Posted by: elsalamigrande | February 9, 2010

High Drama In Section Superior – The Pain of Expectation

Before being able to officially run away with the tournament, the Dominican Republic had to beat Puerto Rico in the day tilt on Friday. They couldn’t, so the crowd that jammed in to watch Venezuela take on Mexico in the nightcap had a reason to be especially noisy. The Leones were in it. By a thread, sure, but this is baseball. Puerto Rico didn’t look like they could beat anyone early on, but they made quick work of the Dominicans with a 7-3 pounding in the day game. And, so, there was good reason for the Caracas and Venezuelan faithful to pack in to Estadio Nueva Esparta and cause some noise. We sat, for the first time, in the “Superior” Section, a balcony above home plate consisting of about 25 rows with several important distinguishing features: The rows, very narrowly spaced, were populated with aluminum seats, bolted together into what amounted to a series of long, sharp serrated blades with threaded studs sticking out of the sides.

As if causing painful complication for spectators in shorts wishing to leave or return to their seats, the seating added further complication to an already dangerous and random event: The foul ball. Nets kept balls fouled straight back from ruining the dental work of anyone who shelled out to be in the VIP section directly behind the plate. But if it was back and up, over the net, a baseball traveled at full steam directly to a curiously vaulted concrete half-dome that covered the section superior. I can’t imagine that the lid had anything to do with rain, which would cancel a baseball game, but a well wired and amply powered Bose sound system mounted underneath it betrayed its true purpose. This was a noise reflecting device. Latin music, reggeton and a particularly enthusiastic Venezuelan baseball announcer boomed out of the speakers, off the no-doubt acoustically tuned concrete half-dome, directly through the bones of the spectators in the section superior and out to the rest of the stadium.

Concrete sound and fly ball reflecting feature

Look out Below

I wondered if the bolts on the seats stayed threaded for more than a season at a time. The feature deflected fly-balls much like it deflected noise – ruthlessly. Up off the bat, ricochet off the cement and back down into section superior, where a mad rush over the knife seats would ensue, the winner claiming the prize. I’ve chased many ballpark foul balls in my time, and would have pestered you dear readers with a few thousand words about the feeling of triumph had I been blessed with one. But in the ruthless section superior at Estadio Nueva Esparta, I was out of my depth and decided not to chase. Puerto Rico put the finishing touches on knocking off the Dominicans around 7:30, and the seats in section superior, along with the rest of the stadium began to fill in. Down the first base line in the field level seats, the Mexicans had really outdone themselves. I counted 9 pieces in the Mexican brass band, including 2 trombones and 1 tuba, in addition to a full drum section and a full complement of comically oversized Mexican clackers. The requisite mariachi band was in full dress, but without instruments. If the Venezuelan fans were intimidated, they didn’t show it. Sure, the Mexicans were flashy, and as loud as they come, but Venezuela had the numbers.I estimate a total paid attendance well above 20,000, most of whom took full advantage of the inflatable noise making sticks passed out by various mobile phone carriers and financial institutions.

The “visiting” crowd (Venezuela batting in the top halves for this particular game of the round robin) cranked it up in the top of the first as they went ahead 1-0 with a leadoff home run in the top of the second. By then we had an arrangement with a designated beer vendor. He would keep them coming, and bill us at the end. This is surprisingly easy to negotiate, despite limited common ground language-wise. The beer was Polar Light, an even lighter version of the popular, barely-there Polar Ice. The contents of a 222ml bottle poured in a plastic cup cost 5VBF – just under a buck. Brand and volume were both non-negotiable. Nobody in the stands serious about drinking was a fan of Polar. For them, it was whiskey, either purchased from vendors running up and down the aisles yelling “wiki wiki wiki!” or somehow smuggled in in water bottles that looked like they belonged on bicycles. Our water bottle, containing water, was unceremoniously emptied at the gate, after no discussion.

Venezuela got on the board in the top of the second with a home run by Michael Ryan, and scored again in the third on a run scoring single by Oscar Salazar, further encouraging noise. The din never really settled down and waited for the next event, like it does at American baseball games. It just kept on going, swelling when appropriate until the Mexican center fielder made a Willie Mays style basket catch off of a well hit ball by Venezuelan slugger Raul Padron to shut them up. For a while.

You can tell a lot about a man by the way he runs the basses. Mexico’s Chris Robertson of Oakland, California, tore around 1st on a single to left looking for a reason to go to 2nd. As soon as the leftfielder let go of the throw to second, he turned on the jets and gave the Mexican fans a mini heart attack until the ball landed well off target, and he slid in safe. It was heads-up and ballsy. Fans love that kind of stuff. I suspect that managers do, too… when it works.

The most comfortable place to watch the series is likely the VIP skyboxes, to which we have yet to be invited. Observations through the glass show couches and televisions… probably a bar. Two window washers perch above the boxes for the whole game, wiping the condensation caused by the air conditioning off of the viewing glass with long-poled squeegees as necessary.

Mexico tied it up at 2 in the bottom of the 6th when MLB journeyman Karim Garcia hit a 400 footer that hasn’t landed yet. I ruined a perfectly good white shirt with a hotdog spill in the process. Venezuela got a man on in the top of the 9th with one away to bring up Raul Padron, and the crowd could feel fate closing in until Padron hit one back to the box for a double play and set the Mexican brass band going.

There was commotion and drama in the bottom of the 9th as the National Guard became involved with what appeared to be a domestic dispute in the lower deck behind the Mexican dugout. The Guard is ubiquitous at the games. Many of them ware riot gear and they are all armed with at least a sidearm. Many pack automatic rifles. These are in addition to a tiered assortment of stadium security and local police. In any case, the dispute drew the attention of everyone, including the Mexican players who came out of the dugout for the spectacle. I think I saw one of them with a celphone cam. It was a couple, who looked like they might be fresh off of beating each other up, adamantly refusing to leave. Guard in full riot gear (complete with catcher style leg guards. I’ve never seen that before) were trying their best to convince them that it was time to go, but they weren’t moving. I think that everyone was looking to see all that artillery in action, but they eventually went and the most exciting action was once again on the field.

Mexico hit a double (Luis Garcia), the next hitter was intentionally walked and had men on 1st and 2nd with no outs. They laid down a sac bunt to move them over, and were in scoring position with 1 away. Venezuela then put him on to load the bases. Coach Hedgens came to the hill to get the ball. The Venezuelan faithful remained undeterred. Somehow, the volume mounted as the big right hander Elio Serrano came out from the pen and made his warm-up pitches. He’s throwing the heat and going right after the guy. After getting a second strike on a foul ball to make the count 1 and 2, Serrano waved his pitching arm skyward like the captain of a football defense trying to get that extra push from the crowd to help them stop their opponents on 4th and inches. It could be that he was just working out a kink in his arm, but I didn’t want to believe that, an neither did the crowd. Serrano got a ground ball for a 4-2-3 double play, and we were going to entradas extras.

“HEEEEEYYYY VENEZUELA, HOO! HEEEEEEY VENEZUELA, HOO!” The Leones got a base hit with one away in the top of the 10th and put a lefty against a righty. They hit a deep ball to get everyone’s hopes up, but it didn’t even make the track. 2 away. A ground ball out, and it’s Mexico’s turn.

This is the series. All four teams here beat all challengers in their respective country’s domestic leagues for the right to play. Extra innings is what they live for, both as a team and, as it so often goes in baseball, as individuals. Most here are either barely on or barely off a major league roster, and the headlines generated by extra innings heroics are the kind of things that get attention. The truth, though, is that I don’t know how the make or break pressure effects some of these young hitters. Nobody does. Likely, pressure doesn’t affect them as much as those in fandom and in the sporting press would like to believe. We transmute our own perceived responses under pressure to what they might be feeling, and either praise them for their success in the proverbial clutch, or attribute their failure to it. Realistically, if they let it matter, they probably wouldn’t have made it this far. But even if our notional applications of pressure theory to the game of baseball were true, there is at least one hitter on the Mexican side to whom it couldn’t possibly apply.

In the bottom of the 10th, with 2 on, Vinny Castilla skied one off the wall to drive in the winner. The Venezuelans sighed and headed for the exits. The Mexican brass band cranked it up. Castilla’s main paycheque still comes from the Colorado Rockies, where he is the special assistant to the GM. The man hasn’t been on a Major League roster since 2008, and probably doesn’t plan to be on one ever again. He’s in this for the same reason that I’m down here in Venezuela. Baseball can be a lot of fun.

When we arrived back at the hotel, two kids hanging out on the steps asked anxiously “Venezuela?” It took a second for it to sink in that they were asking who won the game. They just stared with their palms up, making the universal gesture for “well? What? Come on!” I shook my head. “Mexico.” It wasn’t what they wanted to hear. Sufficiently pissed, they launched into quick, unintelligible Spanish dialogue, but I caught the gist of it. There was no, “ah. Next time.” More of a “*%&*$%* LEONES!…” We headed for bed, completely beat.


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