By Owen Russell
Electric – no word can better describe the atmosphere around Miami since the moment I arrived for the World Baseball Classic. Maybe you’ve seen the games on TV (some thrilling, others massive blowouts) but the energy from inside the stadium has been unmatched.
For those unaware, the World Baseball Classic is the equivalent to soccer’s World Cup. Nations compete in a tournament to prove which country boasts the best baseball team. Originally slated to take place in 2021, this year’s tournament had to be postponed due to COVID-19. The tournament is supposed to take place every three years, and its organization can be a bit funky.
Twenty teams are spread out across four pools (five teams per pool). Each team plays four games, and the top two finishers from each pool advance to a single elimination knockout stage. The four host cities for the group stage are Taichung (Taiwan), Tokyo (Japan), Phoenix (USA), and Miami (USA).
Now with the housekeeping out of the way, it’s time to paint a picture of the vibes down here in South Beach. Pool D, the pool taking place in Miami, hosts the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Israel. Those following baseball understand how top-heavy this pool is. The Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela are stacked with MLB players. Heading into the tournament, all three teams were expected to make noise. Venezuela versus the Dominican Republic proved electric. But that’s not the game I saw this past Sunday, Mar. 12.
Israel vs Nicaragua… not necessarily two baseball powerhouses. Neither team is teeming with major league talent, fielding mostly unknowns for the world stage. Tickets were sold for as low as five dollars. The media made no fuss about the game, scheduling it for 12 PM on a Sunday.
My expectations were low. I was here for a baseball game. It didn’t matter who was playing. With the pressures of school and life squeezing my brain, I needed the comfort only a ballpark hotdog could provide. The place could have been empty for all I cared.
My expectations were immediately exceeded as I entered the stadium. Loandepot Park, home of the Miami Marlins, was packed to the gills with maybe the most passionate fans I’ve ever seen. As I entered, the Nicaraguan National Anthem began. The stadium stood at attention, hands on their hearts, but below the surface the place felt liable to explode. And that’s exactly what happened once the song ended through the last pitch.
Never have I been to a game where routine flyouts were met with such spirited celebration. The stadium leaned heavily in favor of Nicaragua. Anytime a Nicaraguan player made contact, the stadium was on its feet. If the Nicaraguan pitcher had two strikes on the opposing batter, the cheers threatened to blow the roof off the building. Nicaragua has a population of 6.8 million people (nearly two million less than NYC), and it sounded like all 6.8 million were in Miami.
I was swept up in the moment. I’m a sucker for underdogs with ultra-passionate fanbases. While Israel couldn’t be considered a powerhouse themselves, their lineup was sprinkled with a few major leaguers. Nicaragua’s lineup consisted of zero. Israel’s starting pitcher played 22 games for the Baltimore Orioles last year. Nicaragua’s starting pitcher was just assigned to the Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Double AA). You get my point. There’s usually no point cheering such an unaccomplished team, but Nicaragua kept the game interesting.
Nicaragua’s pitching platoon kept the game scoreless for seven innings. In the fifth inning, shortstop Steven Leyton doubled with two outs, scoring right fielder Sandy Bermudez. Entering the eighth inning, Nicaragua led 1-0. The stadium was bumping, and I was too.
The crowd reached a fever pitch as relief pitcher Jonathan Loáisiga reached the mound. Loáisiga is Nicaragua’s sole major leaguer; he’s pitched for the New York Yankees since 2020. I assumed, like most of Nicaragua’s fans, that this was the clincher. The pitchers before, the ones with zero major league experience, were able to shut out Israel for seven innings. Surely a New York Yankee can do the same for two.
It didn’t work out that way. Loáisiga lasted one inning, getting absolutely rocked by Israel. He allowed one walk, three hits, and three runs. The stadium fell silent for the first time all afternoon. Nicaragua failed to score in the ninth inning. Israel won 3-1. Game over.
As someone with no affiliation to either nation, I had no investment heading into the game. Again, just there for the baseball, but over the course of nine innings I became enthralled. The passion building with each strike, or each crack of the bat, gave rise to the same feeling within me. I know how hard it is to root for a bad team – I have been a Buffalo Bills fan since the early 2010s. It’s hard to get excited for a team which, on paper, doesn’t stand a chance. Even though Nicaragua may be the biggest underdog of the World Baseball Classic, their fans acted like they were the 1927 Yankees. Baseball can be beautiful that way. Sometimes you have to see it to believe it.