Commentary

Team USA provides memory of a lifetime

Fan becomes part of celebration after U.S. finishes dramatic comeback

Updated: March 18, 2009, 12:40 PM ET
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- Brian Finnegan was only doing his job on Tuesday night when he saw Felix Perez in the handicapped section of Dolphin Stadium. Finnegan's son, Tommy, had spent his life in a wheelchair battling cerebral palsy, and recently had passed away at age 20.

So when Finnegan, working security for the World Baseball Classic, realized that Perez was hoping some of the players would sign his American flag, he didn't hesitate.

[+] EnlargeFelix Perez
Courtesy of Felix PerezFelix Perez (center) holds an American flag and poses with Team USA players in the clubhouse after Tuesday's victory.
"It was like divine intervention," Finnegan said. "In some ways I saw Tommy in Felix and wanted to help."

Finnegan took Perez's flag -- the one Perez carried with him through tours of Afghanistan and Iraq as a sergeant with the 82nd Airborne -- and brought it into a raucous clubhouse filled with American players who were wearing that flag on their chests. The players had just scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning, the last two coming on a David Wright single, to avoid elimination at the WBC and secure a 6-5 win against Puerto Rico, and now they were partying together as a team.

Finnegan came into the clubhouse and announced that there was a veteran who'd love to have his flag signed.

"We said, 'Send him in,'" Jake Peavy said.

And so Felix Perez, a self-described die-hard Mets fan who had just watched Wright deliver the game-winning hit, came to a baseball game on Tuesday night hoping for a Team USA victory, and got not only that but also a first-class pass into the den of the players who were playing for the country whose flag he traveled with throughout his tours of service. For 20 minutes, Perez was part of the fraternity.

"I felt like I was one of the guys, felt like I was in the barracks again," said Perez, 27, who didn't want to discuss how he was injured, the memory too painful.

The players wanted to know what Perez thought of the win.

"You guys gave me a [expletive] heart attack," Perez told the big leaguers.

The room erupted into laughter and cheers.

Perez has been out of the Army for about four years after six years of service; he joined right out of high school at 17 years old. He said that when Wright came up to the plate, he knew Team USA was going to win. He closed his eyes, heard the ball leave the bat and knew it was over. Then he was spotted by Finnegan, who brought him to the players who embraced him as if he were one of them.

"That's what we play for," Peavy said. "It was so awesome to have him in there. We draped the flag over him and took a picture with him. I was so proud to be playing for the United States."

[+] EnlargeTeam USA
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesTeam USA was ready to celebrate after scoring three times in the bottom of the ninth to knock off Puerto Rico and advance to the WBC semifinals.
Perez had attended the U.S.-Puerto Rico game on Saturday. Once Team USA beat the Netherlands, he called Ticketmaster the next day and purchased three tickets, bringing along his sister, Jessica, and their dad, Felix Sr. Once the game ended, Felix Sr. went to get the car, as Jessica and her brother waited to see if they could get his flag signed.

Then Finnegan stepped in.

Jessica waited outside the clubhouse with two American flags in her hand while her brother was inside for about 15 minutes. She realized he had the cell phone, and their dad had no idea what was happening inside.

"It's pretty amazing," said Jessica, who says her family is Cuban and now lives in Miami. "My dad's out by the car. Probably thinking we're crazy."

When Perez emerged from the clubhouse, he was beaming. The players gave him a Team USA hat, and Perez was already wearing his own matching sweatshirt. One of his best memories from being in the clubhouse was his interaction with Derek Jeter, who was asking Perez about his tours in the Middle East. Jeter then asked him where he was from.

"I grew up in North Bergen, N.J.," Perez told Jeter. "I'm not a Yankee fan, but I like you."

As big a Mets fan as he is, Perez said he'd take a World Baseball Classic win over a World Series for the team from Flushing.

"It's because you're representing your country," Perez said. "What's more honorable than representing your country?"

For many who questioned whether the WBC meant something to the Americans, there is no universal answer. Team USA still is not drawing people to the park, and the fans for other countries have outweighed those for the Americans. But on Tuesday night, when a security guard saw a man who evoked memories of his own son's struggle, the purpose of this World Baseball Classic was clear.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com.

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