Editor's note: Sadly, the tale of Fernando Rodney's magical fruit was a tad exaggerated by the Dominican closer. But the legend will live on.
SAN FRANCISCO – The Magic Plantain arrived on a flight from the Dominican Republic at 2 p.m. Monday, special delivery for Fernando Rodney. He brought it to AT&T Park, threw on his uniform for the World Baseball Classic semifinals, shoved the fruit in his beltline like a holstered weapon and strutted around Dirty Harry style, packing some serious Vitamins A and C.
It had a message for him, too, because what good is a piece of produce if it doesn't talk to you? "If you keep me close to you," the plantain said, according to Rodney, who did not indicate whether it spoke Spanish or English or maybe Fruitish, "you're going to get the win." And in this world of lies and cynicism, maybe what we truly need to bring us together is the Magic Plantain, a teller of great truths.
Rodney kept it close, except for when he had to go to the mound and pitch, because plantain might be considered an illegal substance, and a Magic Plantain definitely would trigger questions about illicit performance enhancement, which nobody wanted. Though, to tell another truth, this team from the D.R. needs no enchanted plantain nor a boost of any variety. Seven times it has taken the field in this WBC and seven times it has won, the latest a 4-1 victory against a plucky Netherlands team to reach Tuesday's WBC finals and set up a one-game showdown with its neighbor 80 miles to the east, Puerto Rico.
For a tournament that has looked more like the Caribbean Series, the wild crowds and in-game histrionics challenging stateside mores about the appropriate way to act at a ballpark and on the field, this is a dream finale. Granted, pitting Puerto Rico's Giancarlo Alvarado against the D.R.'s Samuel Deduno is like a Super Bowl with a pair of third-string quarterbacks. But that's not the point. This is, like everything about Latin American baseball, a celebration. And celebrate the Dominicans did.
Rodney wielding his .357 Banagnum is a prism into how Dominicans treat baseball. Like the plantain, the sport is an export the country holds sacred. And yet to approach it with the seriousness of a major league game lessens the inherent joy Dominicans are taught to revere. The WBC allows Dominicans to act Dominican, to blow horns and jump out of the dugout after big plays and, sure, carry around a freaking plantain that arrived after a seven-hour flight.
"It's like you're playing winter ball," Robinson Cano said. "You play your way, go out there and have fun, something you don't do in the big leagues."
How novel: Baseball and fun intermingling. You'd think this weren't some novelty, that by dint of adults playing a kids' game fun would be inherent. Among the money and media and fans and pressure and everything else, though, fun gets beaten out of players, and the idea of a Magic Plantain gets laughed off as something they wish they could do.
Want to know why the WBC is worthwhile, even for all its faults? Not because it shows the best baseball but because it shows a different brand of baseball that is refreshing and generous and somehow maintains its excitement even as it lacks pretense. Baseball, it teaches, can be fun and still mean something.
"You need to find a way," Dominican manager Tony Pena said. "How are you going to lose the stress? How are you going to keep your whole group of players laughing, keeping loose?
"So I got surprised when I saw Rodney with a banana, a plantain on the side. I think he pulled them out. I just laughed. Right in the middle of the game, this made everybody laugh. And the ballclub, the game like this, you need to have a little bit of fun. You need to find a way to loosen up. And I'm glad that he did it."
This is a loveable Dominican team, loaded with stars (Cano and Jose Reyes), clowns (Rodney and Pena, who as manager of the Royals once walked into a shower fully uniformed to try to snap them out of a losing funk) and a load of talent. After Dutch starter Diegomar Markwell shut the Dominicans down for four innings, they exploded for a four-run fifth sparked by Carlos Santana and Moises Sierra's back-to-back doubles and Reyes and Miguel Tejada following with singles. On came the Dominican bullpen with four scoreless innings, punctuated by Rodney closing a victory for the seventh consecutive time.
The Dominicans needed this after the last WBC, when the team crashed out of the first round with two losses to the Netherlands amid questions of commitment and preparation. Those players partied too much, treating the second round as a birthright, and their dismissal brought shame back home that to this day lingers.
"They're rough, the fans," said Moises Alou, the general manager for the D.R. "They take it personal. It's like Europe or South America with soccer. In the Dominican, it's the same thing. Hopefully, after we win, these guys are gonna be heroes for the rest of their life."
[Related: Seagulls know when it's closing time at WBC]
For now, just being champions is enough. Already they've beaten Puerto Rico twice. Rodney even has planned a celebratory dish for the clubhouse cook to whip up – using the Magic Plantain.
"We're going to eat it," he said. "Maybe we can make scrambled eggs."
Either that or mangu or tostones. Plantains, like this team, are excellent any number of ways. Though as much as the Dominicans want to claim the fruit – a sign in the stands referred to the Power of the Plantain, and throughout the week fans have brought plantains to the park to represent the team – another WBC participant has just as good a stake.
In Puerto Rico, they often talk about la mancha de plátano – the stain of the plantain. If you touch a green plantain, its skin will turn black, and Puerto Ricans see that stain more like a mark of their identity, something they can own that makes them uniquely Puerto Rican. The plantain is theirs as well, and considering the struggles of baseball in Puerto Rico, the final will mean just as much.
Seventy-four percent of Puerto Rican households tuned in to the ninth inning of their semifinal win against Japan. Every TV in the Dominican Republic will be frozen on the apex of this tournament from first pitch at 8 p.m. ET to the final out. And in this battle of neighbors, of Latinos, of baseball-mad islands, there is but a singular certainty Tuesday.
Only one team can go bananas.
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