One of baseball's oldest, most awe-inspiring records is under siege, and we are powerless to stop it. For decades it seemed untouchable—an enduring testament to the capabilities of one remarkable man. But any day now, Braves manager Bobby Cox will break John McGraw's 75-year-old record of 131 career ejections.
Generations hence, the summer of 2007 will be remembered as the year of Barry Bonds' plodding pursuit of the all-time home run crown. Sure, Bonds' pharmacologically enhanced drive for 755 has become an ethical dilemma for Major League Baseball and its fans. But Cox's achievement, not Barry Bonds', is the one lacking historical legitimacy. That's because the Braves skipper is the beneficiary of a reverse form of grade inflation. Managerial behavior that once warranted a polite brushoff ("Please go back to the dugout, sir") is now grounds for an immediate trip to the showers. Welcome to the juiced-thumb era.
Compared with Bobby Cox, John McGraw had to earn his ejections. The son of Irish immigrants, McGraw was known as "Little Napoleon" in his playing days and called himself "the Czar" when he became a manager. On top of his totalitarian leanings, the pint-size baseball lifer had a gambling habit that led to unlikely friendships with the likes of Arnold Rothstein, the alleged engineer of the 1919 Black Sox scandal. During his Giants' ill-fated 1908 season, the testy manager carried a piece of rope from a lynching in his sock as a good-luck charm. The best comparison for McGraw? A less trustworthy, less friendly Pete Rose.
When the Little Napoleon got ejected from a game, it took everything short of the 7th Cavalry to put him down. The Ken Burns documentary Baseball relates the story, perhaps apocryphal, that as a player McGraw once incited a brawl that ended with 170 buildings near Boston's ballpark going up in flames. According to the new book Crazy '08, McGraw would frequently taunt the opposing team's owner during home games and encouraged fans to do the same, often leading to fights. And in The Illustrated History of Baseball, Alex Chadwick writes that after one particularly aggravating loss, an irate McGraw organized a mob to go after an umpire he disliked.
By comparison, Bobby Cox's early exits usually result from prolonged discussions over balls and strikes and close calls at first base. Sure, when he was still cutting his teeth with the Braves in 1990, he spit in an umpire's face. And seven years ago, Cox was tossed for bumping ump Derryl Cousins. But mostly, Cox's act has been the same for nearly 30 years. First, he toddles onto the field and states his case. The umpire ejects Cox, who briefly escalates the argument with a couple of well-placed expletives. He then walks into the clubhouse and watches the rest of the game in air-conditioned comfort.
Few people, besides maybe Elijah Dukes, would advocate arson as a response to a dubious call at first base. Still, with the exception of the odd day in which Lou Piniella tosses his inhibitions (and first base) to the wind, the manager-umpire spat—especially as performed by Bobby Cox—has been getting increasingly stale and ritualized. Minor League skipper Phillip Wellman earned YouTube immortality this season by crawling on his belly toward the pitcher's mound, then lobbing the resin bag like a grenade. Now that was an ejection worthy of John McGraw. Is it too much to ask that our soon-to-be Ejection King display Hall of Fame-caliber histrionics?
Bobby Cox isn't entirely to blame for draining the life from the managerial fracas. The laissez-faire attitudes of early-day baseball gave McGraw and his contemporaries a stage where they could project their inner 3-year olds. The leash is now much shorter. McGraw shares some of the blame for this. According to Burns, the Little Napoleon's foul mouth prompted the league to issue an 1890s decree against "obscene, indecent, and vulgar language across the Ball Field."
In today's game, one or two carefully selected words is enough to trigger an early exit, as is a bat or helmet thrown to the ground too forcefully. Most of the time, a supposedly fuming manager isn't even annoyed—he's simply trying to light a fire under a struggling team. The ejection, then, has become less of a punishment and more of a tactical choice, a decision akin to calling for the suicide squeeze. Managers know what buttons to push and try to manipulate the system to jump-start their teams. Boston's Terry Francona, for instance, plays his hand for all to see. When he decides to get himself tossed for the cause, he walks out of the dugout with his head down and his hands in the pockets of his sweatshirt, barely grimacing for the cameras. What should be a display of unbridled fury is instead a walk of shame.
For years, Major League Baseball has sought to make the game more family-friendly by taming the action on the field. The spitball and spiking have gone the way of Chief Nokahoma. Bench-clearing donnybrooks are the exception rather than the rule, and we can now laugh at the behavior of soccer hooligans rather than dreading similar behavior at the ballpark. But for all of the "improvements" in atmosphere, the element of surprise that helps make the sport so entertaining is eroding. MLB's hair-trigger discipline system encourages managers to use the same mundane bit of theater, over and over again. Rather than providing a punctuation mark for an admirable display of unrehearsed outrage, the ejection is a merciful conclusion to the dull "tirades" that are as contrived as they are repetitive. The simple solution? Stop rewarding skippers with the quick hook they are looking for. Make them pick their spots and work up a genuine temper. What baseball needs is more Phillip Wellman, less Bobby Cox.