Field of Schemes

In August a team from a remote corner of the Philippines won the Little League World Series—then the victory dissolved in deceit



Zamboanga, one of the southernmost cities in the Philippines, is on an island so remote—even though it is only 540 miles from the Philippine capital of Manila—that it has its own language, a pidgin Spanish called Chavacano. It can be said that Zamboanga does not share land with Manila, does not share language and does not share the same place in time. In Manila's harbor, huge freighters unload lime and gravel that will be used to rebuild the city's infrastructure. In Zamboanga a wobbly ferry docks and disgorges oxen.

The Moro Gulf, on which the city is located, seems a peephole into the maritime past. Vast outriggers with impossibly colorful sails skim across the harbor as if materializing out of history. You are told that smuggling is a thriving industry. Reports of piracy appear regularly in the papers. An American woman staying at the seaside Lantaka Hotel says she has heard gunfire in the night.

But for all the buccaneer tales, all the smoke on the water, there is no romance to Zamboanga. The small harbor beyond the Lantaka is framed by shanties. And bobbing in a nearby wedge of water are the boats of fishermen who have no deed but to the Celebes Sea. While admiring a fiery late-November dusk from the hotel's patio, you can watch the fishermen return from the sea, cook their catch over small fires in their canoes and, in preparation for sleeping, spread slats over the width of the boats and turn small sails into flimsy tents. As a Perry Como rendition of O Tannenbaum drifts from the hotel bar, a family of five bobbing on the water performs its ancient housekeeping.

Venturing inland is no less disorienting. The tropical bustle of Zamboanga, a city of 500,000 that is thick with commerce on the order of cigarette stands and snack bars, quickly gives way to a gentle jungle profuse with hibiscus and bougainvillea. The local word is that two years ago a Japanese soldier wandered down from the nearby mountains and asked who had won the war. It doesn't matter whether you believe this tale. When the pavement ends and the carabao begin to outnumber the tricycles and other modern conveyances, you are every bit as adrift in time as that soldier.

In this country, some eight miles from Zamboanga, is the village—or barangay—of Culianan (pop. 7,000), where huts on stilts form the skyline. Black pigs are tethered to porches, and on every porch stand old paint cans that have been reclaimed for planters. It is as if the people can separate squalor from poverty by their ability to organize nature. The roosters and goats, however, remain unorganized. They are everywhere.

Is it possible that this was home, however briefly, to the Little League baseball world champions of 1992? Home to kids who, on a faraway diamond, upset the sons of privilege and gave their country a shining moment, and then, just as improbably, plunged their people into shame? Could the riot of nature in these remote Philippines somehow produce an aberration of athletics or—every bit as unlikely, you would think—a sophisticated scam?

You meet a boy from that team, the team that won the Little League World Series in August in Williamsport, Pa., by beating a squad from Long Beach, Calif. The boy was the shortstop on the Zamboanga team, and he had two RBIs and scored two runs in the championship game. He may or may not have been 12 years old at the time. He may or may not be Ricardo Marcos Jr. It remains difficult to say for sure, no matter how many conversations you have here. The boy emerges from a small wooden house with a thatched roof. The entryway of the house—there can't be more than a single room beyond it—is decorated with a trophy and a certificate and a model car tilted for display.

In the yard, roped to a stake, is a cow. After his team won the championship, the boy was given some money by his town's congresswoman, the powerful and wealthy Maria Clara Lobregat (whose family amassed a fortune from coconut plantations); the boy spent most of his money, about $175, to buy the cow.

You may recall the indignation in the U.S. when Zamboanga's victory was revealed to be tainted and the title taken away and given to Long Beach. The Long Beach players and coaches had honored the integrity of Little League baseball, but when their victory came by forfeit, not on the held, it was received with very little ceremony and earned its winners very little distinction. It seemed so unfair to those kids from Long Beach.

The Filipino boy poses for pictures with his cow. Christmas carols float out of a radio and through the humid air, and you are suddenly stunned by the heat, nearly slammed to the dirt by it. The sweat just drips off your face.

Perhaps you have seen a picture of their on-field party in Williamsport, of the Zamboanga players rushing together on the field in their boyish glee. This unsung team had first upset the powerful squad from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic 5-1 and then trounced Long Beach 15-4. The Filipinos' jubilant victory dance should have been an enduring moment, an implosion of kids celebrating that most American of ideals: Anything is possible. These were players who learned to pitch by throwing rocks at a pile of coconuts, who learned to field using rice sacks for gloves, whose first bats were logs. When they left Zamboanga to train in Manila for the world series, they boarded the same ferry that delivered the oxen, and they sailed away to the modern world, third class.

But that happy picture of victory was quickly marred by suspicion, and within weeks it had been effaced. It was too good to have been true. What had seemed to be innocence rewarded was instead denounced as international trickery, calculated cheating that transfigured the boys' preadolescent triumph into teenage treachery. The Zamboanga players were not all from Zamboanga (Little League rules require that a team participating in tournament play, up to and including the world series, be composed of all-stars from the same local league), they were reportedly too old (eligibility for Little League play requires that a player not turn 13 before Aug. 1), and it appeared that they were not even who they said they were. Those little kids? Even their childhoods appeared to be fraudulent.

The Filipinos were not undone by Americans, not even by those Americans who are suspicious of anything from another culture that proves superior to something in their own. "I'm not saying the U.S. has the best of everything," said Jeff Burroughs, the Long Beach coach and a parent, in the wake of the loss to the Filipinos, "but when our teams get annihilated, it makes you wonder." Of course, the Americans wonder nearly every year in Williamsport: A Far East team has been better at America's pastime than America has in 21 of the last 26 Little League World Series, so the Filipinos' victory didn't cause much more than a shrug in Williamsport.

Rather, the Filipinos were undone by their countrymen. A newspaper column headed MOTHERS HOW OLD ARE YOUR CHILDREN? appeared in a Manila newspaper the day the apparent victors arrived home to a small parade in the city's financial district. At that point the players had enjoyed their championship for four days.

They would hold it only 15 days more. Upon admission by the Philippine Little League administrator that eight of the players and their manager and coach were not from Zamboanga, Little League headquarters in Williamsport voided their championship. On Sept. 18 Burroughs rounded up as many players as he could for a quiet celebration at a park in Long Beach. It was not easy assembling them. "Some were playing soccer, some were doing homework," he said. "They've gotten back into the swing of things." The players seemed not the least embittered by the whole affair. Then again, they were only 12.

Months later in the Philippines, confusion still prevails. After the title was stripped, there were additional reports of chicanery, that even the six players who really were from Zamboanga were not who they seemed, that some players used aliases and false birth dates to qualify for tournament play. Filipinos have been left to wonder how long their children have played on a field of schemes. And they wonder if their corruption is so complete that it is taught at the preteen level. They wonder about loyalties, their country right or wrong. They are buffeted by alternating shame and pride. It's so confusing. And Filipinos don't even like baseball that much.

Al Mendoza's nerves are pretty much shot. Over dinner in Manila he gestures wildly, as if to discharge the shooting sparks of his panic. It has been nearly three months since his columns in the Philippine Daily Inquirer raised suspicions over the Zamboangan team and ultimately hurled his country into disgrace. And he still feels he must travel with a bodyguard, when he dares leave his house at all. The angry public reaction against him has been so weirdly oversized. It was just a sports story.

A rival newspaper, The Manila Chronicle, wrote in an editorial: "As to Mr. Al Mendoza, let us be reminded that rats have gone down in history with ignominious epitaphs, most of them well deserved. Al Capone had a way of disposing of rats. He bashed their heads with a baseball bat."

Just the other day Mendoza was hailed by a passing motorist as he entered his newspaper's building. The man called out, "Traitor!" It has been three months! It's as if he, a sportswriter, has somehow come to personify the country's moral dilemma. Does a nation admit its mistakes and move forward, or does it practice an ancient loyalty and cover up? Mendoza thought he knew what to do. But ever since he did it, he has been on the run.

The Philippines' long and sorry tradition of crookedness has sustained a lively press. There are 33 daily newspapers in Manila, and they spare no space when it comes to covering scandal. Whether it's rigged elections or the ownership of jeepneys—small buses that are painted and operated in the manner of World War II fighter planes and are presumed to be operated for the illegal benefit of certain traffic cops—it all gets great play. But when it came time to investigate the Zamboanga Little League team, Mendoza and his paper stood alone.

Mendoza is shocked by the controversy. He had published his columns in the spirit of American sportswriting, of which he is an ardent student. Who among his U.S. brethren would not have wondered in print about these kids' eligibility? Letters received by Mendoza from jealous neighbors and relatives of the players suggested that the boys who had just beaten the U.S. team and earned President Fidel Ramos's gift of one million pesos (about $40,000) were overage. Who wouldn't have jumped on a story like that?

The charges in Mendoza's columns were speculative and did not directly contribute to the stripping of the team's title. Colleagues at the Daily Inquirer did the heavy investigative stories on the scandal. However, it is Mendoza who has become the center of the national debate, because even as he seemed to turn on his country, he consorted with the enemy. Perhaps he would have been a mere footnote to scandal had he not accepted an invitation to attend a Long Beach victory party (he happened to be visiting the U.S. when the decision to void the Filipinos' title was announced). Photographs taken at the party and printed in papers back in the Philippines showed Mendoza holding a key to the city of Long Beach. He was called a Judas Iscariot, a Vidkun Quisling. One columnist gave him the "Tokyo Rose Award for the Achievement of a Lifetime in the area of Treason." Nelson Navarro wrote in the Manila Standard: "The name of Al Mendoza will long live in infamy among his fellow Filipinos."

Is the national identity of the Philippines, a nation coming out from under U.S. influence, so fragile it cannot withstand self-investigation? "The journalist stops," wrote Teodoro Benigno in The Philippine Star, "where the Filipino begins." Or is it sturdy enough to survive the truth, as Mendoza hoped in a particularly melodramatic column: "If truth shall prevail, for truth had always been my beacon, then to hell with death."

Mendoza's nerves are quieted during dinner, although he insists on not being quoted so that he will not later be accused by his countrymen of "grandstanding." He's proud of his work, but he would like the controversy to quiet down. During coffee, though, Mendoza relaxes and reveals his uncomplicated interests, asking about the American sportswriters he has come to know and admire. "So, where is Scott Ostler now?" he says. "I used to like John Schulian; what became of him?"

As far as the official version of events goes, Mendoza and journalism had only a little to do with the reversal of Philippine baseball fortunes. The inquisition was all very straightforward: a query sent from Williamsport to Manila, answers returned, the title forfeited. It all happened in a matter of days, with a finality that still surprises Filipinos. "Where is due process?" asks Jose Lina, chairman of the senate committee on youth and sports, which is investigating the controversy in the Philippines. "We learned due process from the Americans, but they do not apply it to us."

But, in fact, there was very little to process. Members of the International Tournament Committee were originally suspicious of the Zamboangan team because the manager and coach "didn't seem typical," according to Little League first vice-president Steve Keener. (They would have seemed even less typical had committee members realized that the manager and coach weren't speaking the same language as their players.) But Keener says his people were assured that the two men were from the same league as the players and that they had coached during the regular season, as the rules require, and the matter was dropped.

However, persistent rumors and published reports from Manila alleging the use of overage and out-of-area players prompted Little League president and CEO Creighton Hale to fax a sheet of four questions to Armando Andaya, longtime district administrator of Little League baseball in the Philippines:

1) "Were all the players of proper age?"

2) "Were any of the birth certificates 'doctored' as alleged by reporter Al Mendoza of the Daily Inquirer!"

3) "Were all of the players from Zamboanga City or did any of them come from outside this specific area?"

4) "Did [Ian] Tolentino participate in the 1990 Bronco League, which has an age limit of 13? Allegations suggest that Tolentino participated on a team that won the Bronco Series in Tokyo in 1990."

Andaya's answers were satisfactory to all questions except number 3. In answering it, he admitted that eight out-of-area players were used (some, as it turned out, from cities as distant as 700 miles from Zamboanga). In a later letter Andaya explained that the substitutions were made after Zamboanga won the national championship, which had taken place in April, because it appeared that not enough of Zamboanga's players would be available to make the trip to China for the Far East regional. He wrote that the Philippine Little League organization had "encountered problems of obtaining consent from simpleminded parents, especially those in Zamboanga, as they do not understand the significance of the tournaments where their sons are to participate." Andaya explained that some players were afraid to travel so far, that some parents needed their sons at home to help with farm work and that schools, which were in full swing in mid-June in the Philippines, did not allow more than two weeks of absence. The trip to China required at least that much time.

Andaya also admitted that the Zamboangan coach, Eduardo Toribio, had been replaced when Toribio "begged off from going to the Far East Tournament for reasons of private activities." Rodolfo Lugay, who is in charge of the Rizal Memorial Baseball Stadium in Manila, took Toribio's place. Andaya insisted that all this was done on short notice and with no motive other than to produce a complete team. Furthermore, he insists that as district administrator he was authorized to make these changes and that he had made similar changes in the last five years without comment or penalty.

There are those who claim that these substitutions were doled out as political favors. In the Philippines, of course, it's possible to believe this. "I am aware of our country's reputation," Andaya says. "But I challenge you to discover how my business interests were bettered by my Little League involvement." Indeed, Andaya, who is a flower importer, is not a likely candidate for Mr. Big in this scam; softspoken and unbeguiling, he does not invite suspicion as mastermind of a larger conspiracy. Moreover, in the 10 years he headed up the Filipino Little League, he used his business office as the sport's headquarters and funded many activities, as well as a glossy newsletter, out of his own pocket.

Anyway, says Armand Nocum of the Daily Inquirer, there was no advantage in conspiracy. Nocum, his paper's Zamboanga correspondent, who substantiated some of the charges Mendoza had hinted at, says the team that went to the Far East regional and later to the Little League World Series was no match for the original Zamboanga team. "If they had taken the original team to Williamsport," says Nocum, "it would have beaten the Americans 30-4."

Still, as they say in Williamsport, rules are rules. "And they are quite clear," says Keener. "There are provisions for substituting; however, the players must come from that same league. It's very clear. Mr. Andaya knows those rules as well as anybody."

On Sept. 18, less than two weeks after sending his query, Hale wrote Andaya that the "illegal team from Zamboanga City" must forfeit the championship game and that the runner-up team, Long Beach, would be declared the champion. Andaya immediately quit in protest, saying, "The Americans in Williamsport just could not take it at the hands of the Filipinos. Hence, they scrounged around for some reason to overturn the victory."

In the Philippines the belief remains that Zamboanga was stripped on a technicality, tripped up by a vague rule. "The issue is arguable," insists Lina. "The substitutions are defensible." But what of the subsequent stories, notably the six-part series published by the Daily Inquirer in November suggesting that Andaya's substitutions, well meant or not, were the least of the team's transgressions? What about those persistent stories in the papers that the players were not whom they purported to be, that they were older and had adopted nombres na baseball? That, in fact, all six of the players who were from Zamboanga were impostors who had assumed the personas of younger players from the original Zamboanga team, and that even the imposters' parents had assumed the names of the parents of the boys their sons had replaced? "Oh, that," says Andaya. "That has happened before." An apparent fraud so extensive that the players' classmates, their teachers—their parents!—were drawn into the intrigue? Andaya shrugs at the irrelevance of the charges. "It's possible," he says.

There is a tomb in a cemetery in the village of Manicahan, 14 miles outside of Zamboanga, that seems to honor the tradition of cheating as much as it does the deceased. It is nameless, without date of birth or death. All it proclaims is GOLDEN BOY. The likeness of a baseball is engraved above the lettering.

According to local lore, it was not that there wasn't enough information for a proper inscription, but that there was too much. The Golden Boy, it is said, was Luis Alvarez, a farmer's son who died in a vehicular accident in 1985 when in his 20's. However, he was better known in these parts as Cipriano Alvarez Jr., an identity, complete with a qualifying birth date, that was fabricated by teachers so that Alvarez could play Little League baseball well into his teens. He was perhaps the best Little League player from these parts, certainly one of the oldest. In 1975 Alvarez starred in a Little League competition in Manila. His achievements so stirred the citizens of Manicahan that he was met by a band when he returned home. According to his coach, Pete Columbres, Luis Alvarez was 14 or 15 at the time.

In its series the Daily Inquirer claimed that the six boys who came from Zamboanga likewise had too many names. It alleged that the team captain, Allan Bitun, was actually 14-year-old Junifer Pinero; that Jemar Alfaro was his 16-year-old cousin Alvin Alfaro; that Marlon Pantaleon was his 14-year-old brother, Melvin; that Ignacio Ramacho was 13-year-old Ernesto Vinarao; that Expedito Alvarez Jr. was 15-year-old Gilbert Alvarez; that Ricardo Marcos Jr. was 14-year-old Rodel Marcos.

The paper charged that even some of the parents assumed names to accommodate the alleged fraud. This has been heatedly denied by some of the parents and neighbors and town officials. Allan Bitun's mother, Teresita, said at a town meeting, "He's really my son. Who else owns him? I did not pick him up from a garbage dump." At the same meeting Jaime Alfaro said, "I slept with my wife, and my wife delivered the baby. How can Jemar not be my son?" Teachers and school officials have all stepped forward to confirm the boys' identities.

But Nocum stands by his reporting. "This has been going on in Zamboanga for 10 years," he says. "Everybody knows about it but doesn't talk about it. It's taboo." Nocum, a native of Zamboanga and a former seminarian, decided to pursue the Little League story after Mendoza floated his charges. "I meant to come to the defense of our boys," Nocum says. "I wanted to prove they weren't overage. You must understand, Zamboanga has become notorious for the bombing of churches, the killing of priests [as part of an ongoing conflict between local Christians and Muslims]. I saw this victory, as everyone did, as the kind of good news that would erase all the bad publicity."

Nocum's hope vaporized when he visited the children's schools. According to Nocum, looking for Allan Bitun produced much confusion among Allan's classmates. When Nocum identified Allan as a 13-year-old player from the championship team, a younger student said, "Are you looking for Junifer Pinero?" More mature students quickly shushed the youngster; the cover-up, if that's what it was, extended to teachers as well. As a result, Nocum's journalism has become something like cold fusion: The results were exciting but so far impossible to duplicate.

Nocum was outraged by what he found. "There is a joke in this country," he says. "We have 11 Commandments instead of 10. The 11th is Thou Shall Not Get Caught. But it is not funny if we are going to teach kids to lie. The corruption in this country stinks. It's everywhere. But for god's sake, can we not spare the children?"

The Filipinos have cheated at baseball before. In the late '80s Philippine teams were barred from Pony Baseball international tournament play for three years after Pony officials discovered the use of overage players. In 1984 Philippine Little League officials, during a national series, cracked down on the illegal practice of substituting overage boys; according to one newspaper report, "Stringent screening of players and ocular inspection of all competing teams" disqualified as many as 30 players before the tournament began.

In the U.S. there has long been suspicion over the eligibility of players on foreign teams, particularly those juggernauts from the Far East. Deborah Burroughs, the Long Beach coach's wife, said in an interview after the announcement of the reversal, "We feel from looking back that this has happened many times in the past, and it had just never been investigated. The Dominican kids were obviously men. Our coaches said you could tell in the showers. At least the Philippine kids were smart enough to use Nair."

Actually, according to Oscar Ituralde, a former baseball coach in Zamboanga who is now a local councilman, "the main tool of the coach here is a 'puller' [tweezer]." Ituralde told Nocum that overage boys usually suffer from having their pubic hair pulled a day before the competition. "You will feel sorry for the boys," he said. "They have difficulty walking."

Baseball in the Philippines is by no means the preoccupation of youngsters that it is in other parts of Asia or in the Caribbean. Basketball, another American hand-me-down, is the Filipinos' sport of choice. There is a pro basketball league that has its games telecast on two channels seemingly every night, one channel broadcasting in the national language, Tagalog, and another in English. While traveling about the country, one is far more likely to see a backboard and hoop than a baseball field.

However, there are pockets of intense baseball activity, and Zamboanga is one of them. Nobody knows why, for sure. Some of the older folks remember first seeing the game played by American soldiers who were stationed nearby after World War II. "There was a Marine base not that far from Culianan, where the boys go to school," says Silvestre Rivera, a lawyer who is active in the Zamboanga Little League. "The Marines would give us gloves and bats. One taught me how to catch."

Years later baseball remains the city's sport. Feast days are celebrated in every barangay with a baseball game. At schools, in the midday tropical steam, lunch recess is given over to the game. At Culianan Elementary School one day in late November, small boys were using a miniature soccer ball for a baseball and a sawed-off tree limb for a bat. Shoes became bases. The boys played barefoot. Sometimes, if a hardball can be produced, they make gloves out of a burlaplike netting that grows on palm trees. Or they use cardboard to soften the ball's impact. Yet baseball survives here, even stripped to its barest elements.

But it seems to go wrong in the half mile it takes to travel from the elementary school to Culianan National High School. There you find Jemar Alfaro, Expedito Alvarez Jr., Marlon Pantaleon and Ignacio Ramacho. It is lunchtime, and they are loitering outside near the field where they honed their baseball skills, an uneven plot of land that at the moment is being used by a goat and a cow. All four are wearing their Little League championship T-shirts, each with his name sewn on the breast. On their faces you recognize the aggrieved look of the hunted.

"The stories are not true," says Jemar. He says he is a first-year student at the high school, which in the Philippines starts in seventh grade, and is 13. The boys have faint mustaches, the ocular inspection of which might invite the puller, but that is not what makes them seem older than that. They seem too weary to be just 12 or 13. They have traveled halfway around the world from their simple huts, wrested a trophy from a vast baseball empire and somehow lost it on the trip back, and now they suffer visitors who march up to their school, even their homes, and ask, "Who are you, really?"

Jemar, looking away, says, "It is all very disappointing."

A teacher rushes from the school. She vouches for the identity of the four students. "Look at them," she says. "Do they look overage?" The barangay chairwoman of Culianan, Leticia de los Santos, arrives on the scene soon after. She is highly agitated. "Let this be a storm," she says, "and let it pass. Let this be a problem within four walls." She begins to orate. "The children are simple, their parents are simple. The newspapers just pull their noses this way and that. The parents don't even speak English. Trial by publication...." This sudden convention of adults on an uneven baseball field pocked with cow chips soon holds little interest for the four boys from the world series team. They wander off and recede into the lunchtime crowd.

What happened in that half mile between elementary school and high school? A coach's ambition? The Daily Inquirer reported that Toribio, the boys' original coach, received five points toward promotion as a teacher for his part in the winning team, but the paper cited no other rewards. And what happened to break the code of silence, if there was such a thing? Was it the jealousy of neighbors who watched the boys come home in triumph and accept a check for one million pesos—most of it for a local youth fund but some of it to buy the young heroes their BMX bikes?

Nocum says that the presence of money is, as always, what blew the lid off the story. The boys whose names and birth certificates were used now want a royalty from the boys who played in their places. Faustino Ramacho, whose son's name was supposedly borrowed by Ernesto Vinarao, has reportedly complained about the paltry 100 pesos, T-shirt and pair of shoes he was said to have been given by the Vinaraos. That is the problem with corruption, of course. There is never enough to go around.

Ricardo Marcos Jr., the team's dandy little shortstop, should be in school, but he hasn't attended classes for more than a month. He says other students have called him a cheater. Ricardo seems even more melancholy than the rest, and when he is asked if this up-and-down world series experience has been worth it, he just looks away. It's beyond comment. What does he have to show for it? A BMX bike sits on his porch, but the handlebar swivels uselessly. It would cost money to fix. He has the cow, of course. But besides that, just shame.

He did receive a new glove in the mail from Andaya. Ricardo retrieves the glove from the house, along with a baseball, and allows himself to be drawn into a game of catch. Some grounders are thrown to him, the ball bouncing crazily in grass kept uneven by a pig, a goat and that cow. After a time Ricardo seems to lose himself in the back-and-forth rhythm. Certainly he is very nimble with that new glove. He comes up with the ball every time.



After winning, the players were rewarded with gifts and money. Shortstop Ricardo Marcos Jr.—if indeed that's his name—used his cash to buy a cow.



For the boys or Zamboanga, the joy or victory in Williamsport was snort-lived and, says Mendoza (above), ill-gotten.



[See caption above.]



Allan Bitun (top) and teammates (above, from left) Expedito Alvarez Jr., Marlon Pantaleon, Ignacio Ramacho and Jemar Alfaro are tainted heros on the fields where they grew up.



In the harbor of Zamboanga floats a culture marked by poverty as well as piracy.



The gear or Little Leaguers is a far cry from their first log hats and cardboard gloves.



Interpretations of the rules by Andaya (above) evoke memories of Golden Boy.



[See caption above.]



Ricardo now stays home with his parents to avoid school, where they call him a cheater.