Brawl proves Classic's tiebreaker rules need fixing
Unusual run-differential format leads to ugly scene in Canada-Mexico matchup
PHOENIX -- There is something fundamentally wrong with a rule that encourages a baseball team to bunt when it has a six-run lead in the ninth inning.
This situation touched off a brawl Saturday in Canada's 10-3 first-round victory over Mexico in the World Baseball Classic.
There was much at stake, with both teams needing a victory to preserve a reasonable chance of advancement in the tournament. But the emotion that caused both benches to pour onto the field was set in motion by a tiebreaking rule that runs completely counter to normal baseball sportsmanship.
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With a 9-3 lead, Team Canada catcher Chris Robinson dropped a bunt for a base hit. Team Mexico took exception. Relief pitcher Arnold Leon appeared to throw at the next batter, Rene Tosoni, on three straight pitches, finally hitting him with the third. Both benches emptied. What followed was not a pro forma baseball squabble. Serious punches were thrown. Seven players were eventually ejected: four Mexicans and three Canadians. The only fortunate part of this episode was that no player was seriously injured.
The bunt would have been unthinkable in a regular-season game. Ernie Whitt, manager of Team Canada, acknowledged that, saying:
"Regular baseball, during the season, you'd never see that."
But here you do, because the primary tiebreaker in three-way ties is based on a run-differential formula. Thus, teams have a vested interest in scoring as much as they possibly can. "In this tournament, you play baseball like it's 0-0," Whitt said. "That's the unfortunate thing."
That's what Robinson was doing with the bunt. On the other side of the argument, Team Mexico manager Rick Renteria took more than his fair share of the blame for this incident. That was generous of him, but the underlying problem still remained.
"It was just simply, I think, a misunderstanding," Renteria said. "In a normal setting, a normal professional setting, I should say, a 9-3 bunt in that particular situation would be kind of out of the ordinary. But based on the rules that have been established in this tournament, the run differentials and things of that nature, it was talked about before; that those things may occur.
"I think that if [the rules] are not changed maybe I needed to do a better job of explaining them to my players. I thought I had. I thought I had it understood ... I think that everybody will learn from it. I think it will be obviously a topic of conversation for everybody for a little while and maybe it will bring some light or maybe some understanding or maybe help us clarify."
Whitt, meanwhile, clearly favored a rule change that would eliminate run differential as a factor.
"There's got to be another method other than the scoring runs, running up the score on the opposing team," Whitt said. "No one likes that. That's not the way baseball's supposed to be played. ... And unfortunately teams are knocked out of the tournament because other teams run up the score on them. Unfortunately that's what you have to deal with when you have that type of format."
After the on-field brawl, a bottle and a baseball were thrown from the stands at Team Canada personnel.
"One of my coaches was hit," Whitt said. "[Pitching coach] Denny Boucher was hit in the head with a bottle. [Hitting/first base coach] Larry Walker was almost hit in the head with a ball. That's when I went out to the umpire, when I said: 'Another thing comes out, we're going to pull our team off the field.'"
Fortunately, that was it for thrown objects or thrown fists. The lesson here may have less to do with human foibles than a foible in the rules of the World Baseball Classic. Baseball should not be a sport that encourages a bunt with a six-run lead in the ninth inning. And as it is normally played, baseball is not that kind of sport. Except in the World Baseball Classic.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.