The World Baseball Classic is meaningless? Not to Phillies' Jorge Alfaro

WBC Colombia Dominican Republic Baseball
Colombia's Jorge Alfaro (38) celebrates after hitting a solo home run to tie the score during the eighth inning in a first-round game of the World Baseball Classic against the Dominican Republic, Sunday, March 12, 2017, in Miami.

CLEARWATER, Fla. — After he completed his improbable trip around the bases and greeted his countrymen at home plate, Jorge Alfaro could not resist. The Colombian catcher had homered Sunday against an all-star closer in a major-league stadium filled with passionate Dominican Republic fans. The Phillies prospect reveled in the moment.

Alfaro, mimicking the pitcher Fernando Rodney's trademark celebration, reached behind his back and shot an imaginary arrow into the Marlins Park stands.

"I was just having fun," Alfaro said.

How could he not? Colombia, not regarded as a baseball hotbed, defeated Canada and pushed the United States and Dominican Republic to extra innings. Those feats alone were remarkable for a country that has produced a mere 20 major-leaguers.

The World Baseball Classic, panned by American players and fans alike, was an experience that Alfaro cherished. The merits of the tournament are often debated, but for a 23-year-old touted prospect like Alfaro, it carried value.
His talent showed in a high-pressure environment. The Phillies hope it was a preview of how a potential cornerstone can excel.

Alfaro returned to Phillies camp on Tuesday; Colombia was eliminated from the tournament after its two close losses. He will soon head to minor-league camp and begin 2017 at triple-A Lehigh Valley, where he is expected to spend most of the season as the IronPigs’ everyday catcher.

He did nothing to slow the hype about his potential during his week away from the Phillies.

Alfaro faced some of the game's better pitchers. He batted cleanup in Colombia's underdog lineup. He flashed his strong throwing arm against Canada. He caught Colombian ace Julio Teheran. His eighth-inning home run that tied the game against the Dominicans may have been the second-most important hit in Colombian baseball history, behind Edgar Renteria's game-winning single in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series.

Alfaro smashed a hanging change-up thrown by Rodney. Halfway to first base, Alfaro jumped and raised his hands in the air. The ESPN Deportes feed panned to a teenage Colombia fan moved to tears.

"It means a lot for us, even though we didn't make it to the second round,” Alfaro said. "It means a lot to us. And everybody knows now that Colombia is not just another country trying to play baseball. We showed everybody we can play. We went there and competed with what we had."

Just six Colombians played in the majors last season, compared with 134 Dominicans and 104 from neighboring Venezuela. Two infielders, Renteria and Orlando Cabrera, are the two most famous to emerge from Colombia. Teheran, the Atlanta Braves' best pitcher, and Chicago White Sox starter Jose Quintana are the new wave. Alfaro could be next.

The most veteran players, the Solano brothers, Donovan and Jhonatan, offered Alfaro advice during the World Baseball Classic. Alfaro quizzed Teheran and Quintana about the specifics of calling a game.

"I learned a lot from my teammates, the way they played," Alfaro said. "They weren't scared of anybody. I learned a lot about that. It doesn't matter who you face. It doesn't matter who you play with. Just don't be scared."

There were moments, Alfaro said, when he recognized the magnitude. "I'm catching against the Dominicans," he said. "All those guys." He shook his head.

Back in Clearwater, inside the Phillies clubhouse, many of the Latino players watched on Sunday. They celebrated when Alfaro's ball cleared the wall. The fake arrow was not meant as disrespect, Alfaro said. Excitement overcame him. He could not compare it; the feeling, he said, was what he imagined a World Series would be like.

"I will remember everything," Alfaro said. "I'm never going to forget any of those games."