Classic spirits run high

Flags, fans abound as Dominicans top Venezuela in WBC opener

March 08, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Blowing plastic horns and waving blue-white-and-red Dominican Republic flags, the parade of 10 strutted down the steps behind the Venezuelan dugout at Disney's Wide World of Sports yesterday.

An hour before the first pitch of this game in the inaugural World Baseball Classic - a game eventually won by the Dominican Republic, 11-5 - this group of Dominican revelers was purposely in enemy territory. They were there to make noise.

The Venezuelan fans heard the interruption and immediately responded by chanting "Hey, Venezuela, Hoo," to drown out the bleating horns. Finally, a couple of Venezuelans ran over to the interlopers and wrapped them in a yellow Venezuelan flag.

There were cheers and laughs. No punches thrown or security guards needed. This, after all, was Disney, not Yankee Stadium. This was the World Baseball Classic, not the American League Championship Series.

Ear-poppingly loud and intense, but impressively civil all the same. There was singing and flag-waving and dancing in the aisles. A salsa party at a baseball stadium.

"The atmosphere out there is something that pretty much every Latin person has going on in their blood," said Dominican David Ortiz, who had two homers and three RBIs in the game. "Everybody has a lot of passion for the baseball game."

The passion goes beyond cheering for their own countrymen. Thirty minutes before game time, Atlanta Braves outfielder and Baltimore native Brian Jordan attempted to walk through the concourse to a stadium elevator.

Jordan, whose Braves train at the Disney complex, wanted to watch the game and figured he'd go unnoticed through the crowd. But one fan recognized him and asked Jordan to sign a hat. Moments later, he was mobbed by Dominican and Venezuelan fans posing for pictures and thrusting baseballs at him to sign. It took him more than 15 minutes to walk past three sections of seats.

"That was unbelievable. They love their baseball and they know their players," Jordan said. "I felt like Michael Jackson going up there. Jeez."

Along with the United States, which is in the opposite bracket, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela are considered the favorites in the 16-team tournament. And their fans love the burgeoning rivalry.

Venezuela beat the more accomplished Dominican Republic in last month's Caribbean World Series, and the two likely will meet again in the second round of the Classic and perhaps a third time in the semifinals.

Yesterday, the Dominican Republic started pitcher Bartolo Colon, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, while Venezuela countered with Johan Santana, the 2004 AL Cy Young winner. An impressive beginning for what, technically, is an exhibition.

"This is different," said Dominican general manager Stan Javier, a former major leaguer. "You are not playing for a city or a team. You are playing for your country."

Orioles shortstop and Dominican Republic native Miguel Tejada said the atmosphere rivaled Caribbean World Series games for intensity and crowd fervor.

"It was the same," Tejada said. "In the Caribbean Series, you have to play hard every inning. And every out is important."

It wasn't a particularly good day for Tejada, whose only hit came on a bunt in the ninth. He struck out three times and nearly hurt himself badly.

While charging a grounder in the eighth, he tweaked his right knee. He made the play, but came up hobbling. He said he initially was scared, but the pain subsided.

"The doctors checked me and said I was fine," Tejada said. "I feel no pain."

The same can't be said for new Orioles catcher Ramon Hernandez, who walked into the interview room with two large ice packs wrapped around his right forearm. Hernandez, Venezuela's starting catcher, was plunked with a Julian Tavarez pitch in the seventh inning. He remained in the game, and said X-rays weren't needed.

"It's sore right now. Hopefully, it's a little bruise," Hernandez said. "If it is a bruise you can live with it."

He said he wasn't sure if he would be able to play in tonight's game against Italy.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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