Party just getting started for Panama after dominant Classic win

'This team is special; this team can go far'

October 2nd, 2022

The back parking lot behind the right-field fence was already beginning to fill up before the first game ended.

Fans even stacked their cars out on the left-field berm -- making their way down toward Rod Carew Stadium with their distinctive, checkered red, white and blue flags.

"It was beautiful to see Panamian people in the stands," Panama manager Luis Ortiz said. "Baseball is the number one sport here."

Before the game started, musician Boza threw out the first pitch to a loud ovation and world-renowned DJ Dimelo Flow got the raucous crowd even more raucous.

"For them to bring me here and have me DJ in front of these people, I love it," Dimelo Flow, aka, Jorge Vázquez, told me. "I feel proud."

A band played behind home plate, nonstop -- even during at-bats -- keeping the energy inside the ballpark constantly moving. It made any potentially slow moments unnoticeable. The fans kept their eyes on the field.

By the second inning of Saturday's first-round World Baseball Classic qualifier, Panama was already up, 1-0, on Argentina. By the third, the pool favorites were up, 3-0, after a mammoth home run by star Dodgers prospect Jose Ramos, ranked No. 8 overall in the system by MLB Pipeline.

Along with 11 MLB-affiliated players, the team had a wily, former MLB veteran standing out at short and batting second. Mets fans probably remember him most.

Rubén Tejada, from Santiago, Panama, had two hits and two RBIs -- including a big single in the fourth.

The crowd roared and roared even more during the lights-out performances by pitchers Humberto Mejía (4 IP, 2 H, 5 K), Randall Delgado (1 IP, 0 H, 1 K), Brewers prospect Matt Hardy (1 IP, 0 H, 1 K) and Alberto Guerrero (1 IP, 0 H, 1 K).

You may have counted up those innings pitched and come up with only seven. Well, there are mercy rules in the World Baseball Classic qualifiers. If a team is up by 10 or more runs after seven innings, the game is over. Another huge, five-run fifth inning put Panama above that threshold. 11-0.

Before the game, before the tournament even started, Panama was expected to win out and reach the main tournament next March. After the win, it seems like they could even make some noise against powerhouses like Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the U.S. But first, they'll have to take on 2-0 Brazil on Tuesday.

"We're gonna win it all," Dimelo Flow, a fan of Panama baseball since he was a kid, told me confidently.

The head coach seemed even more optimistic.

"We've had a little lull, we haven't been able to get over the hump, but this team is special," Ortiz said. "This team can go far. And I'm missing some players. We're gonna come and play every day."

For the baseball-loving country that brought the world the great Mariano Rivera and Rod Carew, the party seems to just be getting started.