Canadians are in the midst of a debate over whether fighting should persist in hockey. Thus conflicted about their national pastime, on Saturday they brawled in ours.
Team Canada didn’t instigate the epic donnybrook in the ninth inning of their 10-3 triumph over Team Mexico, but they finished on top. That’s not to say the Canadians would have been declared the victors on a judge’s card. (I scored it a draw.) But they won because they will advance to the second round of the World Baseball Classic if they beat Team USA in Sunday’s Pool D finale.
The Americans may want to wear their mouthguards. You know, just in case.
“The guys are fired up,” said Larry Walker, the first base coach and Canadian baseball legend. “I’m fired up, and I just stand in the box and say, ‘Two outs.’”
Fired up. This goes way beyond fired up. This was a certifiable fight, not the hold-your-partner, avoid-the-suspension business we typically see during major-league games. This was, instantly, one of the most memorable events in the brief history of the WBC. This was the latest sign that this particular pool has been thrust into chaos, to the point that no one should assume a U.S. victory Sunday — because, frankly, very little in Pool D has gone according to plan.
That’s not to condone fighting in baseball. Our game doesn’t need it. Saturday’s brawl could have injured a player. (Thankfully, it didn’t appear that happened.) The quarrel was between players and coaches wearing their country’s colors, which made it especially radioactive and caused side skirmishes in the stands.
Yet, under the any-press-is-good-press heading, a great many people who knew little or nothing about the WBC said to their friends Saturday night: Dude, did you see what happened in that Canada-Mexico game?
Here are the essential details: Canada took a 9-3 lead into the top of the ninth — big enough to win the game, certainly, but not necessarily sufficient to advance out of pool play according to the myriad tiebreaker scenarios decided by run differential.
(It’s not an ideal system, but necessary because of the WBC’s tight travel schedule.) Within that context, the Canadians were well within proper baseball etiquette to play for a run. And so catcher Chris Robinson dropped a leadoff bunt single down the third-base line.
Team Mexico took offense — or, at least, third baseman Luis Cruz did. Before Rene Tosoni stepped to the plate as the next hitter, Cruz walked toward the mound and apparently instructed pitcher Arnold Leon to exact revenge. “Their third baseman was telling (Leon) to hit him, right in the ribs,” Walker said.
Leon tried. Twice. He missed both times, prompting home plate umpire Brian Gorman to warn both dugouts. Leon was undeterred — and, finally, aimed true on his third attempt. An agitated Tosoni started toward the mound, both benches emptied, and the tussle began.
Walker initially grabbed hold of All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, the nearest Mexican player to him. (Walker later told Gonzalez, “You’re too important to the game of baseball to be jumping in here and doing something stupid.”) They parted after a few moments. And as other combatants on both sides delivered (and landed) punches, Walker found himself paired up with mysterious Mexican reliever Alfredo Aceves — a metaphysical encounter he won’t soon forget.
“I had a hold of him,” Walker said, “and I think I saw Satan in his eyes.”
Just guessing here, but I don’t think this was quite what Bud Selig had in mind when he talked Friday about how the WBC can “internationalize” the sport.
In the end, Leon, Aceves, Oliver Perez and Eduardo Arredondo were ejected for Team Mexico; Tosoni, Pete Orr and Jay Johnson for Team Canada. Perez and Mexican manager Rick Renteria acknowledged afterward that bunting with a six-run lead would have been inappropriate during a regular-season game, but they understood why Robinson did it in this context.
Apparently, Cruz and Leon didn’t receive the same message.
“Maybe I needed to do a better job of explaining (the rules) to my players,” Renteria said. “I thought I had. I thought I had it understood. But when you get into the heat of the battle of playing the game — a lot of these guys are used to playing in their respective leagues or clubs — when that happens, in that moment, he just lost sight of it. That’s all.”
It was a little harder for Team Canada manager Ernie Whitt to dismiss. He grew visibly emotional during his postgame news conference, saying he “assumed” every team would operate with the same understanding of WBC rules. It should be pointed out that the Canadians weren’t exactly innocent bystanders. Johnson was one of the primary pugilists. Walker drew applause from Canadian fans — and angry boos from Mexican supporters — when he tugged at the “CANADA” across his jersey and bulled his chest toward the crowd. Shortstop Cale Iorg chucked a water bottle back into the crowd after a fan threw it at the head of pitching coach Denis Boucher.
World Baseball Classic International — made up of officials from Major League Baseball and the players’ union — will investigate the incident and determine if any suspensions are merited. It’s unlikely the review will conclude before Sunday’s first pitch at 2 p.m. local time. So, Whitt should have his full complement of players against Team USA — assuming, of course, that none of them wake up sore from the previous day’s wrestling match.
Whitt insisted his guys would be OK.
“You can’t hurt us Canadians,” he said.