LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Baseball never will really leave his head. The uniform never will really come off.
It will be opening day in 2011. Bobby Cox will report to his den at 11:30 a.m. for a 7:10 p.m. game. He’ll sit in a Barcalounger, put his feet up, read his mail. The adrenaline will pick up a little. He’ll grab a pen and notepads and start toying with lineup cards. He’ll get antsy and walk around the house. He’ll walk to another room and smoke a cigar. He’ll turn on a television, The Weather Channel, and look for approaching storms. He’ll leave the weather map on, wheel another TV into the room, maybe watch some NASCAR highlights, unless there’s a day game on. It’ll be the Red Sox. Curse the Red Sox! (Always a Yankee.)
Now it’s late afternoon. Time for a pre-game meal. He goes to the kitchen. Looks for something quick. Soup. He’ll start thinking about the game again. He’ll check in on his dogs, just to make sure they’re all game ready. Then he’ll make out the lineup card and hand it to Pam. He’ll turn on the pre-game shows, TV and radio. Then he’ll change into full uniform. Spikes, too. Return to the den. He’ll shout to the first person he sees on the TV screen, “Let’s go, kid!”
First pitch from Tommy Hanson: Ball. Cox looks at the ump, his eyes spitting fire.
“You know he’ll have his spikes on,” Chipper Jones said. “He’ll be swearing at the TV, whether it’s a boneheaded play by the home team or a bad call by the umpire on the bases. I would love to be just a fly on the wall for that first game when he’s actually sitting down on the couch and watching it on TV.”
It’s difficult to imagine right now. Cox has played, coached, managed or general-managed since 1960. After 50 years, you don’t just tell yourself, “I’m done,” and expect it to sink in right away.
Except for the parade of media people coming through Disney, seeking confirmation that Cox is really leaving, it has been a camp like any other. Players work out at 8 a.m. Cox gets there before 6. Don’t ask why.
“Gotta get ready, lots to do,” he said. “I’m usually here by 10 to 6. The dog is slowing me down. I have to let ‘Sassafras’ out in the morning and she won’t come back in until she’s ready. Otherwise I’d be here earlier.”
Schedules. Structure. Baseball. It’s been his life. This isn’t the last year of his career. It’s the countdown to the first game of spring. That’s the only clock in his head.
“You are a robot,” Cox said. “You’re creatures of habit. In spring training, you don’t even know what day it is. Ever. You go from one area to another area, from one game to the next game. It’s just baseball and sleep down here.”
There won’t be another one like him. We can speculate on other potential lifers in the dugout. But sports is so different today. Impatient owners. Economic pressures. Look-out-for-No. 1 general managers who fire bench bosses to cover up for their own mistakes. Cushy TV analyst jobs always there as an option. Nobody survives this long.
Cox will be the last of a breed.
It’s difficult to love a game and its athletes for so long without it getting old, without becoming bitter or cynical. But in some ways, he’s still the player, bouncing around the minors, before finally being given a chance by the New York Yankees. Career totals: Two seasons and a lifetime of stories.
In Cox’s mind, it’s never time to quit. He once injured his arm and, hoping to return to the field early, tried to learn how to throw left-handed. Didn’t work. But he tried.
“It won’t really hit me until that last week, maybe even that last pitch,” he said of retirement.
And then this: “It’ll be different. I’ll get up and look down and think, ‘Damn, it’s 11:30. I need to get to the park.’ And then I’ll stop to think, ‘Wait a minute.’ And then I’ll go get another cup of coffee.”
It’s too late to reprogram. And this is no time to think about the end.
Earlier posts from Braves’ camp: