Of course, that was before most Americans found out how much other countries actually cared about beating them at their national pastime. First, Taiwan got caught trying to smuggle a few scouts disguised as umpires into a game to spy on South Korea before the start of the World Baseball Classic, nearly touching off an international incident. Then Canada and Mexico staged a full-scale brawl in the ninth-inning of their WBC encounter Saturday in Phoenix.
While the Taiwanese-South Korea tiff melted away following a diplomatic apology, not so the rumble between the neighbors on either side of the U.S. border. Video of the brawl went viral almost immediately, and while it may not have been the kind of publicity Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig had in mind when he started the WBC in 2006, it's created more attention on these shores for this year's event than the two previous tournaments combined. Suddenly, it's game on.
"Amazing, wasn't it, the way that woke everybody up around here?" said Bobby Valentine, who's managed three MLB clubs—Rangers, Mets and Red Sox—as well as Japan's Chiba Lotte Marines on two different occasions.
Valentine happened to be in Japan during the weekend, where interest in the two-time defending champions—Japan beat Cuba in the inaugural WBC and South Korea in 2009—is already off the charts. More than a third of the nation tuned in to watch the host's opening-round win over China. And many of those same fans were still trying to decipher the underpinnings of the Canada-Mexico brawl three days earlier.
"It's the same game everywhere, but a different experience watching over there," Valentine added. "Baseball has so many unwritten rules that we—meaning Americans—just take nuances like hitting a batter for granted. But once you see it played elsewhere, and see it played with the same kind of passion but a different perspective on some things, you start to wonder, 'Who writes those so-called unwritten rules? And who bothers to read them?'"
Certainly not the Mexican team.
Canada led off the ninth ahead 9-3, but because the WBC employs run-differential as a tiebreaker, the Northerners were still looking to pad their margin. Catcher Chris Robinson, who had already been bounced around in a collision at home plate, led off by bunting down the third-base line. The tactic so infuriated Mexico third baseman Luis Cruz, who thought the Canadians were trying to show his team up, that he locked eyes with his pitcher, Arnold Leon, then pointed to his side and basically instructed his pitcher to plunk the next batter.
Leon complied, though he needed three pitches to finally hit Canada's Rene Tosoni. That cleared both benches. At one point, as punches and throwdowns continued on either side of him, former major league player and current Canadian first-base coach Larry Walker found himself trying to restrain Alfredo Aceves, the Boston Red Sox pitcher who was moonlighting as a member of the Mexican staff.
"I had a hold of him, and I think I saw Satan in his eyes," Walker said afterward. "It was scary. I was just hoping he wasn't going to throw punches at me, because that would've been trouble."
Unnecessary trouble at that.
Mexico manager Rick Renteria conceded afterward his players probably had no idea that the run-differential rule was in place, and if WBC officials are smart, they'll replace it with a less-combustible tiebreaker as soon as it's practical. At least those same officials didn't exacerbate the bad feelings by handing out suspensions, which would have proved meaningless. Mexico was eliminated in that loss and the Canadians got bumped in their next game by the United States.
Yet while fans over here were suddenly scouring the TV listings to figure out when the U.S. team plays next—Tuesday, against Puerto Rico in Miami—those in Japan were still fixated on the brawl. Over there, fights at baseball games are exceedingly rare, while bunting for a hit and stealing a base are part of every game, no matter the score.
Japan head coach Masataka Nashida said if a brawl broke out in one of his team's games, his "players will say, 'Run!'"
"We just have to look at the size of those guys, and we'll stop in our tracks for fear," he said.
What Nashida isn't worried about, though, is what takes place between the white lines. His squad has already booked a place in the WBC championship round, March 17-19 in San Francisco, and with traditional power Cuba already eliminated—by the Netherlands, no less—Japan's path to a third straight WBC title game looks clearer.
"You can't imagine how big the game is there," Valentine said. "When I was managing in 2006, we lost something like nine players to the national team, then had to wait an extra week or two before they came back for games because they had to be congratulated by the prime minister. Imagine letting guys go for that long over here. MLB would be apoplectic."
It won't happen anytime soon. That's part of the reason the U.S. team had little success in the first two installments of the WBC and why American fans have been lukewarm about the tournament since.
"People here just figured we were going to be like the Dream Team at the Olympics, like we should win every game by the mercy rule. And when that didn't happen, we came up with excuses like, 'We didn't really try' or whatever," Valentine said. "So the reaction this time will be interesting because there's no longer any question about how much everybody else in the world is trying."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.