SARASOTA, Fla. — Even now, watching the video again in the Orioles clubhouse, Anthony Santander gets chills.
On the screen, his mother, Yoleida, jumps up and down. She runs back and forth in her row of seats. She’s wearing her son’s jersey and waving a Venezuelan flag above her head, having just watched him turn on a 99-mph sinker from Dominican Republic ace Sandy Alcantara and send it into the second deck at LoanDepot Park in Miami.
“When I saw that video, my body start like, getting excited, happiness,” Santander said. “It reminded me of playing in the little league.”
There’s a pride in wearing Venezuela on his chest that’s impossible to replicate, in knowing that he’s playing not for his own career, but for his whole country. When Santander returned from the World Baseball Classic, reaching the quarterfinal against the United States, he called it a dream.
But it really happened. And Santander won’t ever forget it.
“I’m so happy to play for the Orioles, but you can’t compare Baltimore with the whole nation of Venezuela, your family, friends, your hometown,” Santander said. “It’s another level, you know? I’m so happy and proud to be part of it.”
There’s a similar feeling for Baltimore’s other representatives in the World Baseball Classic. Center fielder Cedric Mullins played for the United States, losing in the championship game to Japan, and right-hander Dean Kremer served as Israel’s ace.
Mullins said his most memorable moment came at the end of the blowout against Cuba, when he added on with an eighth-inning solo homer.
Mullins got the ball back after it bounced onto the field — “That’s definitely going to be hung up,” Mullins said.
The emotions reached another level for them all. Kremer left the mound following each of his four scoreless innings against Nicaragua with fist pumps, something he only reserves for the biggest moments in the regular season. The last time he felt an atmosphere that rivaled it was when he pitched in the 2017 edition of the World Baseball Classic.
“Every pitch means so much, but everybody’s super relaxed,” Kremer said. “That’s the best way I can explain the dynamic. It’s incredibly competitive and every pitch means so much, but everybody’s there having fun. No numbers on the line. No career numbers. No salaries. None of that stuff. It’s just guys out there playing with heart.”
“This is a game, right? We love it,” Santander said. “But here, you play for something. You play cause you want to get a championship. You also get paid. A lot. This is our job, our work, to provide for the family. But when you go to a competition like that, you don’t play for the money. You’re really playing because — you don’t get paid in there — we go there to represent our country, try to take happiness to our people, make our family, our hometown, proud. It’s totally different.”
In Kremer’s previous experience, Israel competed in South Korea and Japan. He’d recommend any teammates to jump at the chance to play in a foreign part of the bracket if the opportunity comes, because experiencing the culture — in baseball and life — of those countries was something Kremer “enjoyed immensely.”
There were injury fears, particularly after Puerto Rican star reliever Edwin Díaz suffered a full patellar tendon tear of his knee during a postgame celebration on the field. Houston Astros infielder José Altuve fractured his thumb when he was hit by a pitch while playing for Venezuela.
But as Kremer pointed out, St. Louis right-hander Adam Wainwright suffered a weight room injury after returning to the Cardinals from Team USA. And on Thursday, Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins tore his ACL during a spring training game.
“I get it, fans get worried,” Santander said. “But they also have to understand it’s a great opportunity for us to represent our country and give everything we’ve got. And I would say, even with all those injuries, I would say Díaz and Altuve, they will do that again when they recover. Because it can happen here in spring training. It can happen anywhere.”
And playing in the World Baseball Classic was worth the risk, especially when Santander pulls out his phone and rewatches the video of his mother celebrating one of his home runs. She’s always excited, be it for the Orioles or Venezuela. She’ll offer hitting tips and chide him for striking out.
But to see her with the Venezuelan flag, pure joy on her face as Santander rounded the bases? There’s no beating that.
“That was bigger this time,” Santander said. “Mom’s proud. That’s great.”