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Ortiz reinforces his reputation as El Grande

3/9/2006

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- This wasn't just a baseball game. Not to these men.

Not to David Ortiz, a man who has never met a big moment he couldn't conquer.

Not to Miguel Tejada, a man who kept looking around this baseball field, wondering if he was dreaming.


Not even to the men on the losing team, men like Johan Santana and Miguel Cabrera and Ramon Hernandez. Men who knew exactly what this game meant to their country and their sport.

We know there are people in America who don't care that the Dominican Republic beat Venezuela, 11-5, in its World Baseball Classic opener Tuesday.

We know there are people out there who look at this event and don't get it -- and don't want to get it. But that's their problem. It's their loss.

All we know is that there has never been a baseball game quite like the one that unfolded Tuesday afternoon at Mickey Mouse's favorite baseball field, The Ballpark at Disney's Wide World of Sports.

It was a game started by two Cy Young Award winners (Johan Santana and Bartolo Colon). It was a game in which 14 of the 18 starting position players were men who had made at least one All-Star team.

It was a game in which a five-run Dominican lead almost disappeared, a game that nearly featured an international umpiring incident and a game in which Ortiz again reinforced his reputation as this sport's big-game player -- El Grande.

But that wasn't even the best part.

The best part of this game was that it wasn't just a game. Not to these men.

"We've dreamed about this for a long time," said Tejada, who played shortstop for this Dominican Dream team. "And I think every player has been doing the same thing -- not just the Dominican players but the players for each country. ... When we won, we all said in the clubhouse, 'What we did [in this game], we just did for our country.' Our country is so excited to have all our major league players playing.

"So this was their gift -- what happened today."

Well, if this was their gift, we'd like to report that, from the look of things, it was better than Christmas.

We have no idea how many of the 10,645 people in attendance were from the Dominican. But it sounded as if it was somewhere in the neighborhood of, oh, 700,000.

They didn't just cheer. They danced. Literally. They were the wildest, loudest, singing-est, flag-waving-est crowd ever to watch a March baseball game in Florida. That's for sure.

But then it wasn't just a baseball game. Not for them, either.

"The atmosphere out there," said Ortiz, "is something that pretty much every Latin person has going on in their blood. Everybody has a lot of passion for the baseball game. That's something that we live day by day."

But not every day could ever be like this day. The Dominicans had waited for this day for a month, waited since the moment the Venezuelans mugged them in the bottom of the ninth to win the Caribbean Series.


The players were different. The stakes were different. The site was different. But these two teams, these two countries, have been talking trash for a month, waiting for this rematch.

So even though the players and coaches tried to downplay the relentless talk about it from their fans and media hordes, the sights and the sounds told you all you needed to know.

You can go to many, many baseball games -- hundreds, thousands -- and not see what we saw Tuesday after it became clear the Dominican was going to win this game.

Out in the Dominican bullpen, major-league baseball players in uniform unfurled a giant flag, formed a circle and danced around their flag. While a game was still going on.

"You know, I saw that," Tejada said, rubbing his imaginary goosebumps. "They made me [have] chills."

And speaking of chills, have we mentioned David Ortiz lately?

How can one man have such a never-ending innate feel for the defining moments that present themselves in the course of a game, a season, a career? How can he keep finding ways to transcend those moments and turn these games into another scene from "The Natural"?

He put his stamp on two more of those moments Tuesday.

Second inning. Scoreless game. Ballpark vibrating. "PA-pi, PA-pi" chants ringing in 10,000 sets of ears. The incomparable Santana on the mound.

And then Ortiz unleashed that magic bat of his. A baseball splattered off the black hitter's background, way above the center-field fence. And the Dominican had struck first.

Now roll the tape forward seven more innings. A 6-1 Dominican lead had shrunk to 6-5 -- and easily could have been gone altogether, if not for a hotly disputed call that a seventh-inning Miguel Cabrera rocket off the top of the center-field fence had stayed in play for a double instead of cleared that fence for a game-tying homer. (Just for fun, get out your Spanish-English dictionary and look up "sucio" -- which is what the Venezuelan faithful were calling second-base umpire Dusty Dellinger.)

With Tejada on first and one out, up stomped Ortiz again. Out sprinted Venezuelan manager Luis Sojo, waving for Astros left-hander Carlos Hernandez, managing "by instinct," he said.

Ortiz worked the count to 3 and 2. People began rising in their seats all around the park, almost as if they knew what they were about to witness.

Hernandez tried to sneak a curveball past Big Papi. But here it came, hanging like a Picasso. An instant later, this baseball was finishing its long journey, soaring over the right-field fence, the Venezuelan bullpen and a chunk of parking lot -- then finally putting a dent in a TV production truck out there in satellite land.

Grown men sprinted up and down the aisles. Flags waved everywhere. "PA-pi" chants rattled eardrums. And more people were waiting for Ortiz at home plate than once waited for Lindbergh's airplane to land.

It was the end of the drama, the biggest blow of a five-run ninth inning and just the latest, greatest chapter in Ortiz's now-voluminous collection of outrageously heroic flashes of the bat.

"I never stop being amazed," said Tejada, one of Ortiz's closest amigos. "Every time he goes to home plate, I just have a feeling he can hit a home run. Just right now, I can enjoy it more because he's on my side. Now I don't have to wait till he hits a home run and get mad. Now I can enjoy everything he does."

Well, he can enjoy it for two more weeks -- and possibly seven more games -- anyway. This is one scary team these Dominicans can roll out there. And there are indications they will bring Vladimir Guerrero in to join the fun in the next round.

The Venezuelans, meanwhile, thought they'd assembled a pitching Dream Team designed almost specifically to shut the Dominican down. They ran two of the best starters alive -- Santana and Carlos Zambrano -- back-to-back Tuesday (because both had specifically asked to pitch against the Dominican). They thought they had those Dominicans right where they wanted them.

Oops. Instead, five Venezuelan pitchers combined to give up 13 hits, eight walks and 11 runs. So now, Sojo admitted, "obviously, it puts more pressure on us."

But if they can handle Italy on Wednesday and Australia on Thursday, it will get them what they want most -- a trip to the second round.

Where they will get yet one more shot at their rivals for Latin American baseball supremacy, the Dominicans.

And maybe not even for the last time. These two can even meet a third time, if they both get to the finals.

"I want to face them again," said Hernandez, "because I know that will be a big game. They beat us today. But hopefully, we can play them again -- all the way down the road."

Should that happen -- should they actually meet for the WBC championship, in a stadium (Petco Park) with more than 40,000 seats -- it will make that raucous scene Tuesday look like a trip to the library.

But for now -- for a Round One duel in the Florida sun, for men who have thought about what this day would feel like for years -- this was no mere baseball game. It was more. Much more.

"I just looked around," said Miguel Tejada, "and said, 'Wow, look where we are.' We waited for this moment. And now we've had this moment. And now I hope we can go all the way through to the end."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.