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"—no," he said. "I, I, it, it is absolutely no factor. It's nothing, so. Just been around a long time, that's all."
FEW HUMAN 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.
THE FIRST 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."
THERE ONCE 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.