When Jose Almonte was a youngster, growing up a block from a professional baseball stadium in the Dominican Republic, he and his friends used to watch the players, copy their styles and dream of playing major league baseball.

A few years later, Almonte, now a junior at Wilson High School in the District, is a bit closer to realizing that dream.

"I was about 5 years old when I first started playing baseball with my friends," said Almonte, who has matured into a muscular 6-foot-2, 195-pound catcher. "Back home, baseball was 'the thing.' Everybody played it. Sometimes we'd play in the schoolyard, pitching to each other against a wall, or sometimes we'd just play in the streets. It didn't matter where we played just so long as we were playing.

"It's still the same way for me now."

In 1980, when Almonte moved to Washington to be with his mother, he continued to play when he could, which wasn't often. He tried to find teams to join, but found the language barrier to be an obstacle. As a result, most of his time was spent improving his English.

"At first, I felt things were so bad I wanted to go back," said Almonte. "Back home I had a lot of friends and I felt comfortable. But when I came here I had trouble communicating with people so I stayed in the house a lot."

Three years later, however, Almonte finally got a chance to do what he loves most. And he took advantage of it.

"When I was living on 16th Street, a policeman called me up and asked me if I wanted to play baseball for his boys club team. At first I didn't want to, because I still felt a little uncomfortable with my English, but my father pushed me to do it.

"The policeman saw I had a strong arm and asked me if I wanted to pitch. I told him 'Sure' even though I had never pitched in a game before. A few days later, he had me pitch against another boys club, and I threw a no-hitter the first time out. After that, I started playing baseball a lot more again."

Fortunately for Wilson. In just his second season on the team, Almonte has become a star. Batting cleanup, he leads the Tigers in home runs, runs batted in, hits and runs scored. His average, also best on the team, hovers around .500. All this, and he has struck out only four times.

Last season, as a 10th-grader, he won the catcher's job immediately and batted .452. Although he doesn't pitch for Wilson (he has become more valuable as a catcher), he may be the major reason the Tigers entered this week's games in first place in the Interhigh League's Western Division with an 11-5 record.

Wilson's Richard Janigian, who has coached baseball and basketball for 23 years, calls Almonte "one of the best players I've ever coached" and says he has potential that extends far beyond the high school game.

"Jose is an extremely talented player. I honestly feel that he is major league material," said Janigian. "He's got all the tools: a powerful arm, an excellent bat, decent speed and the dedication to continue improving himself. Plus, his attitude is terrific."

All of this is not lost on his teammates. Guy Kirk, a senior pitcher for Wilson, praises both Almonte's talent and his work ethic.

"It's easy to see that Jose plays the way he does because he loves the game," said Kirk. "He's like a throwback to the old days. He likes playing hard and getting dirty. Even in practice, he's always out there getting extra work in. That kind of attitude sets a good example."

Being raised in the shadow of a professional ballpark meant that he did not have to look far for inspiration. And no Dominican player inspired Almonte more than Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Tony Pena, who spent some time playing in his native country before breaking into the major leagues. Almonte speaks admiringly of the player he calls a "Dominican hero."

"There's no question Tony Pena is my idol. I would love to be the player he is," said Almonte, who even bears a slight resemblance to his hero. "As a defensive catcher, there's nobody better than Pena. I've even tried to imitate his style a little, especially the way he moves around behind the plate. He's so confident."

So is the 18-year-old Almonte.

"I believe in myself," he said. "I think I can make it to the major leagues. That's my dream, and I'm not giving up on it yet.

"Most guys who play high school and college ball don't feel in their hearts that they're capable enough to make it, but I do. That's why I play hard all the time. I know that if I'm going to make it [to the major leagues] I'll have to believe in myself."