The Dominican flag flew with pride as the WBC proved its greatness

·MLB columnist
Dominican Republic
Nelson Cruz’s three-run home run completed Dominican Republic’s comeback against the U.S. (Getty Images)

MIAMI – On the first road trip of his career, when the 20-year-old Manny Machado was learning about life as a major league baseball player, an unexpected treat awaited him in the visitors’ clubhouse: La Bandera Dominicana. Translated, it means the Dominican flag. It’s actually the name of the Dominican Republic’s most classic comfort food: stewed chicken, red beans and white rice.

The gift came from Nelson Cruz, the slugger Machado’s Baltimore Orioles would face that night as they took on the Texas Rangers. Good Dominican food can be hard to come by on the road, so it has become a tradition among those spread around the league to take care of one another. Dominicans look out for Dominicans.

This bond is shatterproof. It dwarfs rivalries, eclipses games, forges identities. They are baseball players, yes, but above that they are Dominicans, and their heritage imbues the game, not the opposite. This, perhaps more than ever, was evident Saturday night, when the largest crowd ever to see a baseball game at Marlins Park came equipped with hundreds of literal Banderas Dominicanas and drums and horns and whistles and the spirit of a tiny, poor, proud island nation ready to topple the one that created the game.

The World Baseball Classic had offered its own gift: a first-round matchup between the Dominican Republic and the United States. And though the prospect of this would delight anyone with a keen or passing interest in the game, it still managed to exceed any expectations. Urged by a delightful cacophony that never ceded, buttressed by a baseball qi that operates just the same, the D.R. stared down a five-run deficit, rode resplendent home runs from Machado and Cruz, and thwarted the U.S. in a 7-5 victory that felt like it deserved to be played in October rather than March.

“Baseball,” D.R. manager Tony Pena said, “is a box of surprises.”

This box had everything. An outfield error that allowed Team USA to grab the lead. Pure dominance from American starter Marcus Stroman. Another burst of runs that gave the U.S. a significant advantage with 12 outs to go. Then a rejoinder that started with Machado’s glorious 435-foot home run in the sixth inning, continued with a run-scoring double the next to cut the deficit to 5-3 and peaked when Cruz yanked a slider from Andrew Miller, the devastating relief weapon who nearly pitched Cleveland to a championship last season, just inside the left-field foul pole for a 6-5 lead in the eighth.

Cruz didn’t so much trot around the bases as he floated. He skipped backward into first base, and as he coasted the last 90 feet, he placed his thumbs and index fingers in the shape of a diamond in the middle of his chest and spread his hands back and forth over the lettering on his jersey: DOMINICANA. At the plate, his teammates greeted him, hugged him, loved him, thanked him, because once again he had looked out for them with a swing he called bigger than any of the 16 playoff home runs he has hit.

“This is the top one,” Cruz said. “I cannot describe it. You play for a lot of teams. You move to different teams. And lots of fans. You play for your country, and no matter where you go, they’re going to follow you. They’re going to love you. We play for the country we love.”

Not only does that element fuel the Dominican team, it is the lifeblood of the WBC. And after Saturday, whatever watered-down skepticism about the tournament still exists deserves to evaporate. Venezuela’s 11-10 victory against Italy was riveting. Israel – a team made up almost exclusively of Americans whose glue, like the Dominicans, is their heritage and love of the game – beat Cuba to remain perfect. The game here, with scalpers fetching two or three times face, with the chants and genuine exhilaration impossible to deny, would serve as a riposte to anyone who dare accuse baseball of being a sport for the aged and infirmed. The Americans came into a ballpark in their home country and were the unquestioned road team.

“It’s like being a Yankee and going into Fenway, or vice versa,” Miller said.

The minus button on the volume had been pressed a few times until Roark left a 92-mph fastball on the inner half at Machado’s thighs. He extended his arms, met it in front of the plate and walloped it, nearly out of the stadium. The plus button had been pushed. The crowd never again took its thumb off it.

“That’s on me,” Roark said. “I’m supposed to go in there and shut ‘em down, get in and get out, get our hitters right back to the plate and keep that groove going, keep that feeling going, keep that momentum going. I felt like I did not do my job and not do my part.”

Even with three runs attached to Roark’s line, the U.S. took a 5-3 lead into the eighth. Manager Jim Leyland called on Miller. The Dominicans understood what that meant.

“It’s almost game over,” Cruz said.

The almost started when Miller threw a two-strike backfoot slider to Jose Bautista that actually hit his foot. Second baseman Ian Kinsler smothered a groundball from the next hitter, Carlos Santana, but couldn’t get Bautista at second. Cruz took a slider for a strike. He swung through another for a second strike.

“I’ve got so many different ways to get him out,” Miller later lamented, his third consecutive slider ending up in the bleachers and the game ending up in the hands of the Dominicans. At 2-0, they control Pool C and can guarantee a trip to the second round with a victory against Colombia on Sunday.

The only guaranteed scenario for the U.S. to advance is if it beats Canada in its final first-round match and the D.R. wins as well. Should Colombia upset the D.R., the U.S. would need a victory against Canada to force a three-way tie, with a tiebreaker based on runs allowed determining which team wins the pool and which two would face off in a play-in game Monday. Were Canada to beat the U.S. and the D.R. topple Colombia, there would be a three-way tie at the bottom of the pool, and the top two teams in the tiebreaker would play one another Monday.

It’s all a bit serpentine, so perhaps it’s best to save the what-ifs for when they happen and worry instead about the beauty of Saturday. And it was beautiful. The greatest thing to happen to baseball in the last 50 years is the proliferation of Latin American players. Their talent, their style, their ardor – it’s infectious, and the WBC offers the perfect platform to extrapolate the games that take place every winter in the Dominican Republic on a larger scale.

“This is how we play baseball,” Machado said. “This is how we’re raised to play. This is the only baseball we know.”

Machado beamed, giddy at what he’d just done in front of his hometown crowd. He was born in Miami, raised in Miami, but there was always another part of his identity, one that spoke to him. His family was Dominican. His history was Dominican. He was Dominican. And when given the choice to play for Team USA or the Dominican Republic, he thought back to what his late grandfather would’ve wanted, and he knew the answer.

Their bond went deep, too, and he would’ve been proud of Manny Machado on Saturday, proud of his country, proud that when they could’ve folded, they did anything but. Dominicans looked out for Dominicans, and all over Miami and beyond, La Bandera Dominicana flew with warranted pride.