International pastime

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Close your eyes and listen to the sound. It's flags waving and drums thumping and hands clapping and voices uniting. It's Latin baseball, at its purest, introducing itself to the United States. It's inspiring.

In the middle of this symphony of cacophony came the Dominican Republic's 11-5 victory over Venezuela in the first round of the World Baseball Classic on Tuesday afternoon. Really, the game was just a footnote to its surroundings.

When baseball concocted the WBC, even the staunchest optimists couldn't have envisioned the scene at Disney's Wide World of Sports. It looked like a winter-league baseball game, only it meant more. It looked like a Premiership soccer match, only it resonated in the U.S. It looked like no sporting event – and certainly no baseball game – seen in this country.

And while David Ortiz and Adrian Beltre hammered two home runs apiece for the Dominicans, including one each in a ninth-inning surge that pushed the Dominican Republic's lead from one run to six, they weren't the stars Tuesday.

Steve Conkel was one. He made the best catch of his life. He'd scalped a ticket for $80 to sit on the lawn past the outfield fence. In the fifth inning, with Conkel's favorite pitcher, Carlos Zambrano, in the game, Beltre launched a home run over the left-field fence.

Conkel stood when he saw the crowd over the fence rise – when hundreds of Dominican flags started waving. The ball sailed into Conkel's hands, its gold embossing still intact.

"It landed so soft," Conkel said. "I feel the spirit here. I've never seen anything like this before. This isn't the baseball we're used to seeing."

He didn't have an allegiance to the Dominican or Venezuela. Just to baseball.

Unyque Rencher, on the other hand, was Dominican all the way. He trotted through the Dominican crowd along the first-base line and the concourse that was packed so tightly a piece of dental floss couldn't slide between two people, with the same message: Vamos (let's go).

The cheers started hours earlier in the parking lot, where fans tied flags around their necks to show their allegiance. Air horns blared, people danced and complete strangers hugged, just because they could.

Once inside the stadium, the loud turned louder. A group of Dominicans waded into Venezuelan territory with horns, blowing so hard for so long that their ears had to be sore. No matter how hard they tried, the small group couldn't match the chant that drowned it out: "Ven-ez-uela! Ven-ez-uela!"

"The beautiful part is, we all get along," Rencher said. "Look around. There's no fights. There's no one mad. We've just got pride. We've got baseball."

Rencher grew up in New York and played as a teenager with Manny Ramirez. When he bought his lawn seats for $14 a few months ago, he figured he could catch up with Ramirez during the innings. Ramirez pulled out of the tournament. So have dozens of others.

They surely must have regretted doing so after Tuesday's scene.

"We showed what Latin baseball's all about," said Johan Santana, the Venezuelan starter and losing pitcher. "That's what we do. We showed the passion for the game, how the fans appreciate everything we do on the field. It wasn't any different for me and all the players there today.

"In our countries, fans go beyond the game. It's not just about being a fan. It's about passion. It's about loving the game. When it comes down to that, Latin countries do a pretty good job."

That was Santana's kind way of saying the United States doesn't. He's right. Yankees and Red Sox fans trash each other. Dodgers and Giants fans would rather eat glass than intermingle. The atmosphere Tuesday was something foreign to domestic baseball, and it was why the WBC will succeed.

People really care.

"This was not good," Pedro Hernandez said. "Not at all."

Hernandez flew from Washington, D.C., to Orlando to meet his parents, who had jetted in from Caracas, Venezuela. They were all outfitted in Venezuelan yellow, and they all hoped Venezuela would move onto the second round with victories against Australia and Italy.

Because that would mean another game against the Dominican, another chance to beat the tournament's most fearsome team like it did in the Caribbean World Series this winter. This was a revenge game for the Dominican and its fans, and that was evident from the first pitch when Alfonso Soriano swung through a Santana fastball, to the last, when Julio Duran and his three friends swayed nervously.

Though Duran moved to Elizabeth, N.J., about 15 years ago, he never lost his Dominican allegiance. He wore Dominican regalia and cheered Dominican cheers, and when the Dominicans made the final out, he leapt again and again until he was too tired to move anymore.

"This," he said. "This is baseball."

A few minutes later, with hundreds of Dominican fans trying to steal a glance at Ortiz, the public-address announcer asked the fans to clear out and make room for the second game of the day. No one moved a muscle. They would march to their own sound.

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