Wednesday March 18th, 2009

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Sometimes, and if you want to be truthful about it, darn near most times over all those days and nights and pitches of a game built on repetition and promise, baseball is inert. Nothing of very much meaning happens. You might offer as an exhibit to that postulate the first eight and a half innings of the World Baseball Classic game Tuesday between the United States and Puerto Rico, a game only 13,244 people bothered to attend, leaving Dolphin Stadium, with its ocean of unoccupied orange seats, a monument to disinterest. Team USA did its part to contribute to the malaise, underachieving superstars on the cusp of getting kicked out of the tournament on their own soil, the whole WBC suffering from their apparent indifference, at least when measured against the passion of the international teams in the tournament.

The pull of baseball, what holds us through the inertness, is the belief that a moment of pure magic might be around the next corner. In the warmth of the Miami night, one of those moments arrived, seemingly out of nowhere, and sweet as the tropical breeze.

And suddenly it is not just baseball any more. It is bigger. It is brotherhood. It is hope. And yes, it is country.

It is the wide smile on the face of Sgt. Felix Perez, 27, of Miami, decked out in his USA baseball hoodie, his USA baseball fitted cap -- and his American flag and WBC baseball, both signed by the ballplayers of Team USA in the wake of what was a 6-5 walkoff victory that put the Americans into the semifinals and maybe, just maybe, into the hearts of a few baseball fans who didn't understand what playing for country was all about. Felix was right there in the locker room celebrating with these superstars who had become kids again, sloshing beer on one another.

Felix is a Mets fan, a kid who grew up in North Bergen, N.J., and played some ball himself. But if the United States could win this tournament, he said ... well, he'd take it over the Mets ever winning another world championship in his lifetime if he had to choose. Why?

"Because this," he said, "is the chance to represent your country. What more honorable thing can you do than to represent your country? There is nothing more honorable."

Felix knows well about representing his country, which is how he came to be paralyzed and in a motorized wheelchair. The kid from North Bergen signed up for duty in the Army as a robust teenager, like so many kids in a post 9/11 world that moved the hearts of the strong and the patriotic. "I grew up GI Joe. He-man," he said, chuckling at the memory of his younger self. By 20 he was deployed into the dangers of that world. And like so many of those kids, he came back broken physically, another wounded casuality of the Iraq war. Four years later, he still cannot speak about his injury.

He would much rather talk about baseball. And this night.

"Incredible," he said, the flag folded neatly on his lap, the baseball tucked inside a sanitary sock atop the flag.

His sister, Jessica, saw the light in his eyes.

"I'm just happy to see him happy," she said. "It doesn't happen very often. Just a little 'I'm still one of the boys' type things."

Felix had to see the USA play, just as he did Saturday when he watched Puerto Rico embarrass the Americans with an 11-1 defeat stopped by the mercy rule. This night looked no better for the USA, with Puerto Rico taking a 5-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning. The Americans had played with a grimness that made clutch hits impossible and defeat a near certainty.

Then came the magic. The game, if not the WBC and this team itself, were transformed. The Americans suddenly started putting at-bats together with a ferocity borne only of the desperate. Shane Victorino singled off J.C. Romero. Brian Roberts singled on a two-strike pitch. Derek Jeter flied out, but Jimmy Rollins kept the line moving with a hard-won walk that seemed to exhaust whatever was left in Romero. Bases loaded. Somebody named Fernando Cabrera was summoned to pitch to Kevin Youkilis, but the result was the same for the Americans: another feisty walk, this one forcing home a run, making it 5-4.

Now David Wright stepped in. David Wright from Perez's beloved Mets. The count was 2-and-1 when Wright slapped at an outside pitch, sending it gently toward the right-field line. Would it land fair? Of course. There was magic in the air. He plunked about a yard inside the foul line, a thing of unintended beauty. Roberts scored the tying run. Rollins came flying home with the winning run, the entire team rushing from the dugout with the same urgency to greet him there.

But in an instant everybody decided to turn left and find Wright, who had hustled all the way to second base. The first ones to greet him were a Yankee, Jeter, and a Red Sox, Youkilis, who put him in a headlock in order to yank the batting helmet from his head. Except now they were no longer Mets and Yankees and Red Sox. They had become one team. A team of Americans. A team of big kids. Rollins broke away from the happy pile for a moment and tugged at the chest of his jersey where it said "USA."

"It was a huge win for the U.S.," catcher Brian McCann said. "From the fans' standpoint of people wondering, 'I don't know if it's a good event or not,' this answered the question tonight. No question. To see Derek Jeter out there, a guy who has won everything in this game, and he's out there dog-piling in March ... wow. "

The embarrassment of the 11-1 loss was a scar of which to be proud.

"I would go through a hundred of those," McCann said, "for this one moment. This is a moment I will cherish for the rest of my life, for sure. It's the greatest game I've ever been a part of. That was pretty special."

Said Roberts, "I've never played in a game like this. Ever. People say this doesn't matter? All you had to do is see the faces as everyone ran out of the dugout. I wish I could find the words to describe the feeling."

Felix and Jessica made their way to Gate G, full of joy and relief. They didn't want the night to end, so maybe they might see one of the players walking out of the stadium. Maybe they could get an autograph.

A tournament official noticed this young man in the wheelchair in his USA hoodie and hat. They talked. The official learned Felix was a wounded Iraq War veteran. "Come with me," he told them.

They made their way to the USA clubhouse, where Felix rode inside while Jessica waited outside. The players were still acting like little kids, half naked and silly in what they had just done. Quickly, they saw Felix and made him a part of the celebration. One of the boys. Somebody pulled out his camera. They gathered all around him, leaning and falling on one another in their underclothes with goofy smiles. They wrapped his flag around his chest. And then they snapped the picture, capturing the magic of the night in all of its beautiful pixels.

When Felix Perez went off to war, full of patriotism and the most honorable intentions a man can harbor, he brought with him an American flag. The young, earnest soldier put the flag in his backpack, and wherever Felix went into the teeth of danger, the flag was with him. "It was always in my backpack," he said. "Always."

The flag came home with Felix. It was the flag Felix took to the ballgame Tuesday night. Jessica wore the flag around her shoulders during the game. It was the flag Felix took into the USA clubhouse. All of the USA players signed it. He was bringing it home. He already knew where to display it.

"I'm going to put it right next to the one from the 82nd Airborne," he said, "the one signed by all my friends when I got hurt."

One by one, as Felix talked to reporters outside the clubhouse, USA players said good night to Felix as they would an old friend. He was one of the boys. Rollins, who had scored the winning run, walked by in a crisp cream shirt and tan slacks, looking like a million bucks, and gave a wave to Felix.

"Keep smiling," he told Felix, "and you'll be fine."

"As long as you keep swinging the bat," Felix said, "I'm happy."

It was only baseball. It was only March. It was only the World Baseball Classic, a tournament that had confounded Americans when they bothered to think about it at all. Where, so many wondered, is the meaning of it?

The meaning was on the smiles of the ballplayers for Team USA, and on the smile of Sgt. Felix Perez. They had done something most honorable. They had represented their country well.

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