More Than a Game

Story by: Jeremy Taché

The day was March 11, 2016. I was on a plane flying back to the United States from the Dominican Republic after a two-month internship at the New York Mets baseball academy in Boca Chica.

Fast forward one year, the day is March 11, 2017. I was in Miami for the greatest party I have been to as the Dominican Republic beat the United States of America 7-5 in an opening round game of the World Baseball Classic.

Before I get to the score and what actually happened on the field, let me explain to you what was happening in the stands of the approximately 37,000-seat stadium that we call Marlins Park. See, to the Dominicans, baseball is more than just a sport. It’s a way of life.

It’s God first, baseball second, and I think that might even be more of a “1a” and “1b.” Baseball is its own religion, and that shined through in the hysteria that was Saturday night’s game.

As a junior in college, I was fortunate enough to work with the Mets, teaching English to the Latin players in their farm system while at their academy in the D.R. I knew that I would be ingratiating myself in a new culture, but I never realized how electric that culture would be.

The Dominican people are constantly filled with a sense of pride and passion that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and it doesn’t change for anyone or anything.

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As an English language instructor at the academy, we not only focused on the language, but we tried to facilitate as much of the American culture as we could to these young men, so that when they come to the United States to play ball, it won’t be as difficult to assimilate.

Although the players did not always want to be in the classroom for very long after eight to ten hour days on the field, I could sense an eagerness to learn because they knew it was bringing them one step closer to their dream.

The best part about spending so much time with these young men was seeing their true love for the game and for life. Obviously, for many of them, baseball is a means to escape from poverty or a challenging home life, but what I saw was a true passion for the game. Like I said before, it was more than a game, it was a religion, and I wish we would appreciate that more here in the States.

Often times, people interpret flare in the game from Latin players as a sign of disrespect, but it just comes from their love to play the game we’ve all grown up with. That high energy, high enthusiasm attitude that many of these guys have towards life in the D.R. translates to the field, and it is a truly a beautiful thing to watch.

That love and passion was on full display at Marlins Park on Saturday night.

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The brotherhood that comes with being a Dominican baseball player was shown in full, and the fans’ enthusiasm accentuated that pride. From the moment I walked up to the stadium, I saw thousands upon thousands of fans celebrating just being at the game to represent their country. There were horns, and drums, and chants (“KLK CON KLK! KLK CON KLK!” I’d try to translate, but there’s no real way…so just know it’s freaking amazing) and even vendors selling “platanos” (the plantains that have become somewhat of a mascot for the country and team because of Fernando Rodney in the 2013 Classic). The party started before the game did, but it was put on hold for about 2 hours, once, you know, the actual baseball started.

Through the first five innings of this game everything was going the way of Team USA. Marcus Stroman was handling the Dominican lineup with relative ease, an error out in right-center field on a miscommunication from Starling Marte and Nelson Cruz cost the D.R. a couple of runs, and it looked like, when Edinson Volquez came out of the game, that the pitching was bound to fall apart for the Dominicans as well, as they went down 5-0.

But you can never count out the Dominicans, especially when their lineup features the likes of Manny Machado, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Adrian Beltre. In the bottom of the 6th, 24 year-old Manny Machado hit a moonshot to left against Tanner Roark, and even though it was a solo shot that only brought the game within four runs in a round robin game in the first round of the WBC, the stadium reacted like Machado had just hit a walk-off to send a team to the World Series.

The Dominicans added two more against Roark, who acknowledged that the sound coming from the fans affected him, before ending the sixth. The USA got through the seventh unscathed, and then they handed the ball to Andrew Miller, the most dominant reliever in baseball last season, in the eighth. I’ll be honest, as someone in crowd, I considered heading out in order to beat traffic. Clearly, I’m glad I stayed.

On a 2-2 pitch in the bottom of the 8th, a slider got away from Miller and clipped Jose Bautista on the top of his back foot. Carlos Santana then hit a ground ball up that middle, that, if maybe two feet to the right would have been a double play, but he reached on the single. That brought up the ever-powerful Nelson Cruz. Cruz stepped in and hit a three-run shot that hooked around the left field pole, ever so slightly– that as the ball was in flight, you could hear a pin drop. But then…indescribable.

Have you ever been somewhere so loud that not only could you not hear yourself talk, but you couldn’t even hear yourself think? That was what this was like.

The stadium was shaking, fans were jumping for joy, and the players were celebrating like high schoolers that had won a state title. It was the perfect embodiment of the youthful exuberance that baseball is supposed to represent. That game was baseball the way it is meant to be played and meant to be consumed. Starling Marte added another solo shot later in the inning, and the crowd went just as ballistic.

Maybe my favorite part of this mayhem was the graciousness of the fans after it was all said and done. Don’t get me wrong, they were talking as much trash as any fans do – if not more – but when I turned to a Dominican fan and smiled as he celebrated, he gave me a huge high five and I could tell probably wanted to give me a giant bear hug.

It was a celebration. It was a fiesta. It wasn’t the “oh! That’s right! YEAH,” that normally comes at the end of most traditional sporting events. It was pure joy over the fact that their team, their family, the children of their country, were having success.

On Friday, March 11, 2016, I came back from the experience of a lifetime in the Dominican Republic where I shared constant joy, a new culture, excitement, and happiness.

On Saturday, March 11, 2017 I got to relive it. I must thank the Dominican Republic and its people, and I can only hope to attend another sporting event in my lifetime that replicates that “platano power.”
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Featured image for this post courtesy of the New York Times 

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