CHICAGO – Speculation about Braves manager Bobby Cox’s successor went from simmer to boil on Wednesday after Fredi Gonzalez was fired as Marlins manager.
Meanwhile, Cox blasted Marlins ownership over the move.
“He called me a little before 8 this morning,” said Cox, whom Gonzalez called from the Marlins’ hotel shortly after the firing. “I was shocked. I know that guy [Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria] is unpredictable, but I was still [surprised]…. After everything he’s done for that guy, are you [kidding] me?”
A Cox protégé and former Braves third-base coach, Gonzalez has long been mentioned as a potential leading candidate to succeed the venerable Atlanta manager, who’s retiring after this season.
The Marlins fired Gonzalez with a year left on his contract. Florida was in fourth place in the National League East, 7-1/2 games behind the division-leading Braves.
Gonzalez, 46, had a 276-279 record in 3-1/2 seasons as Marlins manager. The team finished 87-75 in 2009 despite having the smallest player payroll in the major leagues. Florida’s payroll increased to $45 million this season, still only about half of the Braves’ middle-of-the-pack payroll.
“They’ve gone down to the end [competing for a playoff spot] every year, playing their asses off,” Cox said. “That guy [Loria] doesn’t appreciate anything. He’s one of those guys that thinks you change [just for the sake of change]. He’s always wanting to fire the coaches. Always. That’s his history. He lost a good one there.”
Cox has announced he will retire at the end of the season, and general manager Frank Wren and other Braves officials have not given any indication whether they would prefer to fill the position in-house with a current Braves coach — Terry Pendleton or Eddie Perez are considered possibilities — or a manager from the Braves minor league system.
The Braves could go outside the organization and hire a veteran manager or coach who would not be intimidated by replacing the iconic Cox.
They might also view Gonzalez as the best of both worlds, a relatively young manager who’s proven he can win and also has connections to many current Braves players and the front office.
“As I have said from the beginning of the season, we won’t comment on the manager situation till after Bobby has managed his last game with us,” Wren said in an e-mail Wednesday. “As it pertains to Fredi Gonzalez, in light of what happened this morning, we all have high regard for Fredi but we won’t have any further comment.”
Veteran third baseman Chipper Jones said hiring Gonzalez would go over well with Braves players.
“I think everybody in here would love to have Fredi back,” Jones said. “He coached third base here for a few years, learned a lot from Bobby. He knows how things work around here. All the guys love him. I think he’d be a great fit. In what capacity, that remains to be seen. But some puzzle pieces would certainly fit [if Gonzalez was hired].”
Jones said having some continuity would make for a smoother transition to the next manager.
“I think culture shock is the last thing you need when you’re talking about bringing in a new manager, a new regime,” he said. “Right down to the little things of how you run spring training, how the everyday atmosphere around the clubhouse is – all those things are very important.
“While I think someone would certainly want to put their stamp on the club, I think having someone come in after Bobby who has been here and knows the program, knows the guys, would be to our advantage. To have somebody who knows the ropes.”
Gonzalez was born in Cuba and raised in Miami. He and his wife and two teen-aged children liked Atlanta so much during his four years as coach, they bought a house in Marietta and made it their permanent residence.
During his years with the Marlins, Gonzalez’s family continued living in Atlanta and his children attended Atlanta schools. They still live in their Marietta home, not far from Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell.
Whatever went sour between Gonzalez and Marlins ownership, no one connected with the Braves seemed to view it as a reflection on Gonzalez.
“We heard, just like everybody else in baseball, that the relationship between Fredi and ownership down there [wasn't good],” Jones said. “It’s unfortunate, because I don’t know if people down in Florida really knew how good a guy they had. I can’t imagine anybody every having a beef with Fredi. But it just goes to show you that no matter what you do, no matter what walk of life you’re in, you can not please everybody. And unfortunately, if you can’t please management, it doesn’t bode well for the longevity of your existence there….
“But one team’s loss is another team’s gain. Just a matter of who that’s going to be.”