The “rhubarb”… Major League Baseball’s traditional manager-umpire, in your face, eye-bulging, vein-popping tirade, usually over a blown call at first base, or when fans reach over fences to steal homers from outstretched gloves…. is facing extinction.
Sports fans who enjoy baseball (or not), will find a good old “rhubarb” at the ballpark a reason to recall fond memories while passing summer nights. Sadly, the introduction of instant replay in 2014 could create an environment that diminishes the value of a classic component of baseball’s cultural heritage. And it’s a component worth keeping.
Until this year baseball fans could factor in the probability of Spontaneous Managerial Combustion as part of their end-user experience at baseball diamonds across the country. Viewers at home could also enhance their amusement by lip-reading profanity-laced insults amidst the spray of spit simply by hitting the rewind button.
But not anymore.
On field managers can now challenge most umpire’s calls under the instant replay system. Each manager is allowed one challenge per game, with additional challenges allowed later, subject to success of the first. All disputes are reviewed by the MLB Replay Center in New York within seconds.
Although most major sports these days use instant replay as a means of settling controversial calls, baseball stands alone with respect to being the only sport where the sole penalty for excessive argument is ejection.
Basketball has the technical foul, and there is a 15-yard penalty in football for unsportsmanlike conduct. In hockey a player can get nailed with a 2 minute bench penalty, but in tennis an opponent might be awarded a point if his playing partner throws down a vintage John McEnroe over a line call.
Only in baseball has arguing calls been allowed with such passion without penalty prior to ejection, which doesn’t occur unless the “discussion” dents the lines of decency, or causes unnecessary delay. The style and tempo of the game, however, happens to be conducive to sudden fur-flying fits of rage over a late-inning disagreement at 3rd base.
If you’ve never seen pint-sized Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver’s 6 minute stream of consciousness directed at a much taller umpire, get yourself over to YouTube for a bit of a howl. Former Cincinnati Reds and Seattle Mariners manager Lou Pinella’s rants, like the one where he pulled 2nd base off it’s peg and threw it into center field, were so epic they could easily be GIF’d into a Buzzfeed mashup.
But the ruler of the rhubarb roost had to be former New York Yankee and Oakland A’s manager, Billy Martin. Martin had a laser-like focus for detail, was wound like a knot, and had a hair-trigger personality as volatile as a roadside IED.
Billy Martin was MLB’s best example of Spontaneous Managerial Combustion lying in wait. His meltdowns were so entertaining that fans could be forgiven for thinking they might have been rehearsed poolside in Palm Beach during the off-season.
In one of his semi-recurring routines, Martin had a habit of kicking dirt on umpires the same way cats bury their own feces. Only Billy Martin could channel Marcel Marceau well enough to let every fan in the ballpark know he was calling the umpire a piece of “cat $h_t” on national television (which was then still a vast wasteland of relative G-Rated programming)
Instant replay will eliminate the Skoal-laced, spit-spewing rhubarb from the great game of baseball because the conditions that create Spontaneous Managerial Combustion are being diminished. In fact, this process is already evident in the first few games of the season.
Now, when a dispute arises, a manager still runs onto the field to confront an umpire. Instead of ripping his head off, however, the two have a friendly chat to ensure the bench has sufficient time to review film from behind the dugout to determine if a challenge is warranted.
Where, exactly, are the optics in that?
A good ol’ fashioned rhubarb is part of the pageantry of the game.
The instant replay process now plays out like a couple of attorneys consulting an independent arbitrator. The net result of diminishing the conditions for a good verbal scrum, and backfilling it with the equivalent of dead air, is a reduction in entertainment value.
That’s a give-away that can never be gotten back, and could reduce the classic rhubarb to legend and folklore.
Imagine the day when grandfathers are forced to embellish versions of the afternoon Philadelphia Phillies manager Jim Fergosi, “A cheek filled with chewing tobacco the size of a golf ball, went off on the umpire like a firecracker on the Fourth of July…”
But the grandson interrupts to ask inquisitively, “Grandpa, what’s a firecracker?
The grandpa stops mid-sentence and responds… “Maybe we should back up a bit.”
This commentary appeared at Last Word on Sports on Thursday, April 4, 2014. The original post can be read here