Before we talk
about sacrifice, or phantom blackbirds, or the Chipper Jones Momentum-Turn Hypothesis, let me tell you about the time Bobby Cox demolished a toilet with one bare hand.
It happened at Shea Stadium. Braves shortstop Darrel Chaney slid into home, and the plate umpire called him out, and Chaney raised enough Cain to get himself ejected. Cox was so furious on his player's behalf that he went to the bathroom by the dugout and visited justice upon the toilet. Chaney saw the shattered tank, the gushing water, and he loved the skipper for what he had done.
Chaney decided he would do anything for Bobby Cox, even ride the bench without complaint, which he did for most of the 1979 season. He played so seldom in the dusk of his career that he basically forgot how, and by mid-September his average had fallen to .111. Cox called him into the office.
July 25, 2010
They're not renewing your contract, he said. They're gonna release you. But I'll play you as much as I can these last two weeks, so other clubs can see you.
Chaney was a career .217 hitter. He went out those last two weeks and hit .333 for Bobby Cox. And then he retired.
the Chipper Jones Momentum-Turn Hypothesis, first posited years ago but never rigorously tested until now, the ejection of Bobby Cox from any baseball game imparts a certain heat and energy to his players, who respond by playing better. Thus the momentum turn and, perhaps, victory.
Sunday is the best day on which to study this phenomenon. July is the best month. If you want to see the Braves manager explode, you would do well to check the schedule for an afternoon game on a Sunday in July, preferably in Miami. (In other words, circle this Sunday on your calendar.) This is not to say that Cox never gets angry at night in October; he does. No one else has been thrown out of two World Series games. But the numbers show a correlation. Heat has a way of lighting the fuse.
Jones, who has played his entire 17-year career for Cox, gathered new evidence for his hypothesis on a Tuesday night in August 2007, when the temperature at Turner Field was 97°. The heat wave had killed cattle in South Carolina, buckled a highway in Mississippi and pressed down so hard on Texas that a playground caught fire. In Atlanta more than 36,000 people ventured from their personal refrigerators to boo Barry Bonds for the home run record he had just stolen from their beloved Hank Aaron. The Giants took a 3--0 lead into the fifth inning. With two on, two out and a roaring sunset behind the Downtown Connector, Jones came to bat for the Braves.
The 2-and-2 pitch ran inside, above the white line of the batter's box. It looked like a strike to Ted Barrett, the home plate umpire, who called Jones out. Jones cursed and flung his helmet. Bad idea: Barrett is an ordained minister. The reverend removed his mask, cheeks burning sunset pink, sweat on his upper lip reflecting the floodlights. But before he could finish with Jones, a sound came from the home dugout. Bobby Cox was creating a diversion.
You can't tell from the video what Cox said to Barrett, or vice versa. No matter. The mere act of arguing balls and strikes is enough to get a manager ejected. Cox knew this better than anyone else. It had happened to him nearly 50 times.
The umpire reared back and made a grand sweeping motion with his right arm, as if to hurl Cox out of the stadium. Cox ignored the gesture. He hobbled toward Barrett, reconstructed knees and all, to finish the conversation. This was a mild eruption for Cox: no screaming, no bumping, no flying tobacco juice. He held up both hands, index fingers outstretched, as if to demonstrate the gaping chasm between the pitch and the plate. Then he returned to the dugout, limped down the steps and disappeared into the tunnel.
The Braves woke up. Mark Teixeira led off the next inning with a 408-foot home run. The fans stirred. A tribal drumbeat filled the stadium. Shortstop Yunel Escobar smoked a two-run double to right, and outfielder Matt Diaz drove in another run with a pinch-hit single to give the Braves a 4--3 lead. In the bottom of the ninth, after the Giants had tied it at four, the first two Braves reached base. That brought up Jones, the man Cox had saved from ejection. Jones bashed a low fastball into the left-center gap, and the winning run ambled home.
Reporters surrounded Cox in his office after the game, and Cox did what he always does. He praised the players who had done well and found nice things to say about those who hadn't. The reporters listened politely, waiting for an opening to discuss the real story of the evening. According to an unofficial tally by David Vincent of the Society for American Baseball Research, Cox had just broken the alltime ejections record, with 132. (Since then, four previously overlooked ejections have surfaced, meaning he had actually broken John McGraw's mark more than three months earlier.) "What happened with Barrett there?" a reporter finally asked.
"Barrett, the umpire."
Slowly, with no expression, Cox responded: "I don't know."
He did know, of course, but he was ashamed. Fifty-two days had passed since his last ejection—nearly double his average interval—as he held his tongue and tried to forestall this moment.
"Bobby," a reporter said, "I know you don't love to talk about it. Can you speak to breaking the—"
"—the ejection record?"
"—no," he said. "I, I, it, it is absolutely no factor. It's nothing, so. Just been around a long time, that's all."
endeavors have been studied so closely by so many people with such fascination for such a long time as the game of baseball. Historians, economists and statisticians scrutinize everything that happens and compare it with everything else that already happened, going back to 1871. This ocean of numbers can tell us a lot about Bobby Cox. For example: He makes pitchers better. J.C. Bradbury, author of the 2008 book The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed, looked at pitchers who had thrown for multiple teams and compared their performances for Cox with their performances for other teams. Using a sophisticated technique called multiple regression analysis, Bradbury factored out variables such as hitter-friendly ballparks, league ERA differences, team defense and pitchers' ages. What remained was a meaningful Cox Effect, worth about a quarter of a run every nine innings. (True, the Leo Mazzone Effect was even larger, but the Cox Effect existed even in the 14 years Mazzone wasn't Cox's pitching coach.)
But this story is about ejections, and the ocean of numbers can answer many questions there too. For starters we have Cox's quote: Just been around a long time, that's all. Does this explain why he had been tossed 156 times through Sunday? No. Cox, who will retire after this season, has managed 4,438 games, fourth-most in baseball history, for the Braves (1978--81), Blue Jays (1982--85) and Atlanta again (1990 until now). But Tony La Russa has managed more games than Cox and has barely half the ejections. Joe Torre has managed almost as many games and has fewer than half the ejections. Connie Mack managed for 53 years, and he's not even among the top 10 ejectees. Bobby Cox hasn't just been around a long time. He's been getting thrown out a lot for a long time. The previous record holder—McGraw, the New York Giants' manager from 1902 to 1932—was known for kicking umpires with his cleats and getting ejected on purpose so he could go bet on horses. Bobby Cox has gotten booted at a rate about 50% higher than McGraw's rate as a manager.
The mystery, then, is why. Why would a man who hates attention draw it to himself so frequently? More to the point: Why would the same man become one of the most successful managers of all time? Is there a connection?
The Chipper Jones Momentum-Turn Hypothesis implies one. But it has not been accepted as scientific fact. "People think you can spark teams by [getting ejected]," Nationals manager Manny Acta told The Washington Post in 2007. "It's just not true. [The Braves] never won any of those games because he got thrown out of the game."
For this story we examined all 156 of Bobby Cox's ejections, from the first, in 1978, to the most recent, last Saturday in a loss to the Brewers. Can a manager make his team better by frequently leaving the game? This is a good question. But you won't understand the answer until you start to understand Bobby Cox.
ejection came on May 1, 1978, and although the Braves did come back to beat the Mets 6--5 after Cox's departure, something else in the newspaper account was even more intriguing. The Atlanta Constitution reported that Braves pitcher Tommy Boggs found a sick blackbird before the game and nursed it back to health. The article said the blackbird "seemed to attack plate umpire Nick Colosi at the top of the seventh inning," after he had thrown Cox out. "Nobody knows for sure if Boggs gave the command to attack."
Boggs now coaches at Concordia University Texas in Austin. When asked if the story was true, he recalled something about a bird but denied using it as a weapon of vengeance. Then again, he said, "Sometimes I have a hard time remembering last week."
He was sure of one thing: "I'll be loyal to Bobby Cox for as long as I live."
was a young Atlanta pitcher named Mike Stanton who failed to hold a lead against the Cardinals. A hitter tapped the ball toward first, but Stanton hesitated for an instant before racing to cover the base. The hitter beat out a single. The Cardinals scored a run. And Stanton knew he had lost his team the game.
When Cox called him into the office that night, Stanton braced himself for a violent tirade. Cox was silent. He shuffled some papers on his desk. He sighed a few times. Finally he said, "We can't have that."
That was all. We can't have that. Stanton didn't sleep that night. It was as if he had disappointed his father. Bobby Cox never called Mike Stanton into the office again. And for the rest of his seven seasons with the Braves, Stanton was never again beaten to the bag on a grounder to first.
of numbers is clear on this point: Bobby Cox wins baseball games with nearly unprecedented frequency. Only three managers in the game's history—Mack, McGraw and La Russa—have more wins than Cox's 2,467 through Sunday. And Cox's career winning percentage (.556) beats La Russa's (.535) and Mack's (.486). Moreover, Cox holds a record that stretches across all major U.S. professional sports. Starting in 1991 his Braves won their division 14 times in a row.
The ocean of numbers is just as clear about this: When Cox is ejected, his team usually loses. In those 156 games, his winning percentage is .385. But he often gets thrown out when his team is already losing.
What happens after he's gone?
THE WORST THING
Bobby Cox ever did to an umpire took place after the seventh ejection, and he swore it was a combination of accident and self-defense. On Aug. 6, 1980, Jerry Dale ruled that Braves shortstop Rafael Ramirez had not stepped on second base while turning a double play. Cox got in Dale's face, cursing, and when Cox threw his cap, Dale threw him out. But Cox kept flapping his mouth, and before you knew it—ping!—he'd anointed Dale with tobacco juice.
Cox later said the initial stream was an innocent side effect of trying to yell and chew tobacco at the same time, but he admitted to firing another salvo on purpose because he believed Dale spat back at him. The umpire was stunned. "I always thought Bobby Cox was a bigger man than that," he said after the game, which the Braves lost 6--2 thanks to the three-run homer they gave up immediately after Cox's departure.
But if Dale held a grudge, the ocean of numbers doesn't reveal it. That was the first time he threw Cox out, and the last.
At least 83 umpires have tossed Cox over the years, and about half have done it only once. As former ump Harry Wendelstedt once said, "Everybody can't be wrong." Major League Baseball would not allow any current umpire to be interviewed for this story, but former Braves coach Ned Yost, now the Royals' manager, said the umps understand that Cox's eruptions are just business: "Every umpire that you talk to will say that you can go out and get into it with Bobby Cox during the game. They may eject him, he may be mad, but the next day it's like it never happened."
Bob Davidson shares the record for most ejections of Cox: six. "If I was a ballplayer," Davidson told The New York Times in 2007, "I'd want to play for Bobby Cox."
ejection was never consummated, at least in the strictest sense of the rules, which direct the banished man to the clubhouse, the grandstand or off the premises altogether. Cox did leave the premises once, in Chicago, by taxicab, so angry that, he said, "If I had stayed, I might have murdered somebody." But this is rare for someone who arrives at the ballpark hours earlier than necessary because he's afraid he might miss something. Cox would rather not leave the game at all. And so he lurks.
On this day, Sept. 25, 1983, Cox (managing the Blue Jays after the Braves fired him for not winning fast enough) was ejected for flinging a bat on the field after Derryl Cousins ruled that Toronto pitcher Dave Stieb had hit the A's Mike Davis. So Cox watched the rest of the game through a crack in the fence behind home plate. He may have done some managing from back there. Various beat reporters over the years have noticed him directing the team from the dugout tunnel after he's been tossed. He has never reappeared in the dugout disguised in sunglasses and an eye-black mustache, as the Mets' Bobby Valentine once did, because he has never cared for theatrics. This is the consensus around the major leagues: Bobby Cox never gets ejected for show. If he throws things, it's because he's actually angry. Other managers admit to intentionally provoking umpires to get thrown out and inspire their teams, but Cox insists he's never done that.
Braves broadcaster Brian Jordan said that when Cox is ejected at Turner Field, he goes to a special room within shouting distance of the dugout and watches the game on a plasma television. "He just goes right down the steps," said Jordan, one of Cox's former players. "He's still calling the shots."
of numbers shows that Cox is most likely to be thrown out in the fifth or sixth inning, least likely in the second or ninth. He's been ejected twice in the 10th inning, three times in the 13th, and 15 times in the first. If these numbers add up to anything, it would have to be anger, sincere and uncalculated. No manager in his right mind goes out in the first or the 13th looking to get tossed.
The 31st ejection came during a rain delay. Toronto had a 3--2 lead over Boston after 4½ innings, making the game barely official, and the Jays couldn't wait to get it in the books. A summer storm had rolled in and parked over Exhibition Stadium. Two hours passed. Jays second baseman Damaso Garcia asked crew chief Joe Brinkman if he would call the game already. Brinkman took offense. Cox rushed to take up the fight, and Brinkman threw him out. The rain stopped, and the bullpen gave up the lead, and the Jays lost 5--3.
So: Cox's teams don't have to be losing when he departs in order to lose after he's gone. It has happened seven times. They're winning. He gets himself tossed. And then they collapse.
ejection took place almost five years later, after one of the strangest plays of all time. Atlanta--Fulton County Stadium was an odd place back then: dark patches on the infield dirt, grass like a bad haircut, desolate banks of orange seats populated only by the occasional shirtless man. Cox had returned to the Braves as general manager, spent four years building a farm system with great young players—Tom Glavine, David Justice, John Smoltz—and then gone back to the dugout, where he could watch them grow up.
Down 5--3 to the Expos in the fourth, the Braves had runners on first and second with two outs and an 0-and-2 pitch coming to Jim Presley. The ball scraped the dirt, but Presley couldn't check his swing. Forgetting to tag Presley out, the Montreal catcher made a wild throw to first base. It sailed into right field. The runner on second took off and slid into home well ahead of the rightfielder's throw. Instead of running to first, however, a confused Presley had moved several feet behind home plate. Finally the third baseman got the catcher's attention and persuaded him to throw to first, finishing a 2-9-2-3 strikeout, ending the inning and erasing the run.
The crowd of 11,237 murmured in perplexity. Cox hobbled out to confront Bob Davidson, followed him up the baseline and demonstrated a checked swing. He went back to the dugout and kept arguing. Davidson urged him to be gone. Cox shook his head, angry words pouring from his lips. He assumed a mock batting stance and took a full swing, as if to imitate what Jim Presley did not do. Never mind that Presley would have saved the run simply by jogging to first. Cox could blame the player or he could blame the umpire. His choice was never in doubt.
FOR THIS STORY
the Braves granted a single half-hour interview with Cox, in his office at Turner Field. "In all your life," he was asked, "what are the things that are most important to you?"
He paused for 11 seconds.
"Everything's important," he finally said. "The game of baseball's important. Your family life's important. It's important, for me, to give everything I can give. You know, as a manager. That's very important. So. What else?" And he chuckled.
Here are a few of the ways in which Bobby Cox gives everything he can give as a manager. He treats everyone like a man, from bat boys to 20-year veterans. He keeps track of retired players and occasionally writes them checks if they need money. When a player is released, Cox calls other teams, trying to find him another job. When the game starts, he stands on the top step of the dugout, calling out encouragement. He calls his players by affectionate nicknames. Over the years he has cheered for Knucksie, Campy, Boggsy, Pokey, Hubby, Rock, Horns, Murph, Lemmer, Smoltzie, Teepee, Mad Dog, Glav, Chip, Fookie, Mac, Roscoe, Esco, Schafe and Wick. His voice carries across the infield and into the other dugout, where opposing players hear him and wish they could play for a man like that.
no way to know how many times Cox has saved a player from ejection. The number must be large. David Vincent found that since Cox took over in 1990, the Braves' player-ejection rate has been about half the major league average.
We found evidence of at least six times that Cox took an ejection to keep a player from getting tossed. Then we looked at how those players used their second chances.
The salvation backfired once, on June 8, 1996, when Tom Glavine allowed 12 hits and seven runs after Cox rescued him from the thumb of Gary Darling.
Four other times it succeeded. Steve Avery pitched 2 1/3 innings more without allowing a hit. Tim Hudson cruised through the next six innings to get the win. Chipper Jones had that walk-off double against the Giants. It even happened once in the World Series, Game 6 in 1996, when Marquis Grissom exploded over a blown call at second base and Cox was ejected after helping other coaches restrain the Atlanta outfielder. In the ninth inning Grissom hit a two-out single to bring in a run and put the tying run on second. The Braves could have sent it to extra innings if Mark Lemke hadn't popped up to end the Series.
The sixth time is notable in its own way. On May 4, 1998, Ryan Klesko was in the dugout, airing various grievances to umpire Joe Nauert, when Nauert walked toward the bench to shut him up. It was the eighth inning. Klesko had already made his final plate appearance and was scheduled for defensive replacement in the ninth. Cox stepped up and took the ejection anyway.
January 1978, in a clothing store in a midsized city in northeastern Georgia, a young female employee watched a man with suspicion. She thought he was a shoplifter, as opposed to the new manager of the Braves passing the time before a publicity appearance at the mall. Which is why she tried to have him arrested.
When it was all ironed out, Cox said the least she could do was give him her phone number. And so eventually she became Pam Cox, Bobby's second wife.
Seven years later, near the end of her husband's time with the Blue Jays, Pam Cox was the subject of a feature story in the Toronto Star in which she wistfully estimated that his life was 99.75% baseball. She told of a rare family trip to Toronto's Metro Zoo and Cox's fascination with one species in particular:
"It's those gorillas, he's just mesmerized by them," says Pam, her voice a soft Southern singsong. "He could stand there and watch them all day long. I could not understand why until he said to me, 'Honey, would you just look at the arms on those guys. Could you imagine our team signing one of them up?' "
Cox could not leave the game at the ballpark. And while it seemed as though he had mastered his anger—confined it to the one place where he could churn it into loyalty and success—that notion came into question the night his wife called to have him arrested. It was May 7, 1995. He had been drinking, and he spilled a drink on the carpet. She made a comment he didn't appreciate. The police report said she told an officer that her husband grabbed her by the hair and hit her in the face.
"I asked Pamela Cox if this kind of incident had ever occurred before," officer Sonya Lee wrote. "Pamela Cox told me that this was the first time police had been called but that there had been 5--6 previous incidents involving physical abuse in their 18-year marriage. When asked, Pamela Cox stated that she has sustained blackened eyes and a broken hand, injuries inflicted by her husband."
There was a media firestorm when the news broke, but Cox and the Braves quickly contained it. He held a press conference the next day to deny hitting his wife. The battery charge disappeared when he agreed to take anger-management counseling.
Loyalty is a powerful thing. Pam Cox stood by her husband at the press conference, and she saved him. "He didn't hit me," she said.
You were wrong if you thought Bobby Cox would stay home with his wife that night. The Phillies were in town, and he was needed in the dugout.
in the clubhouse in Fort Lauderdale when he got his first job as a minor league manager, in the Yankees system in 1971. He had five young children with his first wife, but he made barely $7,000 a year, and that wasn't enough to bring the family with him to Florida. So they stayed behind.
"I put my heart and soul in that," Cox said. "In my mind, everybody was a big leaguer, and it was my job to get 'em to the big leagues. I did work hard. But you wouldn't trade those experiences for anything."
If you tracked down any of his players from those days, they would say the same thing all the other players did. They would say Bobby Cox was the best manager they ever had—showering them with praise in public, gently correcting them in private, cheering for them when nobody else would, fiercely defending them from every conceivable danger. They would help you create a composite sketch of Bobby Cox, and when it was done he would look remarkably like the perfect father.
Would the five children of his first family say the same thing? One of them, the middle daughter, Connie Perkins, said her father came home whenever he could and took all five of them golfing and once agreed to serve as a show-and-tell exhibit for her third-grade class.
She wasn't sure why her mother, Mary, asked for the divorce—loneliness, maybe?—but she said when Mary died about four years ago, Bobby paid for the funeral.
Three of the five children live in California, but Connie and her sister Shelley moved near Atlanta decades ago to be closer to their father. They often bring their own families down to Florida to join him for spring training.
She was asked what she thought about her father's arrest. "I think the media blew it way out of proportion," she said. "He's never touched anybody that I know of, not me, not my siblings. He's not that type of person.
"He was always there when we needed him," she said, but then she added, "I think baseball is his love, before everything."
ejection was described thusly by John Smoltz on the SportSouth television network:
My favorite one's gotta be Cincinnati, when I got thrown out for no reason [by the third base umpire]. And then Bobby just came out to try and protect me from the umpire, and the umpire threw him out. And I can't repeat what was said out there, but he told me to go stand on the mound and I wasn't coming out of the game. And I stood there with my arms crossed, and unfortunately it didn't work. I had to come out of the game. I got thrown out. But it was a priceless moment.
ejection is a crucial piece of evidence for the Chipper Jones Momentum-Turn Hypothesis. On a rainy night in San Francisco, April 7, 2006, the Braves were down 6--4 to the Giants in the seventh inning when Cox came out to inform first base umpire Greg Gibson that the last strike was not, in fact, a strike. Gibson threw him out. In the same at bat Andruw Jones hit a two-run single to tie the game. The Braves scored eight times that inning and twice more in the eighth for a 14--6 win. It was Cox's first ejection in 91 games, which appears to be a personal record. The best the Braves ever performed after an ejection coincided with the end of Cox's longest drought. They may mean more when they happen less.
When searched at greater depth, the ocean of numbers confirms the Chipper Jones Momentum-Turn Hypothesis. Yes, Cox loses more often when he's thrown out. Yes, his teams have blown a few leads. But when we separate each game into two periods—before the ejection and after—and then average the team's performance in each period over 156 games, we can see the momentum turning.
On average, at the moment in the game when Cox is thrown out, his team is losing by a little more than a run. And on average, for the rest of the game, his team outplays the opponent by about a third of run. It's not always enough to turn a loss into a win. But it makes a difference. When the game has been tied at the point of his ejection, Cox's teams have gone on to win more than they've lost. And they have almost three times as many comeback wins post-ejection as blown leads. Manny Acta says the Braves never won because Cox was ejected. The ocean of numbers says otherwise.
Has Cox mellowed with age? These figures may help you decide.
Total Ejections, First 14 Seasons: 48
Total Ejections, Next 14 Seasons: 98
ejection, on June 21, 2009, involved a little-known pitcher named Eric O'Flaherty, who had come to the Braves after finishing the previous season with an ERA of 20.25. On O'Flaherty's first day at Turner Field, Cox came up and talked with him for half an hour, covering numerous topics that had nothing to do with baseball. It was the longest talk O'Flaherty ever had with a manager. Then, when O'Flaherty needed some shower shoes, Cox offered his own pair.
Anyway, the 148th ejection completed a chain reaction that began when O'Flaherty threw a pitch that seemed to disobey the laws of physics. Viewed from the mound it crossed the heart of the plate. Viewed from behind the plate, where umpire Bill Hohn stood, it missed the plate entirely. O'Flaherty protested. Hohn took the bait. Chipper Jones stepped in to defend O'Flaherty. Cox stepped in to defend them both. Hohn ejected all three.
The Braves lost to the Red Sox 6--5, dropping their record to 32--36. But this is when the momentum turned in the 2009 season. The Braves won their next game and 54 of their next 88, nearly overtaking the Rockies in the wild-card race before going cold at the end of September.
After Cox is ejected, his team wins the next night's game more than 60% of the time. The momentum turns and then keeps going.
Coach and Athletic Director magazine: What has been the secret to your success in a profession that discards managers like yesterday's newspaper?
Cox: Good players. We've had good players here forever. Whatever little success I've had, that would be the key.
AFTER THIS SEASON,
at age 69, at the time of his own choosing, Bobby Cox will take himself out of the game. Even then he won't really leave. Sure, he'll spend more time with his wife and the 14 kids who call him Gran-Bobby, but he'll stay with the Braves in the nebulous role of "consultant," scouting the minors for more good players.
By now, maybe you see what his players see.
That getting tossed can be an act not of hubris but of humility, because it means Bobby Cox values himself less than the man he's saving, and because he will inhabit the place he hates most—the spotlight—in order to save him.
That it can be an act not of aggression but of sacrifice, because even if he keeps control, he loses something even more important: a place on the top step of the dugout, a clear view of the game.
That the ocean of numbers matters less than the knowledge that Bobby Cox will fight for his players, right or wrong, whether or not it makes tactical sense, in the first inning or the 13th, in a rain delay in Toronto or in the washroom at Shea Stadium, with water gushing from a shattered toilet.
The 150th ejection came to pass on July 29, 2009, after a Braves player in the dugout yelled something at Bill Hohn, and Hohn took off his mask and came over brandishing his lineup card. He didn't know who'd done the yelling, but someone would have to pay.
"I have to throw somebody out," he said, or something like that, and the players were not surprised to see what Bobby Cox did next.