MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – The flag traveled around the world and through the deserts of Afghanistan and Iraq. Sgt. Felix Perez brought it from home as a reminder and an amulet. The flag never left his Army backpack.
It accompanied Perez to Dolphin Stadium on Tuesday night. He needed some luck for his team, the United States, in its must-win World Baseball Classic game against Puerto Rico. Perez wore a Team USA hat and a Team USA hoodie, and his little sister, Jessica, draped his flag across her shoulders. The United States' 6-5 come-from-behind victory in the ninth inning sent them into a frenzy. She danced around. He sat in his motorized wheelchair and roared.
On the way out, the 27-year-old Perez placed the flag in his lap and leaned over to a security guard manning Gate G. He was hoping some players from Team USA might sign it. The security guard led Perez and his sister to the U.S. clubhouse, and the flag went inside.
"The next thing I know," Perez said, "I'm getting called to come back in there."
And so began the coolest 30 minutes of Felix Perez's life. On an evening when he felt especially proud to be an American – when a group of his sporting heroes wearing his country's name across their chests banded together to win a game they had no business winning – Perez found himself surrounded by them, doused with celebratory Miller Lites, with the American flag that was with him during the worst moment of his life passed around the room and signed by every player on the team.
"Everybody," Perez said.
Then they handed him a ball filled with signatures.
"Everybody," Perez said.
The half-hour went too fast. Jimmy Rollins, who scored the winning run, wanted to chat more. David Wright, who drove it in, couldn't hear enough about how the New York Mets are Perez's favorite team. Almost half the team surrounded Perez for a photograph, the flag draped around his torso, a smile on every face, and none brighter than his.
"I'm just happy to see him happy," Jessica said.
It's been four years since Perez returned from the Middle East, where he spent four years. He enlisted after his 17th birthday and was in Afghanistan by the time he turned 20. He doesn't like to talk about his injury. Some wounds don't heal.
Perez played ball growing up in North Bergen, N.J., and still loves watching the sport. He attended Team USA's first WBC game here, an 11-1 mercy-rule loss to Puerto Rico. When the Americans beat the Netherlands to stay alive, Perez woke up at 9 the next morning, called the box office and bought three tickets.
The stadium, practically empty at first pitch, filled to 13,224 by game's end. It deserved more eyes. Puerto Rico scored in the sixth inning to break a 3-3 tie and tacked on an insurance run in the ninth for a two-run lead. The Americans, about to get bumped from the second straight WBC before the semifinals, needed something divine. Shane Victorino singled to right field. Brian Roberts singled to center. And then Roberts, who had joined Team USA just two days earlier to replace the injured Dustin Pedroia, stole second base – even though coaches laid down the hold sign. Roberts hadn't quite learned the signs yet.
A walk to Rollins, and another to Kevin Youkilis, and the U.S. had cut the deficit to one run. Wright laced a 2-1 pitch from Fernando Cabrera down the right-field line, and out charged all of Team USA, from the bench and the bullpen, in a bull rush to home plate, then to greet Wright. His teammates kept pushing Wright, joyous and unbridled shoves, until he fell down and they buried his face in the dirt.
"I never thought that we'd be dog piling in March," Wright said.
No one did. The malaise that clouded the previous games involving Team USA seemed infectious. For every Felix Perez, there were dozens, sometimes hundreds, of fans rooting for the opposing team. Every WBC game thus far, even the ones in Florida, felt like it was on the road.
Not even that dampened the Americans' enthusiasm. They play Venezuela on Wednesday to determine seeding in Los Angeles, where they'll face either Korea or the winner of Wednesday's Japan-Cuba knockout game – and perhaps with a few more supporters who can appreciate what Team USA accomplished Tuesday.
"That was the greatest game I've ever been a part of," catcher Brian McCann said. "Ever."
Same went for Perez. He said he would rather Team USA win the WBC than the Mets win a World Series.
"We're the U.S.," Perez said. "This is our game. … This is the world. You're representing your country. What is more honorable than representing your country?"
Team USA's manager, Davey Johnson, grew up an Army brat, his father a prisoner-of-war in World War II.
"There is nothing more honorable," he said.
Wright was raised near Naval Station Norfolk, one of the largest military bases in the country.
"When you see those guys and get a chance to see how much it means to them, that makes it extra special," he said. "They take a lot of pride in that red, white and blue, and to have USA across your chest and have supporters like that – that's what this tournament means."
Outside the clubhouse, Perez started moving toward the stadium exit. His dad, Felix, had called. He was wondering where Perez and Jessica had gone. They were headed back to the car, Jessica said. They had a pretty amazing souvenir.
A minute later, Rollins walked by and spotted Perez.
"All right, baby," he said. "Keep a smile on your face."
"Hey," Perez said, "as long as you keep swinging the bat, I'll be happy."
Perez lifted his right arm as high as he could to wave goodbye. He wasn't sure he'd see these guys again. He said he might fly to Los Angeles for the finals. He doesn't know.
Perez moved his hands onto the flag. It's a struggle, but he wanted to touch his prize. He plans on hanging it next to his other American flag, the one his friends in the 82nd Airborne sent to him when he was injured.
The old flag's traveling days are over. Sgt. Felix Perez brought it to his home Tuesday night as a reminder and an amulet. The flag never will leave his heart.