For most of Saturday’s tribute celebrating his retirement, Braves manager Bobby Cox hid his emotion behind a pair of aviator sunglasses.
They were part of his usual get-up – home whites, red-billed Braves cap, and of course his metal spikes. But when Cox put up his right hand to wave at a roaring crowd at Turner Field, one he had just thanked in the last of his speech from the podium, he had what looked to be a handkerchief or a tissue crumpled up in his right hand.
After the game, in the quiet in his office, with the pain of a 7-0 loss to the Phillies weighing heavy in the room, and shower water already running in the background, Cox admitted to the media that he did get a little emotional.
The assumption was it might have been when Chipper Jones raised goose bumps around the record crowd of 54,296 when he said: “I’ve been trying to make you proud for 20 years.”
But Cox said it was something Jones said to him after that, when he leaned in to give him a hug, that choked him up. Cox didn’t want to divulge what it was, but Jones did.
It was three words.
“Told him I loved him,” Jones clarified.
Jones had taken the podium, in between speeches by Braves CEO Terry McGuirk and president John Schuerholz, with the idea that he would speak for hundreds of Cox’s former players. But it might have been the three words he said walking away from it that spoke the loudest.
Cox has always been known as a player’s manager. A group of 76 former players and coaches seated in white chairs on the infield grass, wearing their old Braves jerseys in tribute to their former manager, showed what that means.
Greg Maddux had flown in for a rare visit from his home in Las Vegas. Jeff Blauser, who has lived a very private post-baseball life, was there from his home in the Atlanta suburbs. Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry played for Cox for only one year, in 1981. He was there.
Fred McGriff was making a rare trip back, on a day his son was playing college football for Kansas.
“Bobby loves his guys,” said Dale Murphy, who made the trip in from Utah. “And that’s very motivating, no matter how long you’ve played.”
On Saturday they showed him their love back.
“The one constant of all the runs has been Bobby Cox,” Blauser said. “And it’s the way he treats his players as an equal, as a peer. No doubt he’s great manager; his record proves that. But he’s also a teammate. And that’s how we viewed him.”
Saturday’s ceremony began with a parade of pennants, one carried for each of his 25 years as manager of the Braves, including his 14 straight division titles and World Series in 1995. It featured two video montages and video messages from Commissioner Bud Selig and former Braves owner Ted Turner.
He was greeted by Atlanta opera tenor Timothy Miller, who sang the national anthem, a T-38 jet flyover, and an early-arriving majority of the largest regular season crowd in Atlanta history.
Schuerholz presented a portrait of him in a familiar pose, one leg up on the steps in the Braves dugout, right hand on his hip, left hand on the railing.
Then they rolled out a 2010 Black Lexus LS 460 with a red bow on top, which Cox gave a familiar one-clap of approval usually reserved for one of his players digging into the batter’s box.
The Braves players presented Cox and his wife Pam with an 11-day cruise to the Mediterranean.
“It was unbelievably great,” Cox said. “More than one could ever expect. I’m thankful to the fans and Braves. I wish we’d given them a better game.”
Cox has had all season and tributes around baseball to prepare for the end. But on the eve of the last and biggest tribute, he said that this season has flown by, as always.
“It feels like my whole career has flown by,” Cox said. “Nothing but a blur right now.”
Hall-of-Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro could relate. And that crossed his mind sitting there on the infield.
“My heart was almost breaking for him,” said Niekro, who retired from baseball at age 48. “Whether it be a day or a week or a year a month, it’s going to hit him. Not being able to come to this field every day and put that uniform on. He’ll probably never get over it.”