Manager Ejections as Performance Art

Manager ejections work, but that's beside the point.

There was this VHS tape in the 80s that my brother and I absolutely wore out at my grandparents’ house. It was a copy of “Baseball: Funny Side Up,” a compilation of baseball bloopers and comedy sketches from the days before YouTube. As a child, one thing struck me in particular, and that was the segment on manager ejections (set to “Why Can’t We Be Friends”). At that age, I had no experience with grownups absolutely and thoroughly losing their cool as the managers did in that tape, and it was endlessly fascinating to me. To this day, the manager ejection remains the most exciting thing that can happen at a ballgame (non-baseball play division, of course).

I’d argue that the entertainment value from managers being given the old heave-ho is intentional. Rather than litigating an actual call itself, the manager and umpire argument followed by an ejection is instead a performance done for the benefit of its audience- in other words, an art form.

For our purposes, performance art can be defined in a few ways. First, it is a live performance. Second, the performance is not actually “about” its purported subject, in the same way a flash mob is not actually about the dance choreography itself. Rather, meaning is conveyed instead through the medium and context of the performance.

In the example of baseball ejections, it’s not as simple as an actual discussion of the rules or judgement of the umpire that has a chance to affect the outcome or reality of the game. Consider why coaches aren’t ejected in a similar manner in other sports. Surely basketball, football, and soccer coaches want to win as badly as MLB managers, and the officials of those sports also need to maintain some element of authority and control over the game? Those ejections do happen, of course, but none other happen with the same forceful and exaggerated motions of the baseball umpire. Rather than conveying information (which could be done with a colored card as in soccer, or simply a thumb motion and announcement as in football), the umpire is instead conveying meaning behind the actual act itself. The umpire is performing an exaggerated “toss” to convey that the manager has lost all control and that the umpire must urgently eject (!) the manager from the game (perhaps the very best example of this is from the legendary tossing of Earl Weaver, when umpire Bill Haller dismisses Weaver while exclaiming “kaboom!”).

Managers have a role to play here, as well. There are instances where managers have a legitimate question or rules clarification to ask. I argue that in most that result in ejection, the manager is not actually attempting to overturn a call (that seems unlikely, after all), but rather to prove a different point– that the call is so bad, it warrants a risk of ejection, and that he is standing up for the team at his own risk. 

Consider the extreme end of managerial ejections; the ones that go viral can’t be construed as anything but a piece of performance. In these instances, managers are certainly no longer even saying anything about the game of baseball itself; they are making spectacle to make spectacle where (in the rules of the game) it does not belong. 

The saying goes that “you can’t argue balls and strikes,” and often announcers will state this as a fact of the law (i.e., the rules) of baseball. And that’s both true, and does seem to be a quick way for managers to earn ejections. However, a closer inspection of the rules is instructive in this discussion. From MLB’s rule book, rule 9.02 (a) (emphasis mine):

Any umpire’s decision which involves judgment, such as, but not limited to, whether a batted ball is fair or foul, whether a pitch is a strike or a ball, or whether a runner is safe or out, is final. No player, manager, coach or substitute shall object to any such judgment decisions.

By the rules, not only are managers disallowed from arguing balls and strikes, but they really can’t object to much of anything (except interpretations of the rules, which seem to pop up less frequently). So we have now established that umpires are not merely following the rulebook if conventional wisdom suggests “arguing balls and strikes” is a reason to get thrown out, assuming that is often the cause of ejections. It must be that umpires are using ejections for purposes other than a strict rule interpretation.

Another aspect of manager ejections as a performance is telling, and it involves all of us. Consider attending your local home team’s game. Your manager, feeling particularly aggrieved by a close play, goes out to heatedly argue and is ejected. What is the crowd’s reaction? 

Now imagine watching your team one night at a rival team’s stadium on tv. The same manager again goes out to argue only to be tossed by the umpire. What is the other team’s crowd reaction?

How can the same manager being ejected from the game be a good, cheerable act for two opposing teams? It’s only if the content (the manager’s participation in the game) doesn’t matter, only the context (e.g., “our manager is standing up for us!” for the home crowd, and “good for the umpire for not taking his grief!” for when the team is away). The managers and umpires are performing their roles for their audiences– either the other personnel on the field, or perhaps the fans in the stands.

Managers may know this intuitively. Surely they know that both their teams would not do well without a manager long-term, and that they’re unlikely to overturn a call. Yet managers still argue and risk ejection —  perhaps because they know it works in a different sense. The argument isn’t actually about the call, as we’ve explored. Instead the performance is done for the benefit of the team.

To ascertain this, our data scientist Justin Filteau pulled the data from all games from 2000-2020 to determine the run scoring environment before and after ejections:

Context Runs/Inning
Games without an ejection 1.05
Before ejections 1.03
After ejections 1.13


Run scoring goes up in the innings after an ejection, and quite significantly! Again, the calls themselves aren’t likely to be overturned after an ejection (though it’s particularly funny to imagine an umpire ejecting a manager only to then have second thoughts and reconsider that actually, it was a pretty good point he made and reversing himself). If it was, it could be explained that after an overturned call there are likely more events that would lead to game-deciding actions; but that’s not what’s happening. So the act of ejection must have some other effect, one that goes beyond the manager’s (purported) goal of getting the call “right.”

Of course, this isn’t to make light of the fact that Major League umpires and managers get paid to do a job and regardless of how lucrative it is, they should still expect to be free from abuse in the workplace. Instead, perhaps a theoretical approach to manager and umpire arguments and objections such as this one can provide a frame through which to view the actions of the opposition. 

By all accounts of our working definition of performance art, managerial ejections fit the bill. They are live performances in which meaning is derived only from their context —  the content of the arguments or rulebook is almost beside the point.

Managers and umpires are not really arguing balls and strikes. They’re using performance to communicate larger truths or points of view, and if that isn’t art, what is?

Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire| Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Sean Roberts

Sean Roberts is a baseball columnist for Pitcher List. His work has been featured on Baseball Prospectus, the Hardball Times, and October. He's still getting used to the DH in the national league. @seanroberts.bsky.social

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