It was past midnight and they were still in there. Sitting, talking, laughing – like a collective offseason exhale. Some were still in uniform. Nobody wanted to leave. Nobody wanted the season to end.
The game had been over for 90 minutes.
“I think guys were just trying to figure out how to say goodbye,” Eric Hinske said.
“It was an empty feeling, like: I know the season’s over but what do I do with this family?” David Ross said.
The Braves will be challenged next season, challenged to recapture the unique chemistry this club had. All teams must endure injuries and adversity. Few endure all the way to the postseason with a patchwork lineup that includes only two projected starters from the spring (Brian McCann, Jason Heyward).
“This was,” Chipper Jones said, “a Bobby Cox team.
“It epitomized him as a player and a manager. Short of a World Series, I don’t think he would want to go out with any other club.”
Roster changes aside, the challenge of the Braves’ next manager, be it Cox disciple Fredi Gonzalez or someone else, will be to recreate that chemistry, unselfishness and resiliency. Also that Cox stubbornness.
As a player, he once injured his right elbow. The thought of missing games so pained him that he tried to learn how to throw left-handed. Surrender wasn’t in his vocabulary.
Even after the Braves lost to San Francisco, 3-2, losing the National League Division Series in four one-run games, Cox didn’t want to surrender to retirement. Forty-five minutes after the game, when he normally would be showered, dressed and leaving, he was walking through the Braves’ clubhouse — still in full uniform and cleats. Would they ever come off? His eyes were red and partially closed to fight back tears.
He ducked into the office of traveling secretary Bill Acree. A half-dozen team officials were waiting to toast him with champagne in Gatorade cups.
“Greatest manager in baseball,” clubhouse manager Chris Van Zant said, and they all raised their cups.
Cox still didn’t know how to handle the reaffirmation of his exit.
After a pause, he said: “Thanks guys. I’ll be out of here. I’m going to try to shower.”
A few minutes later, he was back in his office. His wife Pam and daughter Skyla and a couple of friends joined him.
“A rough night,” he said, his voice still cracking.
When I told Cox nobody I had spoken to had ever seen him get this emotional, he responded: “I never have.”
Pam was standing a few feet away. She was still crying.
“I still don’t believe he’s retiring,” she said. “It hasn’t set in.”
And then this: “He has a lot to learn. When is garbage day. Where’s the breaker box. Where’s the water shutoff. I’ll buy him a tool box.”
Cox’s mind wasn’t there yet. He had choked up when he walked into the clubhouse after the game to address his players. He managed to get out only a few words before cutting it off.
The players then stood and gave him an ovation. It was a while before the media was allowed in for interviews.
“We just sat in our chairs for 15 minutes, trying to rally and compose ourselves before we let you guys in,” Matt Diaz said.
Jones added, “You can tell Bobby really wanted to express to us how much we meant to him. If he had about 30 minutes to kind of let everything marinate, he would’ve been fine. But five minutes after the game, he was not fine.”
Cox gave it one more shot. It was close to midnight. He walked out of his office and around the corner, back into the clubhouse. Most of the players were still there.
“He sat down and hung out with us for 20, 30 minutes,” Ross said. “He talked and thanked everybody. We went around the room. We must’ve given each person a round of applause.”
Billy Wagner was among those in the midnight group. He also was retiring so there was no hurry to leave.
“They’ll be fine here,” he said when asked about the Braves’ future. “There’s a good core of players and whoever they bring in here, like Fredi Gonzalez, Bobby’s influence will still be here.”
The ghost will serve them well.