PANAMA CITY, Panama — Baseball was on. Real, true baseball. A sweltering Friday night, a flashy casino in the heart of Panama City, an enormous projector looming over the slot machines, showing the game. To this American, whose offseason antsiness is fading into the inevitable letdown of spring training, catching a glimpse of competitive baseball in the wild was like a shot of adrenaline; an energizing respite from the doldrums of winter.
Baseball fever extended far beyond the casino; radios leaking from passing cars and darkened windows were tuned to the game, its balls and strikes and soft contact broadcast on baseball’s traditional medium. It was a surprise to learn that the playoffs which had absorbed so much attention featured teenagers—amateurs—playing for their respective regions.
Los Santos and Herrera, teams from neighboring rural provinces in central Panama—three hours from Panama City on the Pacific Ocean side of the country—advanced to the championship series that ended Monday night. They provided the greatest gift known to sports fans worldwide: A competitive, dramatic series that required seven games to conclude. Herrera took the championship, putting up four runs in the top of the ninth to beat Los Santos 6-4. TVMax 9, a Panamanian news station, reported that this was Herrera’s first championship since 1974.
Panama’s list of players who made it to Major League Baseball is somewhat short, though any mention of baseball to an eager ear quickly results in a rattling off of names including Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz, Roberto Kelly, Ben Ogilvie, Bruce Chen, and Ruben Tejada. Rod Carew, the only Panamanian Hall of Famer, almost goes without saying at this point; Panama City’s ballpark is named in his honor.
Though the number of major leaguers Panama gets to call its own is small, they have a hefty claim to prestige. “Mariano,” who needs no surname here, is the greatest.
Rod Carew Stadium was packed Friday night, with the surrounding boulevards reflecting the massive lure of Game 5 between Los Santos and Herrera. The teams came in tied after playing two games at Los Santos’ home stadium and two games at Herrera’s. The last three games of the series were scheduled to be played in a neutral site in Panama City, where the games could host the biggest crowds and get the most attention.
Despite the lengthy trip to the stadium from their rural provinces, the stands were seas of orange for Los Santos and blue for Herrera, divided politely down the middle. Ticketing was eventually limited to standing room only, though the SRO section was really just a long set of concrete steps that functioned as bleachers.
By miracle, a breeze carried through the stadium, liberating fans and players from the humidity that is relentless in the city.
The context of the National Youth Baseball Championship is difficult to translate into American terms. No high school–level competition rises to the level of national attention and broadcast as the series, but the game, inside the stadium, felt like a high school football game. Texas-style, if you will.
Dads were the most dedicated fans, while indifferent teenagers dressed in their team’s colors Snapchatted and gossiped and flirted in the stands. Along the edges of the stands, past where the crowds had petered out entirely, tireless young boys ran up and down and up and down for the entire three-hour game.
Herrera scored first on an infield hit that bounced off Los Santos second baseman Adrian Montero’s face. But Los Santos capitalized on Herrera’s staring pitcher, Oliver Lezcano, being pulled from the game with elbow pain with one out left in the fifth. With one runner on, third baseman Alberto Céspedes cranked a long fly out to right, tying the game at 1-1.
“The crowd went wild” is a cliché, but with their first run, Los Santos fans went berserk. Amid the deafening cheering comparable to what I’ve experienced at MLB playoff games was a surprise: Beer was flying everywhere.
It was a bombastic celebration for a single tying run in the fifth inning of an amateur playoff game, but when a standard stadium beer is only $1 and a 32 oz mega-cup is only $3, what’s the problem? (And unlike MLB, beer sales don’t stop after the seventh inning, and vendors sold off the rest of their supply as fans walked to their cars after the game.)
Fortunately for fans who valued staying dry, Los Santos provided opportunities for celebration more quickly than their fans could buy more beer. Ultimately, after putting together line drive after line drive, Los Santos clobbered Herrera for five runs in the sixth.
Vendors strolled the stands selling tiny cups of ceviche, microwaved popcorn, and lollipops, while the fans began to gather behind the dugouts as the game curved toward its conclusion. After giving up another run in the 7th, Herrera gained back two in the 8th. As the game went on, Herrera’s fans climbed atop the team dugout with instruments and enthusiasm, beginning an impromptu pep rally.
Not to be outdone, Los Santos fans climbed atop their dugout as well, with fans running back and forth with the orange Los Santos flag, emboldened by the confidence that their team was going to win Game 5 and go up 3-2 in the series.
Herrera gained one more run in the ninth, but fell short by two runs to lose the game 6-4. Los Santos players flooded the field, convening on the mound to rally and celebrate. Behind them trailed the two bat boys—both little people—along with two people in full white outfits identical to those worn by Klansmen, which elicited a quadruple-take from me.
Ultimately, Herrera took the series in seven. But before Friday’s game concluded, a Los Santos fan issued a warning to a woman standing in the concourse to avoid yet another beer shower: “When the last out is recorded, they’re gonna throw everything they have.”