Baseball ‘Prodigy’ Was Ready To Take The World By Storm, Until People Discovered His Secret

Baseball

In June 2008 Danny Almonte was growing desperate. Once touted as a can’t-miss prospect with a slider sweeter than sugar, the 21-year-old pitcher sat in silence. Each round of the MLB Draft was slowly slipping past, and his telephone wasn’t ringing. His mind raced — what could’ve happened? Where had he gone wrong? Well, Danny knew exactly when he had gone wrong: August 2001. That was when one impossible secret robbed him of his promising future.

“Little Unit”

In those days, Danny was known by a different name: “Little Unit.” This was a hat-tip to the awe-inspiring Hall-of-Fame pitcher Randy “Big Unit” Johnson. The moniker made sense. At 5’9″, Danny was one young boy you didn’t want to mess with on the monkey bars. But the place people dreaded seeing Danny most was on the pitcher’s mound.

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Professional Prowess

Danny’s repertoire featured the kind of stuff you only saw in the pros. That included a slick slider and a 76-mph fastball. Considering the Little League pitching distance of 46 feet, that’s like an adult throwing a 102-mph major-league pitch. So if Danny didn’t mess up, he was clearly destined for greatness.

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Pitching Phenom

Pitch after pitch, strikeout after strikeout, the Dominican-born Bronx native had quickly become the next great Little League phenom. The batters he faced could hardly do long division, let alone make contact with the kind of gas Danny was throwing. And people began to take notice.

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The Big Stage

Backed by his team — nicknamed the “Baby Bombers” because of how close they played to Yankee Stadium — Danny dominated the circuit en route to a Little League World Series (LLWS) berth. He even pitched a no-hitter in the 2001 Mid-Atlantic Regional finals in the process. “Almighty Almonte” appeared unstoppable — but the LLWS would be his biggest challenge yet.

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Making History

Danny was hardly fazed by the big stage, though. In front of a packed crowd, he pulled off the first perfect game in the LLWS in 22 years. And the team’s next matchup — against a squad from Oceanside, California — seemed as if it would be just as one-sided. But a 4’10”, 82-pound 11-year-old begged to differ.

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David vs. Goliath

The boy’s name was Matthew Cerda, and what he lacked in size he made up for in good old-fashioned baseball IQ. On top of that, his batting skills were remarkable for a kid his age. As he crossed to the plate to face the “Little Unit,” he was ready.

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Don’t Blink

Yet almost before Matthew could even blink, he’d struck out. Danny’s pitches looked almost supersonic, whizzing past in a formless blur only to land perfectly into the catcher’s mitt. It was almost as if a grown man was hurling on the mound. To some of those watching, something felt very wrong.

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Still in the Game

When it came time for Matthew’s second at-bat, three pitches was all Danny needed to once again send the 11-year-old back to the dugout. Even as Oceanside batters fell left and right, however, the Baby Bombers were only up one run as the final hitter squared up against Danny.

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Matthew’s Moment

That hitter, of course, was Matthew. He took the rival ace to a 2-2 count before making contact for the first time — and fouling the ball into the dugout. Finally, Danny pulled out his slider, sending the ball hurtling toward the plate. Matthew swung hard…

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Fates Intertwine

And struck out again. The Bombers rushed the mound in celebration, and Matthew retreated to the team’s transport to weep over his missed opportunity. But something happened in that moment that shifted the cosmic balance indefinitely. Soon enough, both of these boys’ fortunes would change forever.

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The Next Big Thing

While Matthew disappeared into the quiet comfort of his Oceanside backyard to continue training following the loss, Danny became nothing short of a celebrity. Baseball analysts touted him as one of the best young prospects in decades. Several major-league clubs even began recruiting him.

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Hometown Hero

He also became a hometown hero of sorts. Alongside his team, Danny enjoyed free trips to see the Yankees and got the key to the city from Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Danny no doubt relished in his newfound fame… but it wasn’t to last. And he never could have anticipated that the spotlight would uncover the one thing his father had kept hidden for a year: the truth.

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Searching For Scandal

During Danny’s Little League World Series run, many people had been suspicious about Danny’s presence. And after the tournament ended, two rival teams even hired private investigators to find out the truth about Danny’s past. But it wasn’t until two Sports Illustrated reporters traveled to the pitcher’s Dominican birthplace that Danny’s secret was revealed.

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Fraud

Danny’s “birth certificate” had listed 1989 as his birth year. But he’d actually been born in ’87 — making him 14 at the time of the LLWS. That meant that he was two years too old to have played in the competition. The scandal shook the baseball world to its core. But it was Danny — who was completely innocent and unaware of any wrongdoing — who paid the steepest price.

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Falling Apart

His father was sent back to the Dominican Republic and banned from Little League. Danny then seemingly fell out of love with baseball. To those watching, Danny no longer had the resolve or motivation to play. His pitching skills were not as sharp as before, and his personal life fell under scrutiny, too. The 2006 Draft didn’t help matters.

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Short-Lived Career

Once a “sure thing” draft choice, Danny was passed over in the 2006 MLB Draft. He ultimately signed to play for the Southern Illinois Miners of the independent Frontier League in 2007. He posted a 5.29 ERA in six games before being released — his professional career lasted just 34 days. But he didn’t give up.

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Bouncing Back

Danny managed to bounce back in a big way after joining the Western Oklahoma State junior college team, giving up his slider to perfect his other pitches. Behind his arm and a red-hot bat, Danny led his team to the Juco World Series — his big-league dreams were still within reach.

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Nothing But Silence

The Kansas City Royals even expressed interest in taking him in the 2008 MLB Draft. Yet on that fateful June day, the phone never rang for 21-year-old Danny Almonte. The same, however, couldn’t be said for that other Little League star from 2001.

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Hard Work Pays Off

Following his fateful LLWS appearance, young Matthew Cerda trained rigorously to prove he was more than just another Danny Almonte strikeout. Growing to 5’9″, 165 pounds, the young infielder smashed Oceanside records to become one of the nation’s most promising prospects — and, not long after, a professional ball player.

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The Best Revenge is Massive Success

While Danny’s phone sat silent, Matthew received a call from the Chicago Cubs, who drafted him in the fourth round as a catcher. For five years Matthew tore up the minor leagues. But after missing a season due to injury and working through several position changes, the 23-year-old decided to hang up his cleats for good.

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He felt lucky

Danny ultimately served as an assistant baseball coach at his old high school. Believe it or not, the former prodigy even said he’s glad his secret got out. And while he didn’t make it as far as in athletics as he initially planned, he probably knew that his reputation could have suffered much worse.

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Athlete under a microscope

See, Danny’s likely heard about other athletes who were nearly ruined by the court of public opinion. Just look at the media circus surrounding Australian champion sprint hurdler Michelle Jenneke. After years of training, the culmination of sweat and sacrifice came to a head at the World Junior Championships in Barcelona. But then, her warm-up routine caught the internet’s attention, creating a controversy that threatened her career.

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Lifelong Athlete

Australian athlete Michelle “Shelly” Jenneke, who’s 27 as of 2021, has spent her whole life moving her body. Whether it was dance or soccer, she’s participated in sports since childhood. But it wasn’t kicking, or swinging, or spiking that infatuated the brawny gal; it was leaping over hurdles.

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The Hurdling Event

“I was always a very sporty kid,” Michelle told Stellar magazine in 2017. “Pretty much any sport I could try, I would do. When I was nine years old, I signed up for Little Athletics. I didn’t train that year, I was just competing. Hurdles was always my favorite event, even though I wasn’t particularly good at it back then.” She practiced and practiced.

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Raw Talent

Eventually, she got good — really good. Her family supported her seemingly adamant passion, as she started professionally training for hurdling at the age of 10, initially just once a week. “It wasn’t until I made my first Australian team in the Youth Olympic Games in 2010, at age 17, that I realized I could compete professionally,” she stated.

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Racking up Titles

But in reality, Michelle was already making waves in her sport at just 15 years old. For two straight years she claimed fourth place in her race at Australia’s National All Schools Championships, and came in second place in the 100m hurdles at New South Wales All Schools Championships, amazingly hitting a time of 13.07 seconds.

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A Local Star

And to think she was still attending Hills Grammar School in New South Wales! She was already killing it, and there was plenty more to come. But things really started to change when she earned herself a silver medal at the Summer Youth Olympics in 2010. Local paper Hills Shire Times immediately took notice.

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Bouncy and Excited

Reporters from Hills Shire Times couldn’t help but pay attention to Michelle “bouncing and almost dancing behind the blocks before the start.” It was so adorable that they just had to probe her on it. “I wasn’t nervous, I was just excited and I felt great warming up. It made a big difference having familiar faces in the crowd,” Michelle responded.

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Enjoying the Experience

Having fun and feeling great seem to be themes in Michelle’s approach to being a star athlete. Heck, on the 2010 Youth Olympics website, she listed her “tip(s) on how to become a top athlete” as simply “enjoy yourself.” She was wise beyond her years — which got her into trouble.

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Gotta Go Fast

In 2011, Michelle nabbed first place in the Under-20 category at the Australian Junior Championships, and third place at the 89th Australian Athletics Championships. It was astonishing to see Michelle leap her way to the finish line just behind Olympic gold medalist hurdler Sally Pearson! Considering Sally is, according to her website, “one of the fastest 100m hurdlers in history,” Michelle was clearly inching her way to the top of the hurdling totem pole.

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Roll the Cameras

Not only was Michelle increasingly upping her game, but the attention on the spry teen was also growing. In fact, there were journalists galore at the 14th World Junior Championships in Barcelona in 2012. Michelle worked so hard to get there, and, just as she did for all of her races, she did her own personalized warm-up routine prior to the 100m hurdles event. It wasn’t long before cameras started rolling.

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Last-Second Warm-up

Her last-second warm-up routine at the start line was a tad bit different from the rest, as the other girls stuck to the basics, jumping and kicking out their legs. But Michelle’s was more… theatrical. With a huge smile on her face, and cameras instantly drawn to her, Michelle solidified herself as the main character of the race.

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Wiggly and Jiggly

Cameras caught Michelle doing a little dance of sorts right before her big race. She bounced and swung her hips, wiggled her fingers, kicked her legs, as if there was music playing in her head. It was utterly adorable, and we’re not the only ones who thought so. This became more apparent when the video made its way online.

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Media Recognition

Though she didn’t wind up qualifying for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, she gained viral internet stardom, all because of a warm-up routine she’d been doing since 2009. In the viral video, her hippy dance was set to the 1980s pop song “Boys” by Sabrina. She was a bright light, Business Insider even calling her “mesmerizing.” USA Today went on to note Michelle’s positivity, saying, “You have to appreciate anyone who enjoys themselves this much.”

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Bonafide Sports Star

The then-19-year-old was deemed a “sex symbol,” which was a little questionable. She was quick to land sponsorships with huge brands like Coke and Puma, and was also featured on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. She was a bona fide sports star — and opportunities started opening up.

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Sports Illustrated Model

Considering she was praised for not only her vibrant attitude, but also her girl-next-door good looks, the modeling world welcomed the dark-haired angel with open arms. Michelle landed herself a coveted spot in the February 2013 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, which was a big deal. “I looked at the pictures and I think, wow, is that really me?” Michelle said of the shoot.

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A Turning Point

Things were going swell for the young Australian, who amazingly wound up qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympics. She even had her stunning face plastered on billboards all across Brazil! But things that rise… also fall.

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Michelle’s Fall

See, Michelle’s little body could hardly keep up with her cheery champion reputation. Michelle prepared for the 100-meter hurdles, an event she knew so well, but shockingly came in 37th place at 13.26 seconds. Ouch.

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Disappointing Reporters

As you can imagine, Michelle was crushed by her own shortcomings, so much so that she shot down several reporters who asked her to do the viral warm-up dance for them. If she couldn’t run fast, and refused to perform her meme-worthy warm-up dance like a monkey, then what was she good for?

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Coach Craig Hilliard

She was already feeling down, so it didn’t help when head coach Craig Hilliard made public comments about Michelle’s performance. “It would be easy to suggest that [outside distractions] was possibly a scenario. It’s something that I need to discuss with her and go through with her… she certainly didn’t arrive here in the shape she should have arrived in,” according to AARP.

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Gut-wrenching Remarks

“If you are going to be half-baked at doing something, why are we investing in you? I can’t justify that,” the head coach continued. Oof. Not long after these gut-wrenching remarks, Athletics Australia (Australia’s national sporting organization) sadly cut her funding. 

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Not Her Only Plan

Michelle’s world crumbled around her, but since she was never a “woe is me” kind of person, she kept her head held high. After noting that she believes her rough performance could partially be attributed to the fact that competitors were prohibited from doing on-track warm-ups, she told news.com.au, “I’m still young, I still live at home, I’m still very comfortable there, I’m still at university, so at the moment athletics isn’t my only plan.”

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Looking Back

In 2017, the then-24-year-old went on to study mechatronic engineering at the University of Sydney and reflected on her experiences in the spotlight. “People can be very quick to build you up and then cut you down, but they don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. All they see is when you get out there on that track. A range of factors go on that affect performance,” she told Stella Magazine.

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Blocking Out the Noise

“People think that by doing my dance I’m trying to draw attention to myself. I’m not. It’s just what I do when I’m on the start line. I’m not going to change who I am or what I’m doing because people view it one way or another,” she continued. “If I’m happy with myself and my preparation, then I try not to let what other people say faze me.”

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Advice for Young Athletes

In 2018, Michelle relayed her advice for young athletes to The Beast. “I think the best advice I could give them is just to have fun and enjoy your sport. That’s really all I did. That’s the reason I’m still in the sport, just because I love it.” She’s a wise woman.

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