SAN FRANCISCO Somewhere in baseball heaven, Roberto Clemente is smiling.
The sacred star of Puerto Rico, lost at sea in a tragic plane crash more than 40 years ago, has been the brightest light of baseball for his compatriots. But now he has company.
It may seem hard to fathom for Americans still warming to the World Baseball Classic, but Puerto Rico's stirring 3-1 win over Japan here Sunday night was celebrated as if it were the World Series.
In fact, this may be bigger than the World Series for the winning team, which will compete in the WBC final Tuesday after dethroning Japan, the two-time WBC champion.
The baseball diamond is the biggest stage where Puerto Ricans can compete with anyone, and Sunday, they proved it. They caught some breaks. A highly technical Japanese team helped Puerto Rico greatly by running themselves out of a rally in the eighth inning.
Some of Puerto Rico's heroes Sunday will never be standouts in the big leagues. But that simply made the triumph all the sweeter to Puerto Rican fans who celebrated long after the game ended.
This is an island nation of gorgeous beaches, pulsating music, poverty and a very complicated relationship with the United States.
Baseball has been played with passion in Puerto Rico since the end of the 19th century. Puerto Rico has its own history and legends and ghosts of baseball.
Like Cuba and the Dominican Republic, Puerto Ricans embraced the American game as a way of throwing off the shackles of Spanish colonialism.
Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates legend of the 1950s, '60s and '70s, was the greatest star ever, and his New Year's Eve death after the 1972 season marks the time on the island. Older people refer to the years before Clemente and the years after.
Now they have this.
Alex Rios, the Chicago White Sox star, clubbed the big hit, a massive, two-run, seventh-inning homer.
Angel Pagan, the Giants' star center fielder, almost cost his countrymen dearly by letting a liner get past him.
But when it was done, it was magic.
Just as immigrants enrich America every day, foreign players energize the game of baseball and have made it their own. They play it and their fans follow it with the fervor of America before the NFL became king. They celebrate the game like there is no tomorrow.
I was privileged to bear witness Sunday.
It didn't matter that Team USA failed to reach the final four of baseball's only global tournament because the game is much bigger than its American inventors.
Sunday was a chilly night warmed to a boil by trumpets, drums, salsa and a World Series atmosphere in March.
Star American players may have sadly eschewed the World Baseball Classic, and the Americans paid the price by failing to advance to AT&T Park, but baseball is bigger than America now.
That's not a negative. It's a positive. In Puerto Rico they say: Viva Baseball.
Call The Bee's Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096. Follow him on Twitter @marcosbreton.