Posted: Wed July 31, 2013 2:21PM; Updated: Wed July 31, 2013 2:18PM
Steve Rushin
Steve Rushin>RUSHIN LIT

In appreciation of the soon-to-be-extinct dugout phone

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Hard wired phones have been a staple in dugouts for nearly 80 years, but will be replaced by cell phones starting next season.
Hard wired phones have been a staple in dugouts and bullpens for more than 80 years, but will soon be replaced by cell phones.
Getty Images

Who among us, watching David Ortiz beat a dugout phone with a baseball bat in Baltimore last weekend, did not think of the three IniTech employees -- egged on by the gangsta rap of Geto Boys -- destroying the printer with a baseball bat in Office Space?

And who among us hasn't been there ourselves, shattering an occasional inanimate object in anger? We've all swept a laptop computer off the desk when it's eaten a day's work on deadline, no? Or at least made confetti out of the inscrutable instructions on a German tricycle that requires "some assembly" at midnight on Christmas Eve? Or profanely threatened a car's GPS as it directs the driver, in a supercilious English accent, into some industrial oblivion?

Let he who hasn't snapped a 7-iron over his knee cast the first stone.

Athletes have a long history of violence against non-beings. Baseball's colorful history of object abuse includes the fading art of Flipping The Spread, in which a player or manager would overturn the clubhouse cold cut buffet, filling the air with flying lunch meat. Gatorade tubs, orange and pliant and shaped like squat speedbags, were evidently designed to be battered. And players have always treated ballpark toilets as porcelain piñatas -- though piñatas that have yet to yield candy, urinal mints notwithstanding.

The trouble with these acts -- and with Ortiz's in Baltimore -- is not just that they're frequently injurious to the assailant, and potentially dangerous to those around him, and their resulting mess is always left for someone else to clean up, and the violence sets a terrible example for (all together now) the kids.

No, there's also the small consideration that none of these objects -- coldcut spread, runway toilet, Gatorade tub -- deserves the abuse. The Office Space printer deserved it. The 7-iron certainly deserved it. Any stationary object on which you stub your toe clearly has it coming. But the Camden Yards telephone did nothing wrong. On the contrary, the dugout telephone -- and its partner of nearly a century, the bullpen phone -- are an endangered species that can ill afford such wanton abuse.

These are not smart phones, or cell phones, or the "cordless phones" still familiar from Seinfeld reruns. Rather, baseball dugouts are the last places on Earth that still house wall-mounted telephones with 50 feet of coiled cord, the kind you had to follow like a lifeline from the base unit in the kitchen, down the hallway and into the basement stairwell, where your sister would be monopolizing the line while you yelled to your parents that she's hogging the phone again.

Give them a rotary dial and a banana-yellow paint job and your average, iconic bullpen phone -- replete with a 15-pound handset that makes a formidable weapon in its own right -- could be the one mounted on the kitchen wall of the house that every current manager grew up in.

Of course, the dugout landline -- those not dispatched prematurely by angry strikeout victims -- will die a natural death soon enough. Over the winter Major League Baseball announced a deal with T-Mobile to eventually put cell phones, operating on their own private network, into every big-league dugout and bullpen, drawing to a close more than eight decades of hard-wired baseball telecommunications.

Yankee Stadium had a bullpen phone in 1930 and more than 80 years later the Yankee manager was using more or less the same device. The handset conveys gravitas and goofiness in equal measure. Some skippers look like they're ordering a missile strike, others look like they're ordering a stuffed-crust pizza, but none looks like a Little League parent yammering into a cell phone. At least not yet.

So before the bullpen phone joins the bullpen car in baseball heaven -- before it goes the way of switchboard operators and alphanumeric exchanges like FLatbush3-5000 -- pause to appreciate its pointless, retrograde beauty. Soon enough, the line will go dead, one more reminder of time's swift passage.

Until then, ask not for whom its bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

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