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Tuesday, March 7, 2006
Updated: March 9, 2:40 AM ET
Pride and passion on full display

By Wayne Drehs
ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- So this is what baseball commissioner Bud Selig meant by "internationalization."

National flags hanging from stadium facades. Fans going back and forth, yelling, "U-S-A" and "Mex-I-co" to one another. And the world's greatest baseball players confessing that an opening-round victory in Tuesday's World Baseball Classic was the single greatest accomplishment of their athletic careers.

Chipper Jones
Chipper is jacked up to be representing the United States in the Classic.
"I had more butterflies today than any playoff game or other game I've ever been in," said Team USA third baseman Chipper Jones. "And I wasn't even starting. I was just hoping those guys could get a cushy lead before they let me in there to mess it up."

Jones did little to mess anything up, teaming up with first baseman Derrek Lee on a pair of solo home runs en route to a 2-0 United States victory over Mexico in front of 32,727 fans at Arizona's Chase Stadium.

It was seemingly just what the sport needed. On a day when the baseball world was dealt another low blow in the ongoing steroids saga, with a new book excerpted by Sports Illustrated set to reveal even more evidence against Barry Bonds, Team USA did its best to put on a happy face in what Selig hopes can become a marquee event.

"We can only hope this gives people a good feeling about our game," said reliever Brad Lidge, who earned the save. "We need it."

Good feelings were seemingly all around on Tuesday. Anxious fans -- many of whom supported Team Mexico -- began filling the promenade outside Chase Stadium some three hours before the first pitch. They blew horns, rattled noisemakers, waved flags; did anything they could to express their excitement.

Some wore Mexican T-shirts, others draped themselves in American flags. Yet others covered their bodies in paint. It felt more like an international soccer match than a baseball game. Walking into one entrance an hour-and-a half-before the first pitch: a guy wearing a Derek Jeter Yankee jersey next to a guy wearing a Mike Timlin Boston Red Sox jersey. They gave each other five.

Two other fans with split affections, Chris Eleiott (Yankees) and Paul Adams (Red Sox), expressed themselves by covering their bodies in Wal-Mart house paint. The two college students from Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois were in Phoenix for spring break.

"I'm not quite sure everybody is as pumped up as we are," said Eleiott, a mini American flag painted across his face. "But we've been jacked about this for a while. It's sick. Have you seen the U.S. lineup? It's so sick. Ten to 20 years from now, this is going to be huge. And I'll be able to say I was at the first one."

Inside the stadium, fans gobbled up souvenirs as if they carried the value of gold. From about an hour before the first pitch until the third inning, the line at every World Baseball Classic souvenir stand stretched across the width of the stadium concourse, an estimated wait of 30 minutes.

"Everybody wants to get their hands on a jersey, a T-shirt, something," said Mesa's Bob Owen, who weathered the wait for a Johnny Damon Team USA T-shirt. "This is the first event of its kind. Who knows if this will ever happen again. This will be a collector's item."

Passions ran just as high in the seats. Mexican flags were seemingly everywhere. And each time someone started a chant of "U-S-A," it was quickly drowned out by "Mex-I-co." Both fan bases electrified the stadium during team introductions and the national anthem. And the fervor continued throughout the game, with each group feeding off of the other before joining forces in the eighth inning for an extended stadium wave.

"It was awesome," Jones said. "The Mexican fans brought the electricity. You could sense the passion they have for baseball."

All this for an event in which nobody quite knew what to expect. When the WBC was first introduced last summer, there were those who thought it was a great idea. Just as many thought it was miserable. There were concerns over injuries, criticisms about pitch counts and ties and then, most recently, the defections of several big-name stars. But Selig never worried, insisting that a couple weeks out of spring training in exchange for the global growth of the sport was a worthwhile cause.

And for at least one afternoon in Phoenix, he looked right. Just ask the Team USA players, many of whom were reduced to mush after Tuesday's victory.

This was bigger than any World Series win I've ever had. This is my All-Star game, my Olympics, it's just awesome. ... You just don't understand what it's like when you put that uniform on. I've never had a better feeling in my life. It's the coolest thing I've ever done as a baseball player.
Mike Timlin

"This was bigger than any World Series win I've ever had," said reliever Mike Timlin, who picked up the win. "This is my All-Star game, my Olympics, it's just awesome. I was watching Jake [Peavy] those first few innings, and my hands were sweating like I had dipped them in a bucket of water."

Timlin wasn't alone.

"I wanted to win this game with every single thing I had in me," Peavy said. "You don't understand -- you just don't understand what it's like when you put that uniform on. I've never had a better feeling in my life. It's the coolest thing I've ever done as a baseball player."

For all the things that felt different on Tuesday, plenty stayed the same. Alex Rodriguez was still public enemy No. 1, drawing a rousing round of boos from Mexican fans each time he stepped to the plate.

"[The guys] were teasing me -- did you decline to play for the Mexican team too?" Rodriguez joked afterward, in reference to his decision to play for the United States instead of the Dominican Republic.

He hadn't. And on this day, it was something to laugh about. Several players pointed out how well Team USA is jelling and how players are leaving their egos at the clubhouse door. As Timlin noted, "the last letter on our shirts is an 'A,' so you better show up with your 'A' game." On Tuesday, with a batting order in which Lee, last season's National League batting champion, was pushed down to No. 6, the U.S. team did just that.

When it was over, Baltimore Orioles pitcher Rodrigo Lopez, who took the loss for Mexico, was asked to describe what went wrong in the home run at-bat to Lee.

Said Lopez, who had spent the entire press conference answering questions in Spanish: "A long ball. A long, long ball."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.