A rare moment in a city’s history will happen Sunday, but not at the Capitol or City Hall.
The Braves will say goodbye to a manager. Atlantans will say goodbye to something more than that: A constant face during a remarkable chapter in our history.
Sunday is the final regular-season game for the Braves’ skipper, Bobby Cox. It’s unclear today whether the team will extend his career into one last postseason. But in case this weekend does mark the end, it’s worth noting what that means for metro Atlanta beyond the old ballgame.
It’s easy to overdo sports metaphors. But, simply put, the story of the Braves under No. 6 is the story of us.
Cox took the Braves’ reins (for the second time) in summer 1990. Maynard Jackson was (also for the second time) Atlanta’s mayor; Joe Frank Harris was wrapping up his tenure as governor. Like many of us, Cox was a transplant who came here for an opportunity and stayed awhile.
The constancy of his presence stands in contrast to the comings and goings of politicians, businessmen and other coaches (the Falcons and Hawks, between them, have had 14 head coaches during the Cox era). But it is the most superficial part of what I mean.
In June 1990, when Cox managed the first of almost 3,400 games, metro Atlanta was a different place. Town Center at Cobb was the newest shopping mall. Ga. 400 dead-ended at I-285. The region’s population, at less than 3 million, was just over half of what it is today.
While Atlanta was the undisputed capital of the New South, our international reputation was only budding. The world’s busiest airport was in Chicago. We were long shots for the Centennial Olympic Games to be awarded in three months’ time.
The city was known, but not yet renowned.
The Braves, for their part, were fixtures as “America’s Team” on TBS. But they had mostly been lovable losers.
The change in status was as sudden and stirring for us as it was for the team. Soon, this became an Olympic city; in what seemed like the next breath, the World Series visited for the first time. From there, the rise of city and team was dizzying, at times exhausting, but ultimately crowning. The Braves had their big moment in 1995, Atlanta a year later.
Neither one has matched the wattage of the mid-1990s. But nor did they go dark.
The Braves’ success came at a time of, and may have contributed to, unprecedented confidence for this city. It was unifying and gratifying for so many, another sign that Atlanta was a player, not an also-ran.
That said, Cox has received criticism for bringing home only one championship; the New York Yankees have won five crowns since 1990, and three other teams have won a pair. But I think there’s an analogy here.
Atlanta will never be the nation’s dominant city. I don’t think anyone expects otherwise. But we do want to be in the conversation.
Whatever his mistakes, whatever the final results, Bobby Cox had his team in the conversation. That’s where Atlanta is, where I think we’re striving to remain amid our own time of transition and uncertainty.
And while fans want to win this year for winning’s sake, I see in Cox’s final playoff push one last symbolic importance as well.
Lately, there have been questions about whether Atlanta is being surpassed by its rivals. The Braves since 2006 have also faded from the conversation.
This year, the Braves got back in the mix. They did it, as the Atlanta region must do, with a mix of old standbys and exciting new talents. This season has given fans optimism ahead of the transition, the kind that we as citizens desperately need.
For that, we owe Bobby Cox one last curtain call.