SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – In the final hours of World Baseball Classic pool here, national teams from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic had a final game to play. They each had advanced to the second round a day before, so one of the sport's great rivalries would, for the moment, settle only tournament seeding, momentum and, perhaps, a few bar tabs down in Old San Juan.
While those in America seek wisps of proof the WBC means something – really means something – to anyone, the folks here filled Hiram Bithorn Stadium on Sunday night, screamed gleefully for the announcement of the Puerto Rican anthem and stood proudly when their players took the field against the favored and villainous Dominicans.
And the players, they got after it. For a better second-round draw, perhaps. For mother and flag and the fun of it, certainly. In places where baseball is not pastime but religion, these inspirations come with the game, and soon they'd both be off to Miami, land of WBC round two, higher pitch limits and Biogenesis.
There's another motivator to the winning, and the gripping moments within the winning, no matter the stakes. That is, the alternative can be a beast.
Not long before the Dominican Republic would get started on its 4-2 win over Puerto Rico, another Latin baseball superpower was enduring the sweat-soaked humiliation of explaining itself. In a large tent in the stadium parking lot, key figures of the Venezuelan national team endured the questions that come with losing to the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans.
The team's manager, Luis Sojo, arrived to the news conference surrounded by eight men – the head of Venezuela's baseball federation, the team's general manager and Sojo's six on-field coaches. Edwin Zerpa, the federation's president, sat to Sojo's left. The GM, Carlos Miguel Oropeza, sat to Sojo's right. The coaches stood shoulder to shoulder behind them, arms folded across their chests, gazes hard and defiant.
On the final day of pool play, with two charters bound for Miami waiting at San Juan's airport (neither for Sojo's men), and the nearby batting cages alive with the sounds of grunts and thwacks, this was not at all where Venezuela expected to find itself. This was the team of CarGo and Miggy, of Panda and Asdrubal. They had come to finish the job of four years before, when they'd lost to Korea in the WBC semifinals. Instead, they would slink back to their training camps and endure the hometown headlines that shouted their failures and called for the dismissals of their leaders.
Where is the WBC real? Where is it important? Where is losing a disgrace? In the faces of Sojo, his staff and their bosses. In the outcry from a nation that demanded more, and in its disappointment has turned on Sojo, once a baseball hero, and everyone associated with federation leadership.
In a news conference that was loud, hostile, and occasionally – in its tortuous rhetoric – amusing, the federation cited the purity of its course. It also bemoaned its lack of preparation time, pledged its support for Sojo (without ever actually inviting him back), and clung tightly to the outcome flutters intrinsic to the game.
It was pointed out to Zerpa that the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, both dependent on U.S. major leaguers, had endured the same in this very draw, yet advanced. Inside the tent, Zerpa wore sunglasses and a Venezuela cap that appeared to have been purchased from a hotel gift shop. He gestured a lot and talked more, and then he sounded like a man with a job to save – his own.
“Well, firstly, I want to state that we do not consider the participation in this event as a failure because there are many factors that can go wrong,” Zerpa said.
It sort of teetered on from there. A reporter whose question was deemed a touch on the soft side was shouted down … by another reporter. Through it all, Sojo stole glances at a nearby television, where the U.S.-Canada game was on. At the end of the news conference, hitting coach Andres Galarraga left the stage and was approached for an autograph … by a credentialed reporter. Galarraga signed her T-shirt.
Presumably there'll be plenty more questions where they're going, which is not Miami.
In their bus' rearview mirror, they might have caught the stadium lights flickering on for the start of a ballgame, the kind that can make the WBC so lovably engaging. In a place of song and dance and sticky floors, it was decided that Puerto Rico would play the U.S. on Tuesday night, after the Dominican Republic-Italy game.
"It's a bitter taste," Robinson Cano said, "to have to go back early."
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Mike Aviles homered for Puerto Rico, which sent the locals to euphoria. Cano homered for the Dominicans, which sent the locals to the beer lines and the rest into delirium. And then Puerto Rico lost for the first time in nine first-round WBC games. All of those have been played at Hiram Bithorn Stadium.
So, through the glee over advancing in the tournament, there may have been some sadness for that. It would dissipate, however, because it could have been worse.
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