Sticky Mickey: Could Bronx scandal have halted local film?
A Little League pitcher leads his team to the World Series, but papers falsified by his father make the star appear younger than he really is. This is the story of Danny Almonte, the Bronx Baby Bombers' pitcher who ran afoul of age regulations causing his team to be disqualified in the big game.
But it's also the story of "Mickey," the title character of a G-rated flick created by two local media titans– before the real-life scandal broke in the Bronx.
The pet project of Albemarle media giant Hugh Wilson and best-selling author John Grisham, Mickey chronicles the tale of a Virginia lawyer, played by Harry Connick Jr., who, in an attempt to escape IRS scrutiny, whisks his son to Nevada, forges fake identification papers, and plunges into a fresh start.
While director Wilson says the fact that the film is still unreleased has nothing to do with the Bronx scandal, studio executives could be forgiven if they found Mickey's feel-good spin on age deception just a little too close for comfort to recent tawdry events.
In August 2001, Sports Illustrated reporters discovered there was more than raw talent behind the 75 mph fastball that led Danny Almonte from an impoverished childhood in the Dominican Republic to the Little League World Series. Almonte was two years older than his father claimed. The scandal forced his team to give up its titles, and his winning-obsessed coach was permanently banned from the Little League.
If the motives differ, other aspects of the real-life and on-screen dramas share strikingly similar themes.
"When the season is over, all Little League dads wish they had just one more year with their sons to play on the small field," Grisham told the Associated Press last year. "That's what this was about: how to get one more year with your kids on the ball field."
Mickey's filming concluded by the summer of 2001, but the movie has yet to hit theaters, leaving film buffs and baseball fans to speculate about the delay. When Twentieth Century Fox/Regency screened the film in front of young audiences in Burbank, California, viewers male and female "loved it," according to Wilson.
Test audiences, however, are so far the only ones who have seen the film. The creators had hoped to have Mickey released by now, but Wilson and Grisham have been unable to land a distributor they consider satisfactory.
"We've had some offers," but nothing compelling, says Wilson, who had hoped for a large distributor "along the lines of Disney." In the meantime, the project languishes.
Mickey certainly has the ingredients for success. Wilson is the mastermind of the original Police Academy as well as the continually popular 1970s television series WKRP in Cincinnati.
And although he lives here in Farmington, Wilson is a top name in Hollywood, where he has worked with such stars as Whoopi Goldberg, Sarah Jessica Parker, Shirley MacLaine, Brendan Fraser, and Nicolas Cage. His writing and/or directing credits include such box-office hits as First Wives Club, Guarding Tess, and Blast from the Past.
What's more, Wilson had the personal and financial investment of the world's #1-selling author of books for grown-ups, an "old country lawyer," as Wilson calls him, John Grisham. (Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling may be #1 in total sales.)
Although Wilson says Grisham bankrolled the film to the tune of $5 million, the author's predilection for baseball suggests that Mickey was a labor of love for the prolific novelist. As a parent, Grisham co-founded a baseball team at St. Anne's-Belfield, his children's school, and coached daughter Shea and son Ty through years of youth baseball and softball.
"My Little League record isn't so good," Grisham admitted in USA Today, pointing to the losing records of local teams he coached, like the "Raiders" and the "Pirates." (His coaching must not be too bad, as son Ty has been a varsity baseball player at UVA since his 2001 matriculation.)
But the novelist who earned $28 million last year, according to Forbes has found other ways to contribute. In response to what he saw as a deficiency in local facilities, Grisham built a six-field state-of-the-art youth baseball complex at Covesville in the southern part of Albemarle County in 1996. And while no one at UVA will confirm or deny his involvement, a certain anonymous donor recently anted up $2 million to help UVA build new stands and add other improvements at its baseball park.
In Mickey, Grisham's fascination with the sport took him out of the stands and onto the field. If the film is ever released, it will mark the debut of Grisham as a screenwriter and as an actor. In a cameo as a Little League commissioner, Grisham delivers two lines.
With the multi-talented Connick beside fresh-faced newcomer Shawn Salinas in the title role, this American parable about family and sportsmanship looks like such a winner that when Wilson shot scenes in Grisham's complex in Covesville, 300 locals endured the searing heat of a treeless field in Central Virginia to be extras.
"This is a real kind of middle-America baseball story," says Wilson. "There's nothing 'hip' or 'happening' about it which John and I are proud of."
The support of the generally endorsement-shy Little League was yet another hint that Mickey was expected to score big.
"For 60 years, the marks associated with Little League have grown to represent all that is good in youth sports," says Little League president Stephen Keener, whose non-profit group typically steers away from commercial ventures.
When Grisham approached the league with his screenplay, Mickey became the first motion picture since 1958's Little Giants to secure permission to use Little League baseball's name and trademarks. According to Little League spokesman Lance Van Auken, the organization believes that Mickey "helps convey Little League values."
It would even seem that the film's celebration of American values would make it particularly appealing in a climate of surging patriotism. So why haven't studios snatched up the film?
Aside from the tentative suggestion that recent months have seen an excess of baseball movies like The Rookie starring Dennis Quaid, the Virginia Film Office was unwilling to venture any theories.
The director notes that while Harry Connick Jr.– best known for his Sinatra-style crooning– is a talented lead, his name might not be enough to win over distributors.
"If John Travolta was in it, maybe..." Wilson trails off, wisely refraining from disparaging his lead.
Wilson also attributes Disney's and others' reluctance to last year's anticipated movie strike, which sent filmmakers scrambling to beat the industry shutdown.
"Everybody made a lot of movies; then the strike didn't happen," says Wilson. Studios were left with a glut of films, and, Wilson suspects, little interest in G-rated flicks like Mickey, which lacks the seemingly requisite violence, obscenity, sexuality, and special effects.
Even without a star of Travolta's magnitude on the bill, the film's writer and director remain optimistic that Mickey is more than just another unpleasant reminder of Little League corruption. "We're confident that maybe next summer it will roll around, and we can make a better deal," says Wilson, speaking on behalf of Grisham, who could not be reached for comment.
Little League spokesman Van Auken hopes that the movie will be in theaters next fall. "We don't want all that work to go to waste," he says. And Scott Todd of Slone Inc., which handles Little League licensing, guesses that far from rendering Mickey too close for comfort, Almonte's Little League woes in fact "probably would have helped the movie."
The writer and director aren't the only ones holding their breath for the film's release. Before the project stagnated, Shawn Salinas, the young actor cast as Mickey, had credits including Nickelodeon's hip-hop-influenced comedy sketch show, All That. In other words, he seemed to be slated for certain stardom.
The young actor gave an interview to a webpage called alienentertainment.net that hails his imminent fame with pictures from the set of what should have been his big break. You guessed it: Mickey.
Soon after the filming wrapped up in the summer of 2001, Salinas made appearances at community events including a Richmond Victorian Day parade. Lately, however, the would-be star has been hard to find. Neither Salinas nor his agent returned phone calls.
And then there's Almonte. Unlike the fictional Mickey, whose story wraps up with moral redemption, Almonte's post-Little League life looks considerably grimmer. In the face of a national scandal and evidence that his father falsified Dominican records, Almonte continued to insist he was 12. When the teen celebrated a birthday in April of this year, his cake appropriately had two numbered candles: a 13 and a 15.
It gets worse. Two days after his birthday, Danny's godmother and the former spokeswoman for the Bronx team, Joan Dalmau, committed suicide.
Almonte's tragedy and notoriety will be hard to outgrow. The pitcher's former team lost its Little League charter. And the entire controversy has resulted in tighter Little League rules for residence and birth documentation.
Before her death, Dalmau told the New York Daily News about Danny's post-baseball career aspirations. "He wants to be a lawyer," she said. "He doesn't look the lawyer type, but you never know."
Meanwhile, Grisham and Wilson's next project, a film adaptation of Grisham's latest bestseller, Skipping Christmas, has been tabled while the director begins work on another project. "I can't talk about it," Wilson says, "but I'm excited."