World Baseball Classic a Party in Miami for Latin American Teams and Fans

MIAMI — Impromptu dance parties broke out in the concourses. A player banged a drum in the dugout while countless fans did so in the stands. Flags waved from the seats and hung over the railings. The usually sparsely populated stadium was filled with people, roars and music. No strike was too small to celebrate. Sitting was optional.

The setting was loanDepot Park, but what happened in and around the home of the Miami Marlins on Saturday and Sunday — the first two days of Pool D play of the World Baseball Classic — could just as easily have been scenes from San Juan, P.R., or Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

Miami is often called the capital of Latin America, and it certainly felt that way when the national teams of the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and Venezuela — which all have large representation in South Florida — opened play in the W.B.C., the quadrennial two-week tournament held during Major League Baseball’s spring training.

This tournament is the social gathering for many Latin American baseball fans. The first four games in Miami served as another example of how the sport is ingrained in those cultures and how differently it is experienced.

“This is our World Cup,” Omar Prieto, 28, a native of Puerto Rico, said in Spanish, alluding to the soccer tournament that is the globe’s most popular sporting event. Along with his father and girlfriend, Prieto flew from Puerto Rico and landed two hours before the first pitch of the team’s game against Nicaragua on Saturday afternoon.

“I’m full of pride,” added Luis Gonzalez, 36, a Nicaraguan who lives in Sweetwater, a city in Miami-Dade County nicknamed Little Managua for its high concentration of Nicaraguans. “This represents all Latinos. This is something that people like me are also living, people who have emigrated here from Latin America, and having the W.B.C. here in Miami is a great experience.”

Prieto and Gonzalez each said this while sitting in adjacent sections of the stadium’s lower bowl. They didn’t know each other but engaged in friendly banter during Puerto Rico’s 9-1 win.

In Section 23, Prieto, his brother, who lives in Miami, and his brother’s friends formed part of an ensemble of seven drums, a bell and a güiro, a notched hollow gourd played by rubbing a stick against it. And all throughout the game — but particularly after notable moments by their team — they played the instruments and sang a range of Puerto Rican chants, sometimes while staring at the Nicaraguan fans to their left.

“I’m Boricua, so that you know,” they chanted in Spanish while dancing at or on their seats.

Whenever the Nicaraguan team had a key hit or got a big strikeout, Gonzalez and his group of a dozen friends in Section 24 banged empty plastic bottles against their seats, twirled wooden ratchets and pointed at their nearby Puerto Rican counterparts. This continued throughout the afternoon, the sides laughing at each other and sometimes dancing to the other’s music.

“This is spontaneous,” Gonzalez said. “It’s you and me, and me and you. You feel that emotion of Latinos enjoying this together.”

Gonzalez made it a priority to attend these games — he took off from work Monday and Tuesday — because he didn’t know if and when the first-time W.B.C. participant Nicaragua would be in the tournament again. So to make sure his friends and family back in Nicaragua could watch some of this game — and the tuneup contests last week — Gonzalez held his cellphone up to provide a live video feed on his Facebook account. He even narrated at times and showed the dueling merriment between the fans.

“This doesn’t compare to a major-league game,” he said. “Americans are quieter and mostly watch. Latinos are dancing, playing, messing around.”

A baseball game without all of this fanfare and energy, Prieto said, would be like “going to a concert without music.”

The Puerto Rican fans in particular brought lots of instruments to their games, including Sunday night’s 9-6 loss to Venezuela. Informal bands scattered throughout the stadium played in the concourses, drawing crowds. The drums got passed around.

“Puerto Ricans celebrate the wins and celebrate the losses,” Francisco Claudio, 38, said. “It’s in our blood to celebrate.”

Claudio was outside the stadium after Saturday’s game, where a salsa band performed on a concert stage, beer still flowed and a Venezuelan food truck sold arepas, cornmeal cakes. Bleached blonde hair was everywhere, including on Claudio’s head and chin.

During the 2017 Puerto Rican team’s magical run to the W.B.C. final, where it lost to the United States, the players dyed their hair blonde and fans began doing the same. The group was soon nicknamed Team Rubio, or Team Blonde. The tradition continued in this tournament, which was delayed two years by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s such a huge honor, and such a fun experience whenever you see everyone and their grandmas with blonde hair, and they don’t care how bad they look,” said Francisco Lindor, Puerto Rico’s team captain and a Mets shortstop. Throughout the games, Lindor said he tried to take in the scene in the stands. “It was amazing.”

The scenes, however, are atypical for the stadium. In 2022, the Marlins, who have reached the playoffs just once since winning the 2003 World Series, had an average attendance at loanDepot Park of 11,203 — ahead of only the Oakland Athletics.

The least-attended game in Miami over the weekend was Israel-Nicaragua on Sunday afternoon, with 19,955 people. The announced attendance for Puerto Rico-Nicaragua was 35,399. The Saturday night matchup of heavyweights — Dominican Republic-Venezuela, or as some fans joked, plantain power versus arepa power — had just as many people: 35,890. It felt like much more.

“This is more of a party than anything,” said Engers Dantes, 48, while holding a championship wrestling belt he made for the tournament. It was decorated with pictures of the Dominican flag and plantains. Some fans even brought actual plantains to hold as props.

Dantes arrived on Wednesday, and he said the airports in Santo Domingo and Miami were packed with people headed to the W.B.C. “Everyone was wearing team gear,” he said.

Rafael Castillo, 52, who has attended each of the W.B.C. tournaments, flew in on Friday and planned to stay until the end of the first round on Wednesday. He said he and his brother, Wilson, 48, would spend an estimated $7,000 on tickets, flights, hotel and food, but he believes it is worth it. He planned to return home for a few days because of work but come back to Miami if the D.R., a tournament favorite, reached the championship rounds.

“You get to see the best athletes from your country,” he said. “A big-league game doesn’t have this kind of emotion because your love of your country shows more.”

At the start of the game against Venezuela, the stands felt more Dominican. But as the Dominican ace Sandy Alcantara, the Marlins pitcher who won the 2022 National League Cy Young Award, sputtered on the mound, the Venezuelans took over. On the field, players pumped their chests, pointed at their country’s name on their jerseys and waved toward the crowd after big moments.

When left fielder David Peralta smacked a two-run single to give Venezuela a 3-1 lead in the fourth inning, Jorge Marino, 36, and his friends jumped up and down, screamed and hugged. One spilled his beer.

“Their fans beat us but our team is winning,” Marino said. He added later, “The atmosphere is amazing. It’s the Latin flavor.”

During the pregame introductions, Marino said he almost cried upon hearing his country’s national anthem. He follows Venezuelan baseball on television and social media but hasn’t been back to his country in three years given the economic and political crisis. He and his group of friends at the game were all from Maracaibo, Venezuela, but now live in the Miami area.

“We’re outside of our country for reasons everyone knows about,” he said. “So it’s very emotional to see your national team.”

Long after Venezuela upset the D.R. on Saturday with a 5-1 win — its first W.B.C. victory over its rival — and after it beat Puerto Rico, 9-6, on Sunday night, Venezuela fans lingered in the stands and outside the stadium still taking photos, still waving their flags, still cheering.

Martín Pérez, the starting pitcher who guided Venezuela over the D.R., said that because the players came from Latin America, the noise level and the instruments in the stands didn’t surprise them. Gary Sánchez, the Dominican catcher, said he loved seeing the stadium full of life. “I feel like I’m in the playoffs,” he said.

As Venezuela Manager Omar López sat down to speak with reporters in the bowels of the stadium, he apologized.

“I don’t know if I still have my voice,” he said. Music seeped in from outside, where fans continued drinking and dancing.

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