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The Strike Zone

World Baseball Classic brawl calls attention to tournament's faults

Canada's Jay Johnson and Mexico's Eduardo Arredondo exchange punches during Saturday's brawl. (Matt York/AP)

By Cliff Corcoran

The ugly brawl (sequence starts around 55-second mark in the video linked here) between Canada and Mexico in their first-round World Baseball Classic game Saturday afternoon wouldn't have happened in the 2009 WBC.

The brawl was the result of Mexico's objection to Canada attempting to run up the score in the ninth inning of a game the latter was already leading 9-3. Canada's catcher, Chris Robinson, bunted up the third-base line for a single to start the inning, after which Mexico's third baseman, Luis Cruz, clearly gestured for pitcher Arnold Leon to hit the next batter, outfielder Rene Tosoni. Leon complied but missed Tosoni with his first two attempts, allowing home plate umpire Brian Gorman to warn both benches. Leon then hit Tosoni in the back with his third pitch, inciting the brawl.

That sequence conformed to a certain old-school concept of "how the game is supposed to be played." You don't run up the score on your opponent, and if another team does, you settle it on the field. Setting aside the absurdity of that mentality (in a game with no clock, no lead is ever safe, and the risk of injury from a beanball or brawl is far greater than the significance of the perceived insult), running up the score is exactly how the WBC has been designed to work in both this and the inaugural 2006 tournament.

The first round of the tournament is a round robin, with each team playing just three games, one against each intra-pool opponent. Ties are broken, more often than not, by something called "Team Quality Balance," which is effectively margin of victory. Head-to-head victories are the only tie-breaker that ranks ahead of TQB, but the round-robin format and three-game schedule results in a high likelihood of a three-way tie at 2-1 or 1-2 with Team A having beaten Team B but lost to Team C.

So, Canada, who was 0-1 coming into this game and will face the favored USA team Sunday, needed to score as many runs as possible in this game to maximize their chances of advancing to the second round. However, Cruz, Leon, and who knows who else on Team Mexico either failed to realize that or didn't think that trumped those old unwritten rules. Thus the overt attempt to hit Tosoni and the rare baseball fight that included actual fighting, evidence of just how invested these players are in this tournament.

The fight didn't need to happen because these grown men didn't have to act like ill-behaved preschoolers, but it also didn't need to happen because, in 2009, the WBC used a different format that produced clear and immediate on-field results. The first round in that year's tournament was a double-elimination format. Two games are played between the four teams in a pool. The losers of those games play with that loser being eliminated. The winners of those games play with the winner advancing. The two 1-1 teams then play to determine the second team to advance. No fuss, no muss, no tiebreakers, no misunderstandings, no hurt feelings. You win, you keep playing. You lose, you're out.

Bizarrely, this year's second round will follow that same double-elimination format, but it was scrapped for the first round, I assume so that no team would get eliminated without playing a third game. That was a bad decision and should be corrected before the next WBC in 2017. The players are grown men and should behave like them. By that same token, the WBC is a tournament, and it should behave like one.
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