Luis Cruz thought he understood baseball’s unwritten rules. So did Arnold Leon. The former, playing third base for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, responded to a bunt by Canadian catcher Chris Robinson—whose team held a six-run, ninth-inning lead on Saturday—by gesturing for his pitcher to drill the next batter. Leon, the pitcher, did just that.
Within moments, punches were flying and Alfredo Aceves had Satan in his eyes. (Watch the prelude here. Watch the main event below.)
Cruz, however, did not understand the unwritten rules, nor did anyone else on Team Mexico who supported Leon’s retaliation. Because winning trumps any possible Code violation, the WBC’s consideration of run differential matters. The more a team scores, the more likely it is to advance, and, facing the possibility of a three-way tie with the U.S. and Mexico, Canada needed every run it could get. (Also consideration-worthy: Canada was knocked out of the 2006 tournament when coming out on the wrong side of a run-differential tiebreaker.)
It’s undoubtedly tough for players steeped in a certain way of approaching the game—who may well have embraced the Code throughout their entire professional lives—to ignore what is likely second-nature, but there is little excuse for not knowing the rules by which one is playing.
Plate ump Brian Gorman warned both benches after Leon’s first two pitches to Rene Tosoni, the batter following Robinson, sailed inside. On the verge of elimination, however, Leon opted for pride above victory, and drilled Tosoni in the back. Benches emptied, with the brawl starting when Cruz threw a punch at Canada’s Scott Mathieson.
If there is irony in this situation, it is that players coming out of Latin leagues have long been accused of possessing less-than-sufficient understanding of the unwritten rules. This is generally in respect to flair, however—reaction to making a play, not the play itself. Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista—who has a toe in each pool, playing in Toronto and hailing from the Dominican Republic—backed this up, saying from spring training camp in Florida that the structure of the WBC is not enough to merit such strategy.
“I believe in the unwritten rules of the game,” he said in a Toronto Star report. “They should be respected. It’s a code amongst players and everybody who plays baseball at a level higher than Little League knows what it is and there’s no excuse.”
Except that there is an excuse. Ultimately, Canada won both a moral victory and an actual one, its 10-3 win eliminating Mexico from the tournament. It’s fair to question, as Canadian manager Ernie Whitt did after the game, the wisdom of implementing a run-differential system that runs counter to an ingrained facet of baseball, but that’s a discussion for the future.
As long as the WBC—or any other professional baseball outfit—has rules, players can not be knocked for trying to best position their teams to succeed within them.
Update, 3-11: Who knows if or how much the WBC had to do with it, but Leon, a 24-year-old who has never pitched in the big leagues, was just demoted to minors by the A’s.