Monday, April 14, 2008

No argument

I've always been mystified by the different ways the four major sports leagues (and, for the moment, I'll include the NHL) handle arguments with their officials. In one sport, there's virtually no consequence. In another, it can get you a penalty. And in one of the four sports, the officials themselves conduct themselves in a very unofficial way when faced with a boisterous arguer.

That sport, of course, is baseball, where roaring, screaming confrontations between managers, players, and umpires are, if not altogether commonplace, accepted and tolerated. It is also, interestingly, the only of the four sports where an ejection does not include any kind of in-game penalty, apart from the removal of the player or manager. In hockey, an ejection usually includes penalty minutes, in basketball technical fouls, and in football a 15-yard penalty. Yet perhaps it's simply the ubiquity of the ejection in baseball and its acceptance that precludes any other foul being levied against the ejected person's team.

At this point, proponents of Bobby Cox will come up (probably out of the dugout, screaming) with the notion that a good manager will get himself ejected rather than let one of his players argue to the point of being ejected. This, to me, smacks of a "can't leave the bench" kind of excuse. You might remember Game 4 of the Suns-Spurs series a few years ago when Robert Horry decked Steve Nash and several players were suspended for Game 5 for leaving the bench. Many of the talking heads the next day were griping that the penalty shouldn't have been so harsh, that the players "couldn't help themselves" for leaving the bench.

Of course, in hockey, leaving the bench for a fight now results in a heavy fine and likely suspension, which is why you don't see full-ice brawls any more. Somehow, hockey players are able to contain themselves while basketball players, at least in this one instance, were not. Go figure. If, say, a baseball manager of player faced a 10-game suspension for being ejected, I'd imagine they'd find a way to hold their tongues.

My point in all this is to question why baseball players are unable to avoid ejection to the point that their manager needs to fall on the ejection grenade and get himself tossed rather than let his star player go. On the one hand, baseball has probably more "unwritten rules" than any other sport, and players always believe themselves to be in the right. ("We never throw at the other guys, but you better believe that guy was throwing at our guy.") Umpire-manager arguments are a way of life in baseball, an indelible part of its history (and histrionics) and, while they do serve a purpose, maybe a manager would be better off telling his players to shut up once in a while.

Then again, I also think the umpires, trained by years of thinking themselves invulnerable and immune to criticism and possessing a remarkable ego, welcome such confrontations, knowing that they have the full authority in the situation. While players in the other three sports usually limit their beefs with officials to the occasional dirty glare or eye roll, the coaches definitely pick up the slack. The vision of Mike Ditka, or any other NFL coach, screaming at a side judge who stoically tunes him out, is as easy to visualize as Lou Piniella getting tossed after his calming drink of bottled water.

So why is it that the non-baseball officials don't fight back? Sure, they'll talk back to the coach sometimes, perhaps even argue their point or try to forcefully explain their decision, but you never get into anything like the classic chest-bumping, dirt-kicking, verbal war you get in baseball (and certainly nothing like this). Why do baseball umpires lower themselves to the level of their foes? Years of zero accountability probably have something to do with it, and, like fighting in hockey, it's probably just one of baseball's little eccentricities that will never be changed.

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