he was and what he could become, not for what he could do. The show captured the rare intimacy of the tube.

Mister Rogers held conversations with preschoolers on the other side of the screen. He moved quietly through details of everyday life, tying shoelaces, hanging up a sweater, facing fears about going to the dentist. He once let seconds tick away on a timer for children to watch for a whole minute in silence.

The rhythm of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood was slow-moving, emphasizing the small steps that children require on their road to growing up. You may not want your son to grow up to be like Mister Rogers -- he's a little too goody-goody for my taste -- but I sure wanted my son to discover boyhood through him.

It's not unusual for adults who grew up on Mister Rogers to run up to him on the street to thank him for giving them their childhood. Danny Almonte, by contrast, was robbed of his. It was taken away by a liar and a cheat, his father and Rolando Paulino, the sponsor of the team.

These men look at Little League as just another crass event for celebrity players, whose ethics are irrelevant unless they're caught. They let the worst of our increasingly sordid sports culture embrace our children. They did for Danny what the gamblers did for ``Shoeless Joe'' and the Chicago White Sox who threw the 1919 World Series and will be forever remembered as the Black Sox.

Of course, Danny isn't an adult and he isn't responsible for those who exploited him, but his name will be remembered in disgrace, ruining the season for lots of young boys, just like Shoeless Joe Jackson. (''Say it ain't so, Joe!'')

There was another story on the sports pages last week that struck a contrasting note. Ashley Martin, age 20, broke a barrier by becoming the first woman to score a point in NCAA college football. I think that any woman who wants to make sports history by playing football ought to have her head examined (before it gets knocked off), but this young woman, who kicked three extra points for Jacksonville State University against Cumberland University, showed humility when confronting adulation.

``I'm not making a statement, I'm not trying to break a barrier,'' she said. ``I just want to play a game and help the team win.''

Danny Almonte might have expressed similar thoughts if those around him had let play the sport he loved with boys his own age. Mister Rogers might put it this way: ``Once upon a time there was a boy named Danny, who felt terrible about himself because his parents and friends made him lie. He thought he was bad. But in time he realized that what he did was not who he was.''

If he's lucky one day he'll meet some grown up kids who were raised on Mister Rogers, and they will ask him to be their neighbor again.

Comment on JWR contributor Suzanne Fields' column by clicking here.


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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS