SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – The cabbie's face contorted with anger. He did not want to go near Hiram Bithorn Stadium. The fare was $25, so he relented.
Still, it pained him to be in such proximity to those lousy, good-for-nothing bums. He grew up in the Dominican Republic, and to see his country embarrassed by its World Baseball Classic team's loss to the Netherlands on Saturday … well, if he was going to drive by the ballpark, he needed to vent.
"Do they realize how stupid they make us look?" the driver said. "The whole country watch them, and the night before they all party in Isla Verde 'til 5 a.m., and … "
Whoa, now. Dominican manager Felipe Alou contended the players on his team "were very prepared," and shortstop Jose Reyes said, "We were focused," so perhaps the cabbie's passion lent to a nice, fat exaggeration.
And yet he swore it happened, and whether true or not, it illustrates what the players from the Dominican Republic, as much as any other nation, have riding on the WBC: everything.
So while Team Dominican's 9-0 victory against Panama on Sunday evening staved off its WBC elimination, it did little to take the sting out of the stunner against a bunch of Netherlands no-names. The Dominican Republic is an island beset by poverty, and to its 9.5 million inhabitants, baseball represents opportunity and unity and pride. Start a rumor about any players disrespecting that – especially the pride part – and it's bound to proliferate.
"You heard about it on the street," Mets shortstop Jose Reyes said. "How'd you guys lose?"
Understand, the apathy in the United States toward the WBC seems laughable to the Dominicans. Already Stan Javier, the team's general manager, is saying he won't be back for the 2013 tournament after catching grief around the country for assembling a team not up to Dominican standards, even though most of the issues – players dropping out, having a shortstop logjam with Hanley Ramirez and Reyes, trotting out too many young pitchers – aren't his fault.
And disenchantment seems to grip Alou more each day. At first, the reasons seemed obvious: He was simply flexing his old-man license. It's becoming more apparent that Alou is dissatisfied not just with the written rules of the WBC but the unwritten ones, like keeping star players at their given positions – and, thus, going entire games with either Ramirez or Reyes on the bench.
"I'm not aggravated," Alou said. "I managed in Montreal 11 years."
Sense of humor intact, Alou fiddled with his lineup Sunday, putting Reyes at the leadoff spot and allowing Ramirez to twiddle his thumbs. He batted journeyman Fernando Tatis third. Alou needed to do something. Lose to Panama, a team with Carlos Lee, Carlos Ruiz and a cadre of non-major leaguers not named Carlos, and you might as well have dropped humanitarian-aid packages of Paxil to prevent nationwide depression.
The players sensed the urgency and played like it. They parlayed two errors into three runs, then used three home runs – a pair from catcher Miguel Olivo and another from Texas Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz – to score six more. Johnny Cueto pitched well enough. So did four relief pitchers.
"Tonight," Olivo said, "I feel like the biggest man in the world."
As he should. Because in his world – in his country – this tournament means the world. Forget that Albert Pujols isn't here because of an insurance snafu, and that Alex Rodriguez isn't here because of his hip, and that Adrian Beltre isn't here because his team wouldn't let him.
This is about pride, and pride accepts no excuses.
David Ortiz and Jose Guillen showed up to take early batting practice. Jose Bautista slammed his bat when he popped up, even though it dropped for a single. Reyes kicked up dirt chugging down the line, failing to forget a text message his New York Mets teammate Carlos Delgado had written asking how the Dominicans possibly lost.
"I don't know," Reyes wrote back.
He knows only that the Dominicans should get another shot at the Netherlands on Tuesday, provided the Dutch follow script and lose to Puerto Rico on Monday. The Netherlands need Henricus van den Hurk – known stateside as Florida pitcher Rick VandenHurk – to fare better than he has against Puerto Ricans in the major leagues: the ones on the WBC team are seven for 18 with a home run and three other extra-base hits.
The Dominicans hope he gets bombed. They want to face the Netherlands again. They need to – for themselves and their country.
"We're way better than them," Reyes said.
He's right. They are. Of course, that means diddly to the people at home. Losing to an inferior team is even more infuriating.
So Alou, in between shots at the WBC, found time to reveal some perspective on how he takes such a down-and-out team, one with no confidence, no spark – and playing like there was no reason to be here – and turns it into a winner.
Well, aside from playing a miserable team like Panama.
"Patience," Alou said. "Patience."
It's not novel. It does fit. Because it's early in the tournament, and this team is just getting a feel for itself, and this is for the Dominican Republic, and for themselves, and … Hey, this time they want a good reason to party.
- Felipe Alou