Atlanta – The first game that Bobby Cox managed in the majors was opening day 1978, Braves against the Dodgers at old Fulton County Stadium. Don Sutton was the winning pitcher for the Dodgers, Phil Niekro the loser for Cox’s Braves.
I was 15.
This afternoon, 68-year-old Cox will manage what he steadfastly insists will be his last opening day in the dugout. Sutton will be in the Braves’ broadcast booth. Niekro turned 71 last week.
I’m not 15.
And so it goes.
Chipper Jones was slowly pulling on his uniform before yesterday’s workout, moving at that Chipper pace that says, “I’m creaky and cranky, so make sure the question’s damn good.”
The question was about Cox, the only major league manager that nearly 38-year-old Chipper has played for. He perked up a little, because though he’s answered about 1,000 similar questions since the day last year when Cox announced this would be his final season as manager, Chipper doesn’t tire of these questions.
“We want to do what we can to make it a special one for him,” he said. “It’s crazy how the time has passed so quickly; I always thought Bobby would be here long after me.”
They all want to do what they can to send Cox out on a high note. All the current Braves and, if they could, the vast majority of former Braves. But you know how much they love the old man, so we’ll not go there again today.
Because today, after all, is about rebirth, right? The season will feel like a curtain call in a lot of cities, as Cox makes his final appearance in NL ballparks, gets some standing ovations and lot of parting gifts, etc.
Today at Turner Field, however, will be more about the possibilities ahead this season than about all that’s happened in a quarter-century of Braves baseball under Cox. There will be more than enough time to reflect on all that during the six-month marathon that begins today.
The beautiful marathon. Grueling and tedious at times. And yet so rewarding for those who stick with it, day after day. I’m not really even talking about the players getting paid big bucks to do this for a living, either.
I mean you all. And me. All of us in the booths, the pressboxes, the box seats and nosebleeds, in front of TVs or listening to radios. This is so much of what we’re about, isn’t it? For better or worse, and I sure like to think for better.
Nothing else compares. No other sport is even remotely similar to the epic nature of baseball. The thick, complex novel that is a baseball season. Sure, it can be enjoyed in bits and pieces, with a good series here or an exciting game there. But being there for every game, turning every page at the pace it was meant to be turned, that’s where baseball gives us the most satisfaction.
And that, of couse, is also why it’s fallen out of favor with a big segment of the population over the last few decades. Because these days, some don’t think it’s worth taking the time to appreciate and enjoy any leisure activity that moves at such a relatively slow pace for nine innings, much less for 162 games of nine innings apiece.
Then again, this isn’t really a leisure activity anyway, right? This is baseball, man. This is for the serious sports fan. The thinking sports fan. Sure, there will be vitriol flying and “ballgame” called after four innings if the Braves fall behind by a few runs.
There will be a segment of us that swear it’s the same-old, same-old if Cox makes a call to the bullpen and what some here deem to be the wrong pitcher starts warming up after that call.
And if Melky Cabrera goes 0-for-4 and Jason Heyward is 2-for-4 with a walk in his much-anticipated debut, there will be plenty who suggest Cox is crazy for not having the kid bat leadoff when his OBP was so much higher this spring and throughout his brief minor league career and blah blah blah.
But that’s all part of it, right? Jim Leyland once said, when we asked the then-Marlins manager about a guy that fell off the Miami Metrorail while partying during the week of the 1997 World Series, that it “was all part of it.”
A guy falling off the train, of course, was not part of it. The point is, Leyland was such a ridiculously focused human being at that time, he didn’t even hear the question, or was thinking about seven other things and couldn’t devote the thought required to answer the question with anything other than his stock answer for most questions that afternoon.
And that little anecdote I just shared really has nothing to do with my original point in this now-rambling blog intro.
No, wait. It does. Let’s bring it back around.
The thick novel. The long, twisting, turning, always-interesting narrative that is a baseball season.
Leyland is a fascinating character in the best of such novels. Much like Cox or Lou Piniella, who’ll be in the other dugout today as the Braves face the Cubbies before a standing-room only crowd at Turner Field, a crowd that for once, I’m going to bet, will not be split evenly between Braves and Cubs fans.
This will clearly be a pro-Braves crowd. Because it’s opening day, and there’s excitement around Atlanta and Braves Nation. The Bravos are legitimate postseason contenders in the view of most pundits around the nation, including a few who’ve picked them to win the NL East and more who’ve tabbed them wild-card favorites.
Heyward is an overwhelming favorite to win NL Rookie of the Year, and some believe any of three Braves pitchers — Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Tim Hudson — could be in the running for NL Cy Young.
Who knows? None of us do. We can only speculate now. That’s the beauty of what’s ahead. So many storylines. So many possibilities. So many highs and lows and rewards (or heartache) for those who invest their time and emotions in following a team for the full 162.
We’ll be here. I know most of you will be.
It starts today. On a beautiful, sunny afternoon in Atlanta, with the great Hank Aaron throwing the ceremonial first pitch.
Baseball. Glorious freakin’ baseball.
AL East: Yankees
AL Central: White Sox
AL West: Rangers
AL Wild Card: Red Sox
NL East: Phillies
NL Central: Cardinals
NL West: Rockies
NL Wild Card: Braves
AL champion: Yankees
NL champion: Cardinals
World Series champion: Yankees
MVPs: Evan Longoria (AL), Albert Pujols (NL).
Cy Young Awards: Justin Verlander (AL), Roy Halladay (NL).
Rookies of the Year: Rays pitcher Wade Davis (AL), Jason Heyward (NL)
BRAVES LINEUP vs. CUBS
“There is no sports event like Opening Day of baseball, the sense of beating back the forces of darkness and the National Football League.” - George Vecsey
“NO COMPASSION” by David Byrne (Talking Heads)
In a world
where people have problems
In this world
where decisions are a way of life
Other people`s problems they overwhelm my mind
They say compassion is a virtue, but I don`t have the time
So many people…have their problems
I`m not interested…in their problems
I guess I`ve…experienced some problems
But now I`ve…made some decisions
Takes a lot of time to push away the nonsense
Take my compassion…Push it as far as it goes
My interest level`s dropping, my interest level is dropping
I`ve heard all I want to, I don`t want to hear any more
What are you, in love with your problems?
I think you take it…a little too far
It`s…not so cool to have so many problems
But don`t expect me to explain your indecisions
Go…talk to your analyst, isn`t that what they`re paid for
You walk, you talk…You still function like you used to
It`s not a question…Of your personality or style
Be a little more selfish, it might do you some good
In a world where people have problems
In this world where decisions are a way of life
Other people`s problems, they overwhelm my mind
They say compassion is a virtue, but I don`t have the time
(Here we go again)